by Wong Kah Keng
With the presentation closing in at 11 a.m., Justin completed the cell culture work by transferring the cells into a vial. It was subsequently kept in a small container, aptly titled as ‘Mr. Frosty’, to be placed inside a -80oC freezer for initial cell preservation. Mr. Frosty allowed the cells to come to the freezing temperature slowly, at 1oC per minute, ensuring cell survival throughout the freezing process.
Justin scribbled “cells –> N2” on a stick-it pad and he stuck it on his workbench, to serve as an instant reminder the following day to transfer the vial into a -200oC liquid nitrogen tank for long-term preservation.
If human cells such as semen, embryos, cancer cells can be cryopreserved and revived at will, it’s only a matter of time before a whole human being can be revived after cryopreservation. Cryonics could be a common substitute to cremation. Justin debated.
He turned on his Vaio laptop to revise the Power Point presentation he had prepared relentlessly, and transferred the file to his USB stick before strutting to the meeting room, passing by Marjorie’s room, his co-supervisor. For a split second, Justin recalled some of the first conversations he had with Marjorie when he first arrived at Whiteforest two years ago:
“Cancer arises from uncontrolled growth of cells while cancer stem cell, or abbreviated as CSC, is the ‘beeping heart’ of cancer. CSC is believed to be the main cause of the surprising re-occurrence of cancers after seemingly eliminated by treatments.
Imagine fire ants invading the bar of chocolate left in your kitchen, you’ll then spray repellents on any visible tracks of these ants. But they keep invading your kitchen, they keep coming back, because you have not eradicated the true cause: the queen ant. The queen continues to breed the soldier ants, the easily visible ones in action.
And the mother of all cancer cells? It’s the cancer stem cell. Tracking CSC is as elusive as tracking down the queen ant. And tracing this core culprit forms one of the major aims of our lab,” Marjorie explained.
When Justin made an entrance, everyone was already present: Prof. Stephen, Marjorie, Carlos and Gordon (postdoctoral scientists), Julia (research assistant), Arnie and Han-Wook. Stephen and Marjorie looked grim with Carlos and Gordon perusing a few research papers on the table. The room exuded a quietly tensed atmosphere. Stephen replied Justin’s gaze with a nod. He subsequently took a seat opposite of Stephen’s, sandwiched between Julia and Arnie.
“The reason I brought forward the meeting is because of this,” Stephen shoved the piece of paper from Gordon’s to Justin’s. “The abstract that we submitted 2 months ago for the next World Hematology Conference has been accepted and published next to Terry’s abstract.”
Justin’s eyes widened immediately. He realised the gravity of the situation.
“Their conclusions are very similar to ours: CD900* is a potential surface marker of cancer stem cells. But obviously we would not reveal, even at the conference itself, that we believe it is the isoform, the truncated version of CD900, that is the real potential marker.”
Prof. Terry of the Hillford University is a direct competitor to Stephen’s researches. Their rivalry occurred years before Justin joined Stephen’s group. Four years ago, Terry published a research paper refuting the claims made by Carlos’s findings, generating a buzz in the scientific community and even prompting the Scientific Integrity Organisation to inform Stephen that they were made aware of this issue, possibly by Terry himself. The matter was finally put to rest when another independent research group was able to replicate Carlos’s core findings. Terry’s ostensible goal was to produce new theories in that scientific paper, but their real aim was to cast doubts on Stephen’s researches.
There were 2 main reasons for their rivalries: They were working on the same research topic, and whoever got to the finishing line first would trump the other by publishing in highly-reputed scientific journals. The research group who lost in the race would have to resort to a lesser-known journal. They were also vying for research grants from the same funding bodies; findings from one group outpacing the rest would ensure successful grants acquisition. Money is the essence of every laboratory’s existence.
“We need you to stop working on the side project that you proposed. Finding the marker of CSC outweighs any other tasks in the next few months,” Stephen directed this to Justin.
“What about my presentation at the Divisional seminar?” Justin asked.
“We can have a quick discussion at the end of this meeting, and you could practice the talk with Marjorie.” Stephen replied.
“Yes, I have seen parts of his presentation,” Marjorie remarked. “It looks alright but they need to be trimmed down to 25 slides for a 30-minute presentation, plus 5 minutes of…”
“Terry’s abstract does not mention anything about the isoform but they could well be working on it already, given the current interest of the isoform in cancers,” Gordon interrupted Marjorie’s elaborations.
“I have purified two independent population of cells using the antibodies generated by Julia against the full-length or CD900 isoform,” Carlos detailed while Julia nodded in agreement.
Stephen absorbed this thoughtfully before turning to Justin.
“You have to prove the potential of these two group of cells to form cancers in the mice. Either CD900 or its isoform has the potential to cause this, and if they do, then either one is the bait of cancer stem cells. It could be the eureka moment that you have been waiting for,” Stephen concluded, followed by a lengthy discussion that stretched for 3 hours on the technicalities involved in the experiments to be conducted.
Justin saw it coming that he would be embroiled in a project directly competing with those of Terry’s. Part of his main project dealt with CD900 under the close technical supervision by Carlos in the laboratory. Since Carlos’s postdoctoral contract was ending by December, Justin would eventually be responsible for CD900 researches in Stephen’s lab. It was inevitable that he would be involved in the Terry-Stephen saga.
At the end of the meeting, Justin stayed behind in the meeting room to digest the lengthy discussion. The intensity of the forthcoming laboratory work enveloped him. The clock was ticking in the race against Terry.
CSC causes it all, from the cradle of cancer formation leading victims to the grave. Justin thought.
The queen ant. He clenched his teeth. I’m coming after you.
To be continued…
GLOSSARY: *CD900: Each human cell contains DNA, the basic unit of genes. There are more than 20,000 genes in humans and each gene is assigned to specific names. Almost all gene names are highly technical, however there are some with creative names. For example, ‘Pokemon’ was the name of a real gene that stands for “POK erythroid myeloid ontogenic factor”. It has since been replaced by a more technical name termed as ‘Zbtb7’. ‘CD900’ is a fictional gene/protein used in this story.
About the author:
Dr Wong Kah Keng is the Managing Editor of the Scientific Malaysian Magazine and a Senior Lecturer at the School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be contacted at