Know your model.

In biomedical research, we are often trying to answer questions at different levels. By “level,” I mean from molecules, cells, tissue, organ, organ system, organism, community, and ecosystem. It is rare that biomedical research gets to the community and ecosystem level. There’s also a cost / benefit consideration to what “level” your particular research question is answering. Studying a problem at the level of the organism is much more expensive than studying a problem at the level of molecule — however one might argue that studying at the level of the organism is more biologically / clinically relevant.

The cell model used in my lab, SH-SY5Y cells. Left: Non-differentiated cells, neuroblastoma, continue division. Right: Differentiated cells, stopped dividing, extended axons & dendrites, secrete neurotransmitter.

At each level, you have the thing in your lab that you are actually manipulating and observing and this thing is used to represent something greater, hopefully a more general concept. That’s known as a “model.” Continue reading

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A Book Review

Skloot, Rebecca. (2010) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, Random House, Inc., New York, NY. 358 pp. ISBN 978-4000-5217-2. $26.00.

Rebecca Skloot writes a summary account of the early history of tissue culturing in modern biomedical research and the story is centered around Henrietta Lacks, the donor from whom the HeLa cell line are derived. She recounts Henrietta’s life and experience with cervical cancer and treatment at Johns Hopkins during segregation-era 1940’s, and then follows the psychological impact of the development, dissemination, and widespread use of the HeLa cells on Henrietta’s family over several decades. She asks important questions on ethics of human research protections and use of patient-specimens for research and commercialization. Unfortunately, her strong account of Henrietta’s experience is bookended by tones of fear-mongering.

HeLa cells are used mostly in basic research on cell biology but also in biomedical research; in experiments whose goals are to understand how proteins, genes, drugs, metabolites function. Continue reading