A day in the life of a cancer researcher

| Written by Guest Blogger
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This story was written by Petrus De Jong, M.D., Ph.D.

I hear noise from our boys’ room but decide to check my e-mail first. Waking up in Pacific Time means that e-mails from other time zones are already piling up. Breakfast for everyone and black coffee for me are the next priority.

With the sun roof open, it is only a short commute to Sanford Burnham Prebys. Along the way I pass miles of Pacific coastline, as well as the sites where decades of scientific discoveries have modernized health care. The drive takes less than fifteen minutes, but my personal road to becoming a medical researcher spans almost 15 years. Being part of SBP’s scientific community now, at the frontier of modern medical science, is a real privilege.

While the computer is starting up, I put on my white lab coat to check the cancer cell lines that we have growing for our experimental drug tests. Our lab, led by Prof. Garth Powis, is focused on finding new types of therapeutics for cancer based on unique vulnerabilities of tumor cells. Although it might sound strange, we have to be sure our cancer cells are ‘healthy’ enough for our experiments. We know every detail of their normal shape and growth pattern. I glance through the microscope and know that the cells are good for our next experiment.


Today I am testing the specificity of new drugs that are designed to cut the fuel supply of rapidly growing tumor cells. We can measure whether our new compounds are hitting their target with high precision by using some genetic tricks. If the tricks work, the cancer cells will glow a green color in the dark. I turn off the lights, then turn on the fluorescent laser and look through the microscope. The cells light up in neon green—part one of the experiment worked! The next step is to test whether the drugs have an effect on tumor cell growth.


Cancer research is teamwork. Today’s experiment was designed based on the work of chemists from Texas (UT Austin), together with protein biologists and medical biologists from SBP. After I put the cells back in the incubator, I grab my notebook and knock on Dr. Powis’ door—even though it’s already open. We have a conference call today with our collaborators to discuss the latest results and future directions. During the technical discussion, I realize that our drug not only has the potential to target and kill cancer cells, but has taught us things we never knew about how normal and tumor cells regulate their energy needs. And this is important, because the more we understand about the fundamental processes that cells use to get energy, the greater the number of opportunities.

Everyone is anxious to hear the results of the next round of experiments and after refueling with a strong espresso, I return to the lab. I am testing two different drugs on the green cells. One of the drugs is bright yellow, the other is colorless. After carefully preparing various drug concentrations, they are added to the cells which then go back into the incubator. It will take 24 hours before I know the results.

I carefully write down the details of today’s experiment in my lab notebook. The remainder of the day is taken up analyzing experimental data, generating figures for publication, preparing for the next lab meeting, sending requests to speakers for upcoming events, and more. Before turning off my computer, I write down my to-do list for tomorrow. I will first check the results from today’s experiment realizing I am not the only one eager to learn about the results.

Finally I hang up my lab coat, hoping to be one step closer to new cures for tomorrow.

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