Why scientists at RAFT need the equipment we raise funds for.

Science is in its own right, as old as time. Scientists have existed for as long as humans have. It becomes impossible to determine when science officially came about. But I like to think the first scientist was a caveman named Ook, who wanted to know what would happen if he poked a sleeping sabre tooth tiger with a stick. I am sure he had a hypothesis; the sabre tooth tiger would wake up. But maybe he didn’t think much past that point. This is in crude terms what science essentially is. Experiments involve varying properties to see how (for example) cells react. I’d like to think that we 21st century scientists have come far since the days of poking sabre tooth tigers with sticks. These days, scientists work on cellular, atomic and even subatomic levels. To work on such small scales, we need to isolate and maintain these components, and this inevitably requires a lot of highly accurate equipment with price tags to match. Let’s face it, no one’s going to find the cure to the common cold with the afore mentioned stick.

Translational medicine is the process of taking a good laboratory idea to patients. Its split into two stages, pre-clinical and clinical. Us scientists at RAFT deal with the pre-clinical stage, which involves a lot of work with cells. Cells are notoriously fickle, ask any cell biologist; you may be working with a set of cells, repeating the same experiment for weeks on end, but then you will come in one day and discover that they have just decided to up and die. It then becomes critical to find out why on earth, after months of giving the same results, they have decided to stop behaving. Worst case scenario, the incubator (which keeps cells at 37 degrees Celsius- body temperature) has broken down. This means all your cells are dead, months of work has gone to waste and to top it all off, lack of funding means having to wait while the fund raising team try to raise the money to get it fixed.

The cells are cultured to be seeded onto the Smart MatrixTM. One of my roles on the team is to help make these scaffolds. The whole process can take anything up to twelve hours to make up a batch. There have been times that Vaibhav has slaved away for hours only to come back in the morning and discover a blizzard in the lab, because the freeze dryer has broken down. Again this is a high precision, expensive piece of kit essential to the work we do. Again, while the fundraisers are furiously trying to sort out the finance to fix or purchase a new machine; all work is on hold.

I myself have been twiddling my thumbs for some time now, while trying to locate a second had rheometer, which is a strenuous exercise, and a valuable lesson I have learnt is that even in science if something looks too good to be true, it most definitely is. There have been times when I’ve come across a machine that would be just perfect, only to discover the reason its so cheap is because its twenty five years old and in the fine print; ‘please note, this machine may require some attention before it is fully functional, and some components may be lacking.’

A lack of funding is something that many small research labs struggle with. Especially in this climate, everyone is feeling the pinch. As a charity, we rely on the generosity of the public to carry out our research.

Niroshehaa Ragunathan