A day in the lab of a cancer researcher: cell biologist
Deciphering brightly-coloured dishes of cells and untangling unsightly protein clumps are all in a day’s work for cell biologist Dr Marie-Eve Beaulieu. Here she lets us into her day.
7:30 My day starts at home, reading emails and a bit of science news while having breakfast. Then I set off to the lab- it’s just a short walk away and situated in the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology, which sits high up, overlooking Barcelona.
9:00 At the lab, my colleague Dani’s paper has just got accepted for publication, and everybody is really excited.
For the last year and a half, Dani has been testing a drug targeting the tumour microenvironment (called ‘stroma’) in pancreatic cancer. The tumour stroma consists of cells and other factors that surround the tumour cells - providing them with food and protection. In pancreatic cancer, this stroma is so dense that it can even prevent the access of anticancer agents to the tumour cells. Dani’s data showed that the drug he’s been testing was able to reduce the tumour stroma, providing a therapeutic benefit against pancreatic cancer.
For Dani’s paper to be accepted for publication, other scientists in the field had to review it and agree his findings are both novel and of real scientific value. It’s great for his career and for our lab, and it means his work will be made available for other scientists to read and use.
9:15 I then have a quick look at the results of my overnight experiments. I am currently purifying a new type of protein ‘drug’ we have developed that we want to test in the lab to see if it can cause cancer cell death. This type of protein drug targets Myc, a cancer gene frequently disrupted in several cancers.
A couple of years ago, our lab demonstrated that blocking Myc could eradicate lung tumours in mice, without causing major side-effects. Now we are taking these findings forward and developing a new generation of therapeutic agents against Myc. Ultimately we want to end up with something which can be tested and used in patients.
I can see that I’ve successfully isolated one protein from the tangle of other proteins I started with. But is it the right one?
To check I need to measure the protein’s size. I make a slab of polymer gel, which sounds complicated, but it’s actually just like following a Jamie Oliver recipe. I can then drive the proteins through it with electricity to separate them; big proteins stay towards the top and small ones travel to the bottom. Once the gel is made I put my purified proteins in and turn on the power- leaving it running while I continue the morning round.
9:45 In the cell culture room, I have some lung cancer cells that have been treated with another new drug we are developing. The colour of the nutrient fluid tells me straight away that there is a difference between the treated and untreated cells: some are completely yellow and others are red (you can see the results of this experiment in the picture).
I know fast growing cells will make the fluid more acidic, turning it yellow, and slow growing cells leave it red. The dishes I treated with the drug are red, and that raises more questions. Did the cells stop dividing? Did they die? I’ll have to design more experiments to find out exactly what the new drug is doing.
10:15 Time to get a nice green tea now… and to do some computer work. I’m helping to write a cancer research book chapter, and having the opportunity to write like this is great: there is no better way to learn than to teach!
While putting together some ideas for the book, I can’t help but think of how amazing the progress in the field has been over the last decade or so, thanks to better technologies and data handling. It seems incredible that it is now possible to easily sequence huge amounts of patient DNA, and to identify which mutations might drive cancer in the body.
11:30 The protein gel is finished so I get the lab coat on again, put on some gloves and drop the gel in a nice blue dye. Just like for dying clothes, it helps me visualise my proteins in pretty shades of blue!
12:30 After staining I see that I have successfully purified my protein of interest, so now I can continue the protein purification process. This involves adding and removing different chemicals at different stages, and I’ll be in and out of the lab all afternoon finishing the process off.
13:30 I have a quick look at incoming emails before going to lunch. Our collaborator in Boston wrote to let us know he just received our precious cell samples which we shipped over on dry ice at the beginning of the week- good news!
14:00 Lunch time (very late in Spain compared to most places!). We discuss some upcoming cancer conferences which members of our group will soon attend to present our new results to other scientists.
16:30 We have a Skype meeting with another group we are collaborating with in Québec. Some new data from their studies gives us interesting clues about how our therapeutic agent might work, this time in ovarian cancer cells. I love these discussions where we can share our findings and ideas; they really help us gain more understanding on how to better tackle cancer. Together, we draw up strategies to put our new ideas to test. Then we plan to talk again soon.
19:00 I do a bit of internet shopping to buy what I need for my next set of experiments. Tomorrow I plan to do some staining experiments on those lung cancer cells I looked at earlier- to try and work out exactly how the cancer cells are reacting to our novel therapeutic agent.
I also enter all the notes of the day into the lab notebook, in order to keep track of all my ongoing experiments.
20:00 Time to leave the lab and head to the gym- before going for a traditionally late Spanish dinner!
Dr Marie-Eve Beaulieu is a Worldwide Cancer Research funded postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr Laura Soucek at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology in Barcelona, Spain.
Read more about Dr Laura Soucek’s Worldwide Cancer Research project developing a new type of treatment for lung cancer.
Not only are we proud to fund some of the best researchers in the world, but we are amazed at the lengths to which some of them go to join in with our fundraising efforts. Last May Dr Laura Soucek and Dr Marie-Eve Beaulieu joined Worldwide Cancer Research staff, supporters and grant holders on a trek through Morocco.