My picks in Science Policy April 9th-15th

1. The problems with cancer research cell lines

As a cancer biologists, there are several breast cancer cell lines I use every day. Some of these are derived from human tumors, some from mouse tumors that closely mimic what we see in human patients. However, we’ve known for a long time that cell lines don’t cut it in research. They’re good for the basics, but findings must be verified in an animal before it can even be attempted to be brought into the clinic.

The NCI-60 was a panel of 60 human cancer cell lines that the National Cancer Institute designated as the best cancer cell lines to use in research, standardizing cell line choices among labs and creating consistent research. However, as detailed in this article (itself an excerpt from a new book from Richard Harris), many cell lines have become contaminated over the years. The most well known contaminant is HeLa, the ovarian cancer cell line derived from the tumor of Henrietta Lacks and popularized in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The NCI has since scrapped the NCI-60 in favor of a panel of Patient Derived Xenografts (PDX). These are chunks of human tumor which are removed and transplanted into mice, where the tumor can continue to grow in an environment that matches the original human host body closer than the plastic dish that cell lines are cultured in. While this still does not perfectly match what is seen in the human body, it is closer, and better preserves the mixture of cells found in a tumor.

Mistakes such as cell line contamination are understandable mistakes, but also contribute to unimaginable wastes of time, money, and resources. The move to PDX is a good first step, but more must be done to insure research is being conducted efficiently and effectively.

2. Watch this New York Times Op-Doc about hacking your own microbiome

Josiah Zayner first entered the public eye as one of the most visible members of the synthetic biology citizen lab / biohacker movement. Zayner got his Ph.D. in biophysics, and while in graduate school started the ODIN, a webstore that supplies citizen scientists with the tools and reagents necessary to run their own experiments. After a stint as a researcher at NASA, Zayner came to prominence with a crowdfunded CRISPR kit and became a full time biohacker / proponent of citizen biology and bio-artist. This NYT OP-Doc details Zayner’s attempt to do a full microbiome transplant, and is a fascinating look at both his workspace and the way he goes about his projects.

3. James Collins and Feng Zhang unveil CRISPR’s new cousin SHERLOCK

Leave it to scientists to think of a great new acronym. The newest technology developed using a modified version of CRISPR is Specific High sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing (SHERLOCK), a (promising) method of detecting low concentrations of genetic material. CRISPR works by using a “guide” strand of RNA to target a pair of molecular scissors to cut a specific strand of DNA. SHERLOCK uses this same guide RNA to identify a specific sequence of DNA and rapidly copy it. The molecular scissors then indiscriminately cut nearby RNA, generating a fluorescent signal which can be visualized.

Find the STAT news right up below, or go straight to the original paper in Science.

A Little bit Extra

Nature and ASBMB come out for March for Science

When the American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS) decided to support the March for Science, it was a huge boost to the March’s reputability (I went into my thoughts a bit more when it happened). When AAAS decided to support the March, they set a precedent, legitimizing the March and demonstrating that it lived up to their ideals of science communication and advocacy. Since then almost 100 other science organizations and journals have come out as partners of the March, including most recently two that are especially close to my heart as a cancer biologist and molecular biologist/biochemist.

The value of killing over living

In this article in Time, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and president of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, questions the priorities of our federal budget. The interminable growth of the military industrial complex drowns out all other spending and research, with paradoxical results.

Dr. Blackburn makes a passionate argument for the necessity of biomedical research, and for the funding of science that supports life instead of death.

It’s a deeply humanist insight that mirrors the reason the Nobel Prize exists at all — because Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, did not want a weapon of death to be his legacy.