STEM Saturdays: Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green aims a laser at cancer cells
Physicist Hadiyah-Nicole Green knows a few things about overcoming opposition. As a Black woman in STEM, Dr. Green has shattered barriers simply by succeeding in a realm that is notorious for its racism and misogyny; her presence in the field defies stereotypes that erase Black women's scientific excellence and actively denies them academic opportunity. But Dr. Green's scientific achievements have already shaped the leading edge of research in her subfield of oncological biophysics. Now in her late thirties, Dr. Green - one of the first 100 African-American women to be awarded a Ph.D. in Physics in American history - has already built a charitable research foundation, won a $1.1 million grant to develop her cancer-killing laser, and begun a teaching career at Tuskegee University.
Dr. Green knows firsthand the toll that cancer treatments can take on a person. After her parents passed away, Green was raised by her aunt and uncle, Ora Lee and General Lee Smith. While Green was pursuing her bachelor's degree in physics with a concentration in fiber optics, Ora Lee was diagnosed with cancer and chose to refuse treatment, preferring to die on her own terms. A few months after she passed, General Smith was diagnosed with cancer as well; Green took time off from her studies to care for him. As she watched her uncle struggle through chemotherapy, Green was dismayed by the unwieldy destruction of the treatment, which attacked healthy and cancerous cells alike and severely limiting Smith's quality of life. But Green saw curative potential in her own field: lasers, she theorized, might have enough power and precision to target cancerous cells with only minimal damage to healthy tissue.
The genius of Dr. Green's technology relies on two targeting mechanisms: a fine laser to direct the treatment and carefully constructed nanoparticles to destroy the cancer cells under fire. Green began with an existing technology for fabricating gold nanorods and outfitted these tiny missiles with antibodies known to attack tumor cells. This high-tech ammunition was then injected into patients' bloodstreams, where it bonded with tumor cells and acted as a mapping agent for carcinomas. Finally, near-infrared diode lasers targeted the tagged cells in a type of radiation called photothermal therapy, causing the breakdown of malignant tumor tissue with almost no effect on normal cells. The method was a significant improvement on the efficacy of previous photothermal therapy studies.