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'It's Quite Painful': Research Labs Shut Down Non-Coronavirus Work Amid Outbreak

Dr. Darrell Kotton (center) with Dr Finn Hawkins (left) and Maria Serra at MED July 19, 2012. (Cydney Scott/BU Photography)
Dr. Darrell Kotton (center) with Dr. Finn Hawkins (left) and Maria Serra at MED July 19, 2012. (Cydney Scott/BU Photography)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Darrell Kotton co-directs the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Boston University, where about 60 scientists in eight labs use stem cells to study lung, blood and gut diseases. The Center's lofty mission, as Kotton likes to say, is "advancing science to heal the world."

But as Kotton and his colleagues watched the number of number of COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Europe, they came to a painful realization.

"We are actually hurting human health by keeping people at work together where they might expose each other," Kotton says. "We really had to shut down almost all laboratory work."

So last week, they started putting the labs into hibernation. They decided to keep some long-running experiments going, monitored by a skeleton crew. They were able to freeze some other cells to hopefully thaw out later. The rest of the experiments went into the garbage.

"It's quite painful," Kotton says. But, "keeping these going is really putting our people in danger."

Scientists around Boston are facing similarly tough choices, as universities and other institutions start to enforce social distancing in their research laboratories to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Last Friday, the deans of Harvard's medical, dental and public health schools asked researchers to develop a "rapid ramp-down" strategy for most research, that "will likely last at least six to eight weeks."

On Saturday, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, one of the country's top biomedical research centers, followed suit. In an email to employees, Broad president and founder Eric Lander said that the vast majority of lab science will be put on hold by end-of day Wednesday. Lander says he doesn’t know when non-critical lab activities will resume, but expects the pause "will last at least a few weeks."

While lab animals will still be fed and some critical experiments will keep running, for many scientists the new rules mean no more crowded lab benches, no more in-person group meetings, and in some cases, no more research on human subjects. That means that research in hundreds of labs across Boston, on everything from Alzheimer's to cancer, is stalled.

"I think it's hard to tell what the long-term impact will be."

Gloria Waters

Research on the coronavirus will continue, however, at least at some institutions. Lander noted that teams at the Broad Institute researching COVID-19 will be allowed to continue, and in some cases may even expand their work. Other universities, like BU, will also allow scientists to continue coronavirus research.

"It's really important to us and to them that they be able to continue to do that work," says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research at Boston University. "We definitely want to try to help faculty do research that's really critical to be done at this time."

As for non-coronavirus research, Waters says the precautions — while necessary — will likely slow the pace of research, and be "really disruptive" for students trying to finish dissertations, for instance, or postdocs on short-term visas.

"It is going to impact research," Waters says. "I think it's hard to tell what the long-term impact will be."

Kotton say he expects his colleagues will used their forced sabbatical to catch up on reading and writing. But Kotton himself has other plans: he's also a physician, specializing in critical care lung patients.

"We're expecting significantly increased numbers of critically ill patients coming in to the ICU," Kotton says.

If that happens, he expects to be spending a lot more time across the street from his lab, at Boston Medical Center.


Barbara Moran Correspondent, Climate and Environment
Barbara Moran is a correspondent on WBUR’s environmental team.



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