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Ph.D Student Hunting for ‘Achilles’ Heel’ of Drug-Resistant Tumors

July 13, 2020
By Hailey Stiehl
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern 

As an English major during his undergraduate years at Duke, Chris Bassil worked with narratives that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. These days, as a researcher developing treatments for drug-resistant tumors, he’s working on more complicated narratives involving hypotheses, research, experiments, trials, and more. Yet for Bassil, the narrative of medical research is just as interesting as a fictional one.

After exploring the world of scientific research and medicine, Bassil, an M.D./Ph.D. student in pharmacology and cancer biology, found similarities between English and science that gave him an “almost immediate attraction to that narrative side of medicine.”

Chris Bassil presenting his research
Bassil presents his research at the Graduate School
Board of Visitors meeting this past spring. 

Now, Bassil spends his days working in labs with his faculty adviser, Kris Wood, and facing off against drug-resistant tumors in his own narrative.

The conflict of his story: Cancer therapies, or drugs that target the agents that cause cancer to continue to grow, can help reduce or eliminate the tumor cells while sparing the healthy cells. The challenge, however, resides in two main obstacles. First, these therapies can often fail, either initially or overtime. Second, therapies don’t yet exist for some of the deadliest forms of cancer.

“We all know someone who has gotten cancer, gotten treated for that cancer, and gotten better for a little while, but often, the cancer comes back,” Bassil said. “And we all know that that’s bad. Because when it comes back, the drugs that we were using to treat it—the ones that made the patient better for a little while—no longer work. The cancer has become drug-resistant. It has evolved to grow even when faced with our best drugs.”

As the heroes of the story, Bassil and his colleagues are on a quest to define and target weaknesses in drug-resistant tumors. Bassil explains it through the narrative of a story that almost any English major would be familiar with: the Greek mythological warrior Achilles. 

The almost invincible warrior had just one spot of weakness on his heel, and he was ultimately defeated through that doomed spot of vulnerability. In his research, Bassil focuses on finding those Achilles’ heels in drug-resistant tumors and using those weaknesses as a way to help patients get better and stay better.

“One of our ideas is that drug-resistant cancers are similar to Achilles,” said Bassil, who used the comparison when he presented his ongoing doctoral research last July at the inaugural ACC Academic Consortium Three Minute Thesis Competition & Research Forum.

“Yes, in some ways, they’re bigger and badder than other cancers, but is there something about the very way they became so big and bad in the first place that also gives them a hidden vulnerability, an Achilles’ heel, that we can exploit?”

Researching something as complex as drug-resistant tumors takes time, effort, and most of all, immense determination as failure and rejection can be quite common. For Bassil, however, the love of what he is able to study and research cancels everything else out.

“Most of your hypotheses are wrong, and the vast majority of your experiments fail,” he said. “You can go months of 60-to-80 hour weeks without making any meaningful progress—I’ve done it. Multiple times. But if you really love what you’re studying—if you can’t stop thinking about it, and if you can’t wait to get into the lab every day to take another crack at it—all of that stuff feels less important.”