“I have to kill all of my cells.” In the weeks leading up to Christmas break, Dr. Christie Eissler talks about shutting down her experiments at the Zhou Lab in the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at UC San Diego before heading home for the holidays. Eissler is 34. She finished her undergraduate work in biology at Northern Illinois University, and she earned her PhD at Purdue. She lives in the UTC area with her boyfriend, also a scientist. She works as a postdoctoral research scientist for a UCSD professor.
Home is a suburb of Chicago.
“The cells won’t live while I’m gone. They’re human tumor cells. They live on media,” which she explains is a substance used for growing different types of cells. Eissler’s friendly and quick with a smile. Midwestern vowels shape her speech. On the drive over to where we meet, she’s somehow nicked her chin.
Does she think that her laboratory cells, such as they are, know they are being executed?
“That’s the big question, isn’t it? Defining intelligence? The individual cells don’t have the ability to think or feel but, they do have ways to communicate with one another and respond to the environment. They definitely know when other cells are around.”
She dabs at her wound with a scrap of paper towel.
“Does it bother me? Yes,” she says with emphasis. Then she says,“It smells really bad when you kill them.”
What does she use?
The campus at UCSD is a maze of nondescript edifices the dull gray color of cement with discreet signage and a shared address (9500 Gilman Drive), an occasional greenbelt, and almost no parking. The Zhou laboratory shares space with two other laboratories within the dignified exterior of one of those gray buildings. It is a lair not open to the public. One passes escorted through secure portals into a huge open space crammed with shelving and work benches and into a general low humming of concealed machinery and talking.
“My lab is very loud,” Eissler says. “There’s always some discussion going. There are three post docs working here, one grad student, one staff scientist, one technician, my professor, and five undergrads. For every opening, there are maybe 300 applicants. And these are really smart people.” They are members of a union that was put in place to end the low pay for long hours that many post docs faced in the past. “The United Auto Workers started a union for us while we are working in the UC system,” says Eissler. “It costs $10 or $20 a month.”
White-ish shelves overflow with glassware and beakers that would look familiar to anyone who had one of those childhood chemistry kits, but on a larger scale. The people who work here don’t exactly look like scientists, either. Jeans, tennis shoes, and T-shirts are the norm. The white lab coats only come out of the closet when an experiment is in progress. Eissler’s doomed cells (in this case, colon cancer cells harvested from a patient long since deceased) served a larger purpose than living in a temperature-controlled incubator and consuming media. She describes her work day: “I amplify DNA, meaning that I make a bunch of copies of one particular strand. And then I try to edit a gene. I try to make a mutation. The process is called crispr — cas9. And I look at maybe 500 single cells, and [the desired mutation] doesn’t happen in every cell.”
She talks about a time when all 500 such attempts failed to produce any results.
“And that took weeks of work. The way I designed the experiment didn’t work.”
Are failed experiments a cause for termination? No. She explains that failed experiments are part of the process. “And, I just signed a new contract for a year, so I know I’ve got that.” But given the depth and the size of the research climate here, odds are good that she could find work as a scientist in San Diego if and when the need arises.
“The reason [biotech] companies are here is due to the big talent pool. A lot of post docs [that’s what newly minted PhD recipients are called in the trade] come here, and they don’t want to leave.” Eissler would like to put down roots here, maybe buy a house. But without her boyfriend’s salary, she says that would not be possible. “You plan your life two years at a time. If I lost my job tomorrow, we’d be moving if my contract wasn’t renewed.”
Biotech Beach: no one knows who coined the term, but somewhere along the line, that’s what scientists began calling the spread between Sorrento Valley and La Jolla, where most of the research labs are. Biotech Beach has its own Facebook page and a Twitter handle. And why not? Along with Boston, San Diego is one of the top life-sciences markets in the world, according to data collected by the Economic Development Corporation:
“The region has more than 1,100 life sciences companies and more than 80 research institutes. The research institutes — along with University of California San Diego, San Diego State University and other major universities in the region — provide the sector with breakthrough technologies that fuel company growth and product development.”
The list of major pharmaceutical companies in San Diego include such names as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck.
Biotech Beach runs for the most part on grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health. According to the National Academies Press, the organization supports over 80 percent of federally funded biomedical research. Their budget currently exceeds $28 billion. The other major funders of biomedical research include pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical equipment industries.
“Every scientist,” says Dr. Huilin Zhou, “has to apply for grant money. There are a lot of scientists, so there has to be a competitive mechanism in place.” That system, he says, is peer review. “Other scientists will be reviewing the grant applications and then choosing based on merit. There needs to be a system.”