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By Sarah Dowler
For almost any living thing on Earth over 98% of its mass is made up of the the same seven atomic elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur. Formed in space with the explosive death of a star, these seven stable elements form the necessary building blocks for all life of Earth. But why did we end up with these specific blocks, and not some other ones? What would life be like if the atoms that built our world and ourselves had been ever-so-slightly different?
Dr. Rituparna Kanungo is a subatomic physicist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and has recently been awarded a $1.6 million research grant to try to create and study ”space isotopes.” Too unstable to exist for more than mere seconds, “space isotopes” are atomic elements with an unstable balance of protons and neutrons that do not normally occur on Earth.
Making molecules from these unstable space isotopes could change how they behave and interact with other chemicals in the body, and Kanungo hopes that they could unlock a new path toward innovative cancer treatments and offer answers about the universe.
How could these space isotopes potentially be used to fight cancer?
When isotopes are unstable they transform to other isotopes by emitting radiation. When these isotopes are combined with other biological molecules, they can be transported to specific areas of the body–such as cancerous tumours. The radiation emitted during the isotope decay would damage or destroy the cancer cells. We expect that some of the isotopes we’ll work with in this new facility will have the potential in the future for creating advanced ways of treating cancer.
That all sounds great. Where are we now, and what are your research goals for the future?
Our research goal is to explore how the short-lived isotopes in the cosmos, that hold the key to the origin of how elements that we find today on Earth, and that are an integral part of our life, came into being. In the long-term we expect that some isotopes might find potential use for cancer therapy. The recent grant will allow us to build a world-class facility in Canada, the TRIUMF facility in Vancouver. This will allow us to create, purify, and condition these isotopes so they can be studied.
How did you come to be interested in exploring the physics of subatomic nuclei and their origins in space?
I was drawn to subatomic physics by the fact that everything around us, including ourselves, has these particles as their basic building blocks. We are a small part of the vast expanse in the universe, and it is fascinating for me to ask the question, ”How does nature create and organize such tiny, compact, and powerful elemental systems?” It is trying to understand our place in nature–exploring the short-lived isotopes in nature is one of the forefront research areas in subatomic physics in the world.
This research is exploring the unknown, and it brings in you the feeling that you are trying to bring into the scope of the laboratory that which exists in the vast unknown, far away and beyond everyday perception. I think both scientifically and technologically this is extremely interesting and exciting. We are innovating several technological advancements which later down the road will find a variety of other applications in society.
In your opinion, what were the major breakthroughs in your field in the past five years that led to where your research is today?
I will back up a bit more to answer this question. One of the major breakthroughs in the last two decades that brought a new era, and the great surge of world-wide research activity, is the discovery of the neutron halo. It is an unexpected and unusual form of nuclear isotope, which broke down the conventional rules about nuclei that were formed by studying the stable isotopes that are abundantly found on Earth. Following this, in the last five years, we have been able to unearth that these isotopes have their basic constituents differently arranged than what we would expect from our knowledge of stable isotopes. Very little of these isotopes have been explored to date, and the vast majority still remains to be explored, which our new facility will help us to do to a great extent.
This interview took place in February 2013 via email. You can learn more about Dr. Rituparna Kanungo’s research on her website.
Sarah Dowler is a science writer, biochemist and explorer. You can view more of her work on her website, ScienceMatters.ca.