17th June 2020
When the pandemic hit, labs all over the world were shut down to anything but coronavirus research. Corridors in research institutes, usually bustling with activity, lay deserted. Freezers full of test tubes were left humming into empty space. Cancer research had ground to a halt.
In some countries, cancer research was allowed to continue. And in others, scientists like Sonia Aristin Revilla were still in the lab doing what they could to keep moving forward on starting new cures for cancer. Here, Sonia explains what that has meant for her and her research.
Sonia, originally from Spain, had just started her second year of her PhD in Professor Paul Coffer’s lab at the University Medical Center in Utrecht when the pandemic hit. While a major part of her project has been paralysed, she was lucky to be the only person from her lab able to continue with basic lab work.
But like many of us, Sonia has been feeling the strain of being far away from loved ones: “I’m doing well and I’m happy that even with the situation in Spain, my family and friends back home are healthy. It’s not easy being so far from the people I love. It’s incredibly sad to see that so many people have died alone and that families have been left devastated. The whole situation is sad and disturbing.”
In the lab, Sonia is trying to understand the communication between bowel cancer cells and specific immune cells that have been swayed to protect the tumour against the immune system, rather than attacking it. She hopes that this research will identify new ways of decreasing the number of protective immune cells, leaving the tumour “naked” and vulnerable to the body’s immune system.
Several times a week, Sonia jumps on her bike and cycles 15 minutes to the research institute, where she uses her time to grow immune cells together with so called organoids or “mini tumours” in a dish. She describes the eeriness of being one of the only people allowed back in the lab: “It’s definitely quiet. It’s peaceful and at the same time, because I’m used to being surrounded by people at work, it feels like another world.”
While Sonia is fortunate to be able to continue some of her lab work, she also worries that cancer research might take a back seat in the future: “I’m afraid that in the future the money invested in science will be directed towards other research. I hope people do not forget that cancer is still the second biggest killer in the world and that 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed in their lifetime.”
But she is also hopeful that a newfound value of expert opinion could have a positive impact on research: “I hope that scientists and the work we do will be recognised and valued more. I hope that this pandemic will show how important science is for understanding diseases - and how they can be prevented, treated and cured.”
Incredible progress has been made in the race towards a coronavirus vaccine. Knowing that research will bring us back together is one important reason to stay positive during these difficult times – knowing that people like Sonia are still in the lab doing cancer research is another.
Sonia is staying motivated by focusing on the positive things: “I think about how fortunate my situation is compared to many others. My family are healthy, and I’m still allowed to go outside and enjoy the sun. We’ve just got to keep going and trust that research will get us through this.”
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