Dr. Cullen Taniguchi, a cancer doctor and researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, got an email on the morning of Sunday, March 22 that forced him to dismantle his life’s work.
For the last six years, Taniguchi has run a laboratory that researches and develops new ways to treat pancreatic cancer and improve existing treatments. His lab grows the cells it needs to run experiments in incubators. Some of them come from patients or are modified in a way that makes them, Taniguchi says, “unique to the world.”
The email, from the center’s administration, informed Taniguchi that in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus, he and his staff of eight lab managers, researchers, and assistants had 24 hours to shut down their lab — possibly damaging those precious cells in the process.
Mixtures of chemicals Taniguchi’s team had spent years developing for experiments had to be safely put away or thrown out. Lab managers set up a system for preserving mice they used for experiments. And the cells they spent years developing had to be preserved in a way that Taniguchi likens to freezing them in time.
“But when you thaw them out, they’re never quite the same,” he says.“You actually have to spend a couple of years getting back to where they were before.”
Taniguchi estimates that several years of cancer research were lost in his lab alone because of the closure, which is likely to last for months. It happened so quickly that he didn’t have enough time to grieve the loss of several years of scientific progress. Taniguchi and his team were in disbelief.
“I think there’s still folks struggling to deal with it,” he says.
Taniguchi says he was one of “hundreds of scientists” at MD Anderson that day racing to preserve or discontinue experiments and research. And there are countless other scientists around the world who have had to shut down their research, studies, surveys, and experiments because of the coronavirus. Most scientific research unrelated to the virus…