As COVID-19 continues to surge, cancer scientists engaged in basic research face unique challenges. At centers throughout the United States, investigators are confronting difficult decisions about which experiments to continue, while securing supplies and creating contingency plans for a complete shutdown.

As COVID-19 cases have continued to surge, federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for vigilant social distancing and quarantining to stop the spread. At cancer centers, that has left scientists engaged in basic research facing difficult decisions about which experiments to continue, while securing supplies and creating contingency plans for a complete shutdown.

“We are able to continue to do research, but we don't know how much longer that will happen,” says Ruth Keri, PhD, associate director for basic research at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center in Cleveland, OH. “We take each day as it comes.”

To limit the number of people in labs, researchers are working in shifts. Case has directed researchers to stop nonessential experiments—something Keri says “is in the eye of the beholder”—and to spend a minimal amount of time on essential experiments. Her lab has begun to protect its work by, for example, freezing organoids developed from patient-derived xenografts and portions of cell lines to safeguard against a shutdown, which may come with just a day or two notice.

The Perlmutter Cancer Center, NYU Langone Health in New York, NY, rapidly transitioned from a lab policy of social distancing to one that only permits “mission-essential” experiments. Now, no new experiments can be started, says Benjamin Neel, MD, PhD, director of NYU Langone. Researchers can continue to maintain long-term experiments but have been directed to pause experiments they'd already started when they reach a stopping point—for example, growing cells and cell lines until they can be frozen.

Animal models, which can be years in the making, are key to cancer research. Case is no longer receiving new mouse shipments but will continue ongoing mouse studies, many of which are investigating tumor growth or response to novel agents. NYU Langone has adopted a similar policy, but “the real concern is long-standing mouse experiments,” Neel says. “We're trying to thread the needle between safety, which is certainly our top priority, and, if possible, trying to limit the loss of mission-critical things,” he says.

Researchers are also concerned about supplies, which could become scarce as the pandemic continues. “We tried to be very prospective about 2 weeks ago and order all the things we thought we would need to continue doing essential experiments,” Keri explains, a list that includes everything from cell culture serum to pipette tips. Neel asked investigators to secure a 2-month supply of CO2 and extra liquid nitrogen, but not to order highly perishable supplies in case of a shutdown.

Displaced from the lab, many researchers are catching up on other work. “I submitted a grant this morning, I worked on a paper yesterday—I'm doing the things during the daytime that I typically do from 10 pm to 2 am,” says Roy Jensen, MD, director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City, who has encouraged researchers to put experiments on hold and work from home. Eventually, however, “there will come a time when you're caught up on those things, and to make additional progress, you've got to get back in the lab.”

As for the long-term impact on basic cancer research, the duration of the pandemic is key. “Is it going to be for 6 weeks or 6 months?” Jensen wonders.

“Experiments can be started over again,” Neel adds, “people can't.” –Catherine Caruso