What It was like to Work in a Cancer Lab
Over the last three months, I had the incredible opportunity to work full time at The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Opened in 1975, the Hutch is part of a network of NCI-designated cancer centers around the country. In it's brief 42 year history, our center has produced three Nobel laureates, a consortium with UW Medicine and Seattle Children's called The Seattle Cancer Alliance, and countless biomedical discoveries and innovations. This is my account as a fledging dental student/scientist of what it was like to peek behind the grand curtain of cancer research right here in my home town.
The monumental scale of their effort is immediately apparent when you step on the 15-acre, 13-building, 1.5 million square foot campus located on the south end of Lake Union. The red brick exterior gives a sense of timeless tradition which contrasts nicely with the pristine corridors decorated by scientific posters and awards. There's a sense that important work is being done here, and as an outsider looking in on day one, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a bit intimidated.
But that feeling quickly subsided as I met my fellow co-workers in the lab. Friendly, passionate, and exceedingly intelligent, they welcomed me in despite the growing size of their team. Our leader, a head and neck cancer surgeon at UW and principal investigator (PI) at the Hutch, employs a team of 2 post-doctoral fellows, 2 ENT residents, a lab technician, and for a brief period of time, a dental student eager to get started in the field of cancer research.
The focus of his research lab is head and neck cancer. In particular, the team concentrates on the most common form of head and neck cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). These cancers typically arise in the tissues that line the inside of the mouth, nose, and/or throat.
A great majority of SCCs carry a mutation in a gene called TP53 which encodes for a crucial tumor suppressor protein. As it turns out, TP53 mutated SCCs are especially vulnerable to a targeted therapy called AZD1775 - a protein (WEE-1) kinase inhibitor. It essentially operates by blocking the action of a key enzyme that the cancer cell relies on. In combination, the TP53 mutation and targeted therapy render the cell too unstable to survive. Our PI discovered this cancer cell vulnerability back in 2014, and he is currently completing a promising phase I clinical trial using that drug.
My role over the summer was to assist a post-doctoral fellow in the lab as his focus was on human papilloma virus (HPV) related SCC. It's becoming more and more apparent that a rise in HPV infections is leading to a rise in oral cancer rates, so research in this field is really beginning to pick up.
The virus induces cancer by inserting its own genes into the human genome. E6 and E7 are two specific oncogenes that these viruses insert into their host DNA. From there, the host's own DNA replication mechanism transcribes the E6 and E7 oncogenes producing oncoproteins. These oncoproteins go on to inactivate key tumor suppressor genes like TP53 and RB, effectively removing any braking mechanism the human cell may use to slow it's own growth. From the virus's standpoint, this is hugely beneficial. The more the host cell replicates, the more it gets to replicate. From our standpoint, this can obviously lead to devastating outcomes such as cancer, which is why it's so crucial that we develop a deeper understanding of how viral infections impact our biology.
Transitioning from the clinic to the lab was certainly a change of pace. In the clinic you get a sense that you're always battling the clock. Between waiting for faculty approval, constantly checking patient comfort, or collecting all your supplies and instruments for the procedure, you feel lucky on days that you get a full hour for lunch. It can feel like chaos at times, which is not necessarily what you want to hear from the person wielding sharp objects around your face.
But in the lab, the setting is much calmer. People tend to set their own hours and work when they want to. I saw my workday slowly shift from the usual 7:30AM - 4:00PM routine to a 9:30AM - 6PM routine.
Workflow in a lab setting is also very different from the clinic. First off, the person-to-person interaction is no longer there, and I have to admit it's something that I missed far more than I anticipated. The main subject of your labor no longer requires communication, because the main subject of your labor is now a Petri dish or a test tube. The energy and pace of clinic was definitely an absence that I felt.
But there is a certain zen-like focus that this setting lends itself well to. I must admit that I enjoyed the sense of seclusion and independence that I didn't necessarily have in the clinic. In the lab, you can throw in your earbuds and work away in the cell culture room without having to report to anyone - and that can be pretty nice on days when you're feeling antisocial.
Overall, the experience opened my eyes to the rigor that the scientific process demands. Every single experiment or reaction is repeated at least 3 times, often more, to confirm the validity of any one result. Sometimes you spend an entire day setting up a reaction only to have it fail because you accidentally skipped step 2 earlier that morning. Sometimes you do everything absolutely right and get results that make no sense, because well, that's science.
But there are those rare moments when you look over your data for the first time and discover something interesting. Maybe it answers the question that you've been addressing all along, maybe it raises a new one. That's the most exciting part about being a scientist. You are literally standing on the frontier of human knowledge and peering into the vast unknown. If you're lucky, you find yourself in the unique position to advance that frontier even if it's just by a baby step. Over time, those baby steps culminate into what we see today: an explosion of information about the universe around us, and most importantly, about ourselves. What's incredible is how we can use that information to improve the quality of human life. But even without that, the act of discovery is just plain cool.
As the great scientist Carl Sagan once said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."