An Atypical Day in the Life of This Scientist

Diary of a Scientist // 4 January 2017

I’m typically awake before my alarm goes off at 6:30, my mind already racing through the things I need to do for the day. My Google calendar looks like a confetti explosion — nearly every hour marked with seminars, meetings, experiments, data analysis and writing.

I’m in the lab by 7:30 or 8:00, and everything is calm. Quiet. Peaceful. I get a coffee and zip around the lab, making sure I have everything in place that I need for the day’s experiments. The building where I work is home to dozens of different labs, with researchers, students and technicians. By 9:30, I may have had two cups of coffee and the lab is full, everyone focused on their own projects.

For the end-of-the-year holidays this year, I went back to the US for two weeks to visit my family. It was my longest time away from the lab in 2016 and I halted all of my experiments so that I didn’t necessarily need to worry about things in my absence.

In my case, that meant to cryogenically freeze the cells that I was working with. In cancer research labs, cancer cells that we are able to grow in the lab on special plastic dishes are really important tools in our research. We can see if a new possible therapy is able to kill the cancer cells, and we can look at many other characteristics of the cells. It is also relatively easy to work with cells because you can see effects in a very short time period, and the cells are exceedingly safe if you are working with them. (You could even inject yourself with cancer cells and, as long as you have an intact immune system, you would be fine because your body’s immune system would recognize that the cells are not yours and reject them from your body.)  Another cool thing about working with cells is that you can cryogenically freeze them and then thaw them to work with them at a later time. As long as you add a cryoprotectant (something akin to antifreeze, in this case a chemical called dimethyl sulfoxide) and keep the cells stored at very low temperatures (around 80 degrees below zero), many of the cells will survive this process.

After a long break away, it takes a bit of time to re-establish experiments and get things running smoothly. Cells that have been frozen take a bit of time to be “healthy” again (meaning that few cells are dying from the cryopreservation process) and to grow well again. It also takes time to design and plan a timeline for experiments. This is what I was doing when a colleague came to me with some… interesting news — some cells that I was working with were HIV-positive.

This led to a host of questions: 1. How is this possible that my cells were contaminated? 2. Can cancer cells be infected with HIV? (The human immunodeficiency virus infects the cells in your immune system, and the cancer cells I was working with are not immune cells.) 3. If there is a contamination issue, has it spread to other cell lines that I am working with? Has it spread to cells of other researchers in my lab? 4. Will we need to do a (costly and time-intensive) decontamination of the lab? 5. I’m working on a project that is really interesting, and using these cells. Are my results only interesting because I’m not working with cancer cells, but instead cancer cells that have an HIV infection somehow?

I got down to business fast. I went to a nearby lab who focused in the past on HIV research (and now studies viruses more generally, not specifically HIV). I asked them what tests I could do to assess an HIV infection. There are two primary tests: one that will measure if your cells are actively producing the virus, and another test that will measure whether your cells are infected with the virus. Having expertise with the technique, they offered to perform the first test for me, while I performed the second. In the meantime, I contacted our biosafety office to alert them of a potential problem and let them know that we would have more answers (the results of the two tests) soon.

A few days later, we had some results: my cells (I looked at all of the cells I was growing in the lab) were not producing HIV. My cells were not infected with HIV. The original result from my colleague came from a company that was doing a routine panel of tests on our cells. They performed repeated experiments on the cells, and found that their previous result was, in fact, a false positive.

With that, our biosafety office was happy (no decontamination or cross-contamination issue), I was happy (I could continue on my current experiment without worrying that my results were interesting because of this curious infection), and my boss was happy because I’d been able to prove that we did not have problems with the cells (and by extension the lab).

Research life can continue as normal. I got to work this morning at 7:30. I’ve had my coffee and I’m planning experiments for the day. I’ve got experiments from 9:00-10:00, meetings from 10:00-13:30 and 15:00-16:00, and fitting in experiments in the other times in the day. Soon the lab will be full. Louder. Busy. And I might make my way downstairs for that second cup of coffee.