In almost every medical breakthrough, there comes a time where a major decision that was made that changes the trajectory of medical research. Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green is at the center of that life-changing breakthrough.
Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green is one of less than 100 black women physicists in the U.S. An assistant professor at Tuskegee University, Dr. Green was recently awarded a $1.1 million grant to develop a cancer treatment involving lasers and nanoparticles.
In a recent profile of Dr. Green in AL.com, she explained that though she’s extremely busy working as an assistant professor at Tuskegee University and conducting much-needed cancer treatment research, she rarely declines an invitation to speak to professional groups, nonprofit organizations and schools.
“Usually if there is an invitation to speak at a forum like that, I accept it because I feel like it’s a responsibility,” she said. “There are so few of us (black women in STEM fields) I don’t feel like I have the luxury to say I’m too busy.”
Dr. Green, who was raised by her aunt and uncle after her parents died, understands the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.
Growing up in St. Louis, Dr. Green was a tomboy before she was crowned Homecoming Queen at Alabama A&M University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in physics with a concentration in fiberoptics. On full scholarship, she went on to earn her Ph.D degrees at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) before coming back to teach at another HBCU, Tuskegee University.
She has a personal connection to the cancer research she is currently conducting. After the death of both her mother and father, she was raised by her aunt and uncle, Ora Lee and her husband General Lee Smith.
When her aunt was diagnosed with cancer, “She refused the treatment because she didn’t want to experience the side effects. It was heartbreaking, but I could appreciate she wanted to die on her own terms.”
Three months later, her uncle was diagnosed with cancer.
He took a different approach than his wife and decided to go through with chemotherapy and radiation. Dr. Green took time off from school to help him through the process. Watching her uncle fight the disease, she had new understanding of her aunt’s choice.
“I saw first-hand how devastating it was, and I could understand why my aunt didn’t want to go through that.”
Sometime during her seven years of study at UAB, Dr, Green got the idea to use lasers to treat cancer without the same side effects associated with chemo and radiation.
The treatment works like this:
The way the technology works is that an FDA-approved drug containing nanoparticles is injected into a cancer patient and causes the patient’s tumor to fluoresce (glow) under imaging equipment. The goal is for a laser to activate the nanoparticles by heating them.
The nano particles would only attack the cancerous cells, reducing the nausea, fatigue and hair loss often associated with chemotherapy.
“They are not toxic, so without the laser they won’t kill anything, and the laser by itself is harmless, so without the particles it won’t hurt anything. Because of their need to work together and their inability to work apart, I can insure that the treatment is only happening to the cancer cells we target and identify.”
Though Dr. Green is not the first to propose the use of lasers and nanoparticles to treat cancers, she has been able to work out the kinks in parts of the technology that have been problematic like nanoparticle delivery and seeing success in living animals.
Green hopes her treatment will be able to assist patients other doctors may have given up on.
“I’m really hoping this can change the way we treat cancer in America. There are so many people who only get a three-month or six-month survival benefit from the drugs they take. Then three or six months later, they’re sent home with no hope, nothing else we can do. Those are the patients I want to try to save, the ones where regular medicine isn’t effective for them.”
Outside of her cancer research, Dr. Green says she feels compelled to offer a positive example to young Black girls to counteract the stereotypes that are so often depicted in the media.
“There are black female scientists who don’t get media exposure. Because of that, young black girls don’t see those role models as often as they see Beyonce or Nicki Minaj. It’s important to know that our brains are capable of more than fashion and entertainment and music, even though arts are important.”
Green has mentored several young women who have gone on to earn degrees and jobs in science-related fields.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “I repeat that because a village of people helped raise me and instill values in me, and encouraged me to get to this point. I did not get here by myself. Because of that clarity, I know my responsibility to encourage and mentor the next generation.”