Science Stops for No Holiday
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Tuberculosis did not take the day off to mark Christmas. Neither did cancer. Or arthritis. And so neither did Rama Raghunandan, a scientist in Rockville.
Yesterday morning, as millions of people around the world were unwrapping gifts, Raghunandan was alone in her lab at CytImmune Sciences, feeding cells that may one day help produce new drugs. Her white Honda minivan was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Her family and gifts were at home waiting for her.
"You can think of them as babies," Raghunandan said, not about her family but about her cells. "They need to be fed and cleaned. That's something we can't stop doing."
Rank-and-file scientists like Raghunandan make up the backbone of Montgomery County's thriving biotech sector, home to more than half of the state's 360 bioscience firms. Despite all the high-tech gadgetry that hums and buzzes in a modern biotech company's laboratory, projects depend on a human being to be there to administer solutions, measure reactions or just plain wait. This is the painstaking, sometimes monotonous, early stage work that one day -- perhaps a decade away -- will produce a drug.
"You feel the pressure of people dying, so it's not something you can just put away for the holiday," said Carol Nacy, founder and chief executive of Sequella, another Rockville biotech company that is working on TB treatments and diagnostics. "Christmas is a very special holiday, but it doesn't mean that the world stops."
At Sequella's facility, just down the street from CytImmune, chemist Elena Bogatcheva worked at a laboratory bench with an experimental drug compound. In a nearby secure lab, a microbiologist in a biohazard suit carefully handled experiments containing TB bacteria.
For these scientists, working on a holiday gave them a chance to do what they love almost completely on their own -- without a boss asking about a grant application or co-workers talking about their weekends. This appealed particularly to Bogatcheva.
"Sometimes it is even better to work on a holiday because nobody will bother you," she said. "No conversations. No small talk. I can devote my full time to what I came here to do."
In Bogatcheva's case, it was to scale up the volume on a possible new TB drug to collaborate with the National Institutes of Health on more testing. Sequella has received grants over the years from NIH and worked closely with its scientists to develop TB treatments. The company, founded in 1997, has about 20 employees.
Nacy, Bogatcheva's boss, said the continual allure of science -- that the answer to one question reveals another question -- keeps everyone moving ahead despite what the calendar says.
"Scientists are very special people," Nacy said. "They are fascinated by mystery. They can get so immersed in figuring out a solution that they put the rest of their lives on hold. But that's okay with them. They are doing what they love."
And so there was Raghunandan, in a white lab coat and sterile latex gloves, removing her cells from an incubator and setting them up on a lab table covered with a glass hood. She got their food -- a liquid resembling cough syrup --mixed it with stimulants, then injected it into a dish containing the cells. It had been a few days since the last feeding, and the cells couldn't go much longer without a meal.
Officials at CytImmune, founded in 1988, hope that in a few months the cells will produce antibodies that might be effective in treating cancer or autoimmune diseases. Tests in animals would follow. If those produced promising results, human testing would occur. And if all that worked out -- the ifs are many in the high-risk world of drug development -- a product could be commercialized. The whole process could take several years and many millions of dollars.
And, of course, working on holidays. Lawrence Tamarkin, chief executive and co-founder of CytImmune, said scientists working on Christmas is "akin to a century ago when the American farmer and farm families had those chores they needed to get done before celebrating a holiday."
Raghunandan's chore was getting the cells fed, then looking at them under a high-powered microscope to see whether they were essentially talking to each other and clumping up in groups. They were. Raghunandan was pleased. "They look nice," she said.
Raghunandan, who is from India, does not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday but rather as a festive occasion with her family. The idea yesterday was to come in to the lab, do what had to be done for a couple of hours, then go home, open gifts and enjoy a holiday meal. She did not mind dropping by the lab and, in fact, took pride in it.
"This gives me great satisfaction," she said. "On a day like this to come in," and then she paused. "You get involved in research to the point that it just catches on to you."
The lab, for many scientists, is a second home. And some things about working in a lab on Christmas are similar to being at their actual homes. When Raghunandan finished feeding the cells, she thoroughly cleaned the work area by wiping it down with alcohol.
"It's just like home," she said. "After we cook, we clean."