Professor Richard Gilbertson and his lab, before the COVID-pandemic

There’s an atmosphere of excitement in Cambridge. After months of not being able to get into labs for anything other than COVID-19 research, universities are beginning to discuss how to reopen facilities.

It’s a conversation that Professor Richard Gilbertson, a children’s cancer researcher and director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, is particularly pleased to be having.

Professor Richard Gilbertson.

Professor Richard Gilbertson.

“Lockdown has meant that lab research is essentially halted.” With universities and other institutions closing their facilities at the beginning of lockdown to all but COVID-19 research, scientists haven’t been able to get in the lab for a few months.

As many researchers in the centre work with cells to study cancer, Gilbertson says their work has quite literally been frozen in time.

“When you shutdown, you have to take the cells and freeze them to minus 80. And then they stay in suspended animation for the period of the lockdown.”

And while a lot of researchers have been able to analyse results and plan future experiments at home during lockdown, they’re itching to get back in the lab. Which is starting to become a reality. Universities are now looking at how to reopen facilities as lockdown rules relax, but it’s going to take scientists a while to get back up and running.

“A lot of experiments can take up to a year to build up again. So the shutdown is pretty devastating.”

Gilbertson says the cells researchers use to study cancer can take weeks or months to grow. “It’s a bit like a garden, you plant seeds and tend the garden and watch things grow in it, and only then are you ready to harvest.”

Scientists have to carefully grow their cellular garden, making sure they’re healthy before they begin their experiments. And while they still have the seeds for their research in the freezer, it will take a while before they’re ready.

“That’s why shutting down and then reopening is not an on off thing, it will take us a while to get back to previous productivity.”

This lag time is particularly problematic for early career researchers, who train in short bursts. “Your average PhD is somewhere between 3 and 4 years, so you can imagine why a year out of that can be absolutely devastating for someone’s training.”

Uncertain times

But it’s not just lab research that’s been affected, it’s everything. “Patients are always first and foremost in our minds,” says Gilbertson, which is why the impact of COVID-19 on clinical trials is particularly worrying.

“Most clinical trials stopped with COVID-19, we stopped enrolling patients onto clinical trials. And that was partly because the ‘machine’ that supports clinical trials was switched to COVID-19, and partly because of the capacity of hospitals. So that’s had a devastating effect for patients who would benefit from those trials.”

And while the immediate impact of COVID-19 on labs, clinical trials and cancer services is clear, it’s likely to be just the beginning.

“Another obvious area of impact is the economy,” says Gilbertson. We announced last week that because of the devasting impact of COVID-19 on our income, we could be forced to cut £150 million per year from our research funding.

“We live in a country that has fabulous cancer research, which is why I moved back here from the US. And yet most of that is funded by the generosity of the public. So periods like this can be devastating, because it can have a long-term knock on effect.”

And this uncertainty could have unseen consequences. “If you’re a new junior investigator, or a post doc, you’re getting to a point in your career where you need to decide if you’re going to stay in science,” says Gilbertson. “In a time of uncertainty, when you don’t know whether there will be grants available, that could sway people’s decisions, and they may go after a different career paths.”

This could mean some of the brightest scientists leave academic research, which would be a huge loss to cancer research.

“If you put all those things together, you can start to see how potentially devastating the pandemic has been for cancer research and cancer patients.”

Together we will still beat cancer

While there’s still a lot of uncertainty, Gilbertson is extremely excited to get the Centre back up and running, even if it’s not at full capacity at first. “With social distancing rules, we’re having to work back from how many people different departments can accommodate at any one time.”

Gilbertson and his colleagues now discussing which work to prioritise when the labs reopen. “We’re starting to think about who should be in the building and why they should be in the building. And that’s not a bad thing – COVID-19 has really made us think hard about prioritising the most important experiments.”

For Gilbertson, he’s particularly excited about two projects. “I’ve been going after a particular type of brain tumour – medulloblastoma – for 30 years, ever since I first saw a child die of it. We’re on the cusp of developing a kinder treatment that we hope would spare children getting radiotherapy, which would be absolutely fantastic. So we’re really chomping at the bit to get that going.”

The other project is a study that aims to understand more about how and why tumours spread to other parts of the body. “We think we’ve uncovered a mechanism that governs metastasis, which would be really exciting.”

But Gilbertson knows that getting these projects back up and running doesn’t just rely on getting scientists back in the lab. It also relies on the generosity of our supporters.

“I don’t think people hear it enough from researchers, but thank you so much for your support. The money you give helps to keep the lights on, keep our machines running, it means we can do those clinical trials, to find new treatments.

“If it wasn’t for that pound you were giving, none of that would happen, it would all go away. And with COVID-19, there’s a possibility that some of it could go away, so we need your support now more than ever.”


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