Research will bring us back together

Coronavirus - labs in lockdown in the USA

22nd May 2020

Since March, over 70 of our research projects have had the lights turned off as governments have made the difficult decision to close labs and research institutes. We spoke to Dr Edna Cukierman, one of our researchers in the United States, about her own experience with labs going into lockdown and cancer research being put on hold. This is the hidden cost of the coronavirus pandemic on cancer research all over the world.

Labs in lockdown in the USA

Edna Cukierman lives near Philadelphia, the US city best known as the birthplace of the United States, Rocky Balboa and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Recently, however, the region has been hitting headlines as it records more cases of coronavirus than any other in the state of Pennsylvania.

Edna is worried about her health but also the health of her family. She has loved ones nearby but also thousands of miles away. A son, cousins and a nephew in New York City, one of the worst-hit regions of the US. A sister in Canada, in-laws in Israel, and a mother and sisters in Mexico. Where distance was once the biggest barrier between them, a pandemic has added a further frontier.

Trying to stay close to her family during this difficult time is a challenge made all the more difficult by her work. Edna is also a scientist. A cancer researcher, to be precise.

On a normal day, Dr Edna Cukierman goes to work as an Associate Professor at the Comprehensive Medical and Research Institute of Fox Chase Cancer Centre in Philadelphia, USA. Here she leads a lab of seven people focused on understanding how cancer behaves, including a project that could lead to new treatments for pancreatic cancer.

But now, like millions of others around the world, she is stuck at home. Her lab is on lockdown. No experiments are taking place, no progress is happening, and no new ideas are being pursued.

“One of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to sustain the lab as it is now because funding from grants that we have to do research is all ongoing.” 

When Edna’s lab closed the team had to rush to shut down ongoing experiments. When they eventually return to the lab it will take months for them to get back on track. Pancreatic cancer cells, which the team need to discover new approaches for treatment, will need to be thawed out from a deep freeze where they have been put into hibernation while the world deals with the pandemic. Experiments studying how these cells grow and survive with other types of cell found in our bodies will have to be started from scratch.

The delay to Edna’s research will inevitably set the lab back. And this will have consequences further down the line. With no research happening, they can’t make the discoveries that they need to take their ideas to the next step. And this is vital for them to be able to secure further funding that will see the idea progressed one step closer to a test or treatment that will benefit people with cancer.

“When this is over, I will not get extra money for the projects so our productivity will be much less than expected,” Edna explains. “The knock-on effect of this is that we will not have all the data we need to secure new funding and that delay could be very costly to staff and to research.”

Staying positive in these times is vital if we went to establish some normalcy in these trying times. We all have our own ways of doing so and Edna has found ways to keep herself on track.

“I occasionally find myself feeling anxious, so I am trying to learn how to meditate to deal with the anxiety. Calling my family members and close friends as often as possible, sending them notes of encouragement, and relying on humour as often as possible is also important. I also try to exercise regularly. But my biggest tip? Try to watch as little TV as possible!”

research will bring us back together

Edna’s story shows that the effect of coronavirus is going to stretch far beyond what we are initially experiencing.

How governments, universities, funding agencies and the research community respond is going to be key. Edna’s experience so far will be familiar to us all. Friends and family feel far away, and work colleagues isolated. As we go forward and begin to adjust to a 'new normal', we must do everything we can to make sure that vital cancer research such as Edna’s can continue, and allow research to bring us back together.