In which we make do: live from the cash-freeze lab

The government loves to tell us scientists how good we are at doing ‘more with less’. Over at the Guardian, I’ve posted yesterday about how the UK’s core research budget is again under threat, with the possibility of up to 40% cuts to be announced at the Spending Review in November.

I’ve also summarized how things have been tight ever since that budget was frozen in real terms in 2010. Many highly respected scientists I know are spending all of their waking hours submitting grants and facing a string of rejections. Even high-scoring grants often cannot be funded: as the price of research goes up with inflation, the pool of available funds is depreciated by it.

Of course grant writing is good for focusing your thoughts and honing experimental plans. But to be a successful scientist, you also need to spend time writing papers, supervising your team and helping to analyze the data. Many of us also have to teach and sit on committees. When you’re in the throes of a grant application, other stuff tends to go out the window – which ultimately isn’t good for your team or for your science. We may be doing more with less, but imagine how much more scientific output we could produce if we had better resources – and if the perilous funding situation didn’t put people off taking the risks that are often required to break new ground.

Anyway, I’m doing my bit for the more-for-less thing. Long-term followers of this blog may remember my descriptions of several home-made pieces of lab equipment crafted out of cheap starting materials, including plywood, tin foil and a baby bottle sterilizer. Several years later, we’re having to be increasingly creative.

Behold this piece of kit:

Expensive Perfusion System

I love it because it reminds me of the beautifully crafted old instruments that you can see in the Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum: weighty, shiny, brimming with purpose. It’s a perfusion chamber, which one of my PhD students, Harry, uses to grow a three-dimensional bladder tissue in the context of urine flow, coaxed into life from progenitor cells – and a bit of love. When hooked up to a peristaltic pump, the top (apical) side of the epithelial layer is exposed to urine, while the bottom (basal) layer is fed with a special growth media mimicking the blood supply. So far, this exciting model is proving superior to standard cell culture, and we hope it will be better than any rodent model. Harry is using it to understand chronic bacterial infection – a big problem in the elderly – and to test novel ways of treating it. We also use similar chambers to grow biofilms: slimy communities of bacteria ganging together for protection from the immune system and antibiotic treatment.

The downside of such chambers is that you can only grow one model at a time, and they cost hundreds of pounds. So until we get our next major grant, we’ve got to improvise if we want to compare different conditions.

Harry had a think and came up with this little beauty:

Handmade Perfusion System

Tweaking the Perfusion Chamber

Comprised of a plastic tissue culture plate and a few needles, this workaround probably costs only a few quid. Unfortunately it’s not appropriate for growing the bladder model, but it seems to be good enough for biofilms. One of our summer students, Amy, is busy growing up biofilms from patients and trying out different ways of killing them (the biofilms, not the patients!). Once we narrow conditions down a bit, we can run the experiments a few times in the expensive chamber to generate the official data.

So far, we’re still in the ‘fun’ stage of resource depletion, akin to the triumphant feeling you get when you’re camping and manage to cook up a full English breakfast over the fire. But I’ve just had one grant rejected, and two more are pending.

Fingers crossed.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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8 Responses to In which we make do: live from the cash-freeze lab

  1. rpg says:

    Wait, are Harry’s bugs really called “I, Succubus”??

  2. E. faecalis!

    I think we have the makings of a really bad limerick.

  3. Mark Field says:

    May I suggest you go and find someone with a 3D printer ? I bet you could knock off a cheap copy of the first piece of kit … Most 3D printers will make things in some version of ABS plastic (think Lego bricks), and if you need the window you can epoxy a piece of acrylic to the top.

  4. Mark’s got a good idea there. 3-D printing is possibly the future of all kinds of custom kit (the vintage-camera crowd is excited about manufacturing unavailable parts, and I have a friend who makes custom scenery for model railroads, as examples).

    Providing the material is sufficiently unreactive and can be sterilized without damaging or melting it (70% ethanol?), this could solve all kinds of problems for you.

    In the meantime, kudos for the tubing-needles-and-23-well-plate solution. I’m a big fan of this kind of thing… along with purchasing scissors, forceps and the like from surplus stores rather than out of horrendously overpriced lab suppliers’ catalogues.

  5. That would be 12 wells, not 23. Slip of the fingers on the keyboard, there.

  6. Mark Field says:

    There are numerous 3D printing service companies – you upload the design, they quote a price and then ship parts back to you if you approve. Try googling 3d ‘printing services London’ to find some nearby. Given that you are trying to replicate an engineered part rather than a scanned model you should look for a service that is used to those sorts of design and will accept CAD drawings as input.

    Richard makes a good point about sterilization, that may be a show stopper. You can print out of ABS type plastic, nylon, various types of resin and even metal composite (small sintered bits of metal) though that last one is expensive.

    Would be interesting to find out how much it would cost.

  7. I always thought 3D printing out of my price range, Mark, though I guess prices will come down. We also have a little problem with CAD drawings…not the sort of thing I know how to do or would probably be very good at.

    Sterilizable materials…I guess polypropylene is out?

  8. Mark Field says:

    OK, go find a mechanical engineering faculty member, and ask if they need any projects for students. This would make a really good final year project for a mech eng student.

    At the very least you get CAD drawings made up for you, if it all pans out you also get parts.

    One of the discussions you get to have with that student is what materials you can print in. Even if you don’t get the whole device, you may get an essential bit that you can make into something useful. (e.g a more convenient or parallel version of the second piece of kit you made up)

    If you can live with nylon parts, you can get some printing done for 10p/cm^3 of parts
    (note I have not used this company, it just came up via Google)
    I assume the top + bottom of the rig is identical, which means you could order something that looks like an airfix kit with the parts attached by small sprues to a frame that you cut out with a knife. That way it would probably take up something like 10x5x2 cm = 100 cm3 or 10 pounds.
    Don’t know if it would pan out that cheaply, but it might be worth asking.

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