Cytocentric Visionaries: Ian Mudway, King's College, UK
Part Two: Taking a Career Risk for Better Cell Culture and Better Science
In Part One, Dr. Henn talked with Dr. Ian Mudway about his recent publication , “Quantifying the magnitude of the oxygen artefact inherent in culturing airway cells under atmospheric oxygen versus physiological levels.”
Here, they discuss barriers to change in the scientific community.
You had a hard time getting this work published?
IM: This paper had a very long and torturous journey to publication. Many of the comments we got back were about the nature of the cells because A549 cells are seen as a bit of a weed, not a true reflection of an airway epithelial cell.
We kept on saying ‘Well no, step back. The cell you use should be framed by the question you’re asking. Our question is purely a question of oxygen metabolism.’
We could have done this in any cell. The A549 cell was just the most amenable to us.
Do you get a sense that there are other researchers that are struggling to get the same message heard?
IM: It’s been a revelation, how difficult it has been to get this out. We have received some absolutely amazing reviewer comments, including comments that this work was simply unhelpful to the community because it will make everybody’s life a bit more difficult. For me it’s tremendously sad. The first author on the paper Dr Abinhav Kumar is leaving science and one of the reasons is because there are only so many times you can get incoherent rejection letters from journals and keep going.
There is a clear lack of appetite to publish work which suggests that we should make fundamental changes to the way in which we culture cells to make them more representative of the in vivo situation. Everybody is hooked on development of tri-cultures and tetra-cultures and doing all sorts of clever things, but the oxygen question is something they really don’t seem terribly concerned with, which seems to me a bit like decorating a house, without really considering the strength of the underlying foundations. Since this paper has gone up online, we’ve received numerous communications from fellow scientists about our findings, asking our advice. Clearly there are lots of people are out who are interested in this area. A sort of hidden community, many of whom have similar data and have also had their fingers burnt during the peer review process.
Why don’t you think there is more acceptance of the need to protect cells from room air?
IM: It’s sad to say, in a field like science, which is meant to be innovative, that people like to stay with the same old. They use the techniques that they know, even though they’re often suboptimal for the question being asked, because they don’t like jumping outside their core strengths.
As scientists we’re encouraged to narrow our field of attention down so that we can all declare ourselves to be the expert of some small refined area. It lends itself towards making people a little bit conservative in their scientific thought processes. I think this conservative mindset is new. It’s something that has developed significantly over the last decade.
The other problem of course is that you need investment. The only way you can get funding to get the equipment to do the work is to demonstrate to the funders that it’s a serious question. You can’t do that until peer-reviewed literature demonstrate that this is important. So there’s been a coming together of wholly unhelpful attitudes and funding limitations, which means everybody stays with the status quo.
In a small way this reticence, this failure to embrace physiologically normoxic conditions, is a reflection of a problem we have fundamentally within science today. Taking a risk can seem like a terribly damaging thing for your academic career progression.
In Part Three, we continue our discussion with Dr. Mudway, talking about how we will know we have gotten through when people complain about the difficulties of publishing data generated under atmospheric oxygen.
About the Author
Alicia D Henn, PhD, MBA
Alicia Henn has been the Chief Scientific Officer of BioSpherix, Ltd for two years. Previously, she was a researcher at the Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling in Rochester, NY. Alicia obtained her PhD in molecular pharmacology and cancer therapeutics from Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY and her MBA from the Simon School at University of Rochester in Rochester, NY.