The term “in vitro” translates as “in glass” and in a scientific sense refers to experiments done in a well-controlled laboratory environment. Every experiment that I’ve done in my career has been in vitro – from making compounds, to purifying proteins, to sequencing DNA, to doing NMR – all of these have more-or-less been done “in a test-tube(1)”.
Until this week.
My job nowadays requires me to oversee experiments done both in vitro and in vivo (in life). This includes disease-model efficacy tests, toxicology experiments, metabolism studies, etc. – mostly done in rodents. Now for a biophysicist like me, doing experiments in animals has always seemed like an arcane and somewhat distasteful endeavor (not like real science – how’s that for a bias?), complete with the lab (a vivarium – even the name sounds icky) being off-limits to most, and folks in scrubs, hair-nets and masks, looking like they just stepped off the set of Grey’s Anatomy.
However, because we want to do a number of large, chronic tests in the months ahead, we need a lot of people capable of handling animals, dosing them and making observations. And so, in the spirit of not asking someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself, I volunteered to be trained.
Of course, all the minions laughed. I haven’t done an experiment with my own hands in the lab in a long time (too long!), but I assert that I am still a good scientist and capable of being trained. So there I was in my full-body lab coat and shoe-booties (2) getting my first experience of in vivo science (3). And I felt that anticipation and excitement of learning something new. It’s a thirst that never gets quenched.
(1) Note: Test-tubes were SO 20th century. Most biology experiments these days aren’t performed in glass test-tubes. Most get done in little tiny plastic tubes (to save material and generate less waste) or in plates that have multiple wells in them so you can do a whole bunch of experiments side-by-side in something that fits in your hand.
(2) The vivarium is not icky, it is spotlessly clean. Cleaner than anywhere I’ve ever done an experiment that’s for sure.
(3) As an aside, the longest training by far has been in reading and being tested on the Animal Welfare Act and other rules for the humane treatment of animals in a laboratory setting. We take this very seriously despite animal-rights activists’ claims to the contrary. In addition, anyone that tells you that in vitro and/or cell-based assays are good enough to tell you whether a compound is safe and effective is either woefully misinformed or out-right lying. In-life experiments are time-consuming, expensive and altogether necessary before allowing a drug to be used in the ultimate in vivo setting – us.