View From The Trenches

U27111 at U27111 at
Sat Jul 1 20:18:27 EST 1995

William Tivol wrote on 30 Jun 1995 15:46:32 GMT:

>        I am on the radiation safety committee at my institution,
>and I can say that there are federal, state and institutional
>regulations which determine who can use what isotopes in what
>quantities and so forth.  We take these very seriously--sometimes
>to the annoyance of some of the PI's.

That's what I was saying... they find it more of a bore/chore and
something they *have* to do if they want to work with

>We insist that all radiation users (defined as those who can order
>isotopes and use them without supervision) take a 30-hour
>radiation safety course, and that provisional radiation users (who
>cannot order and must be supervised by a radiation user) take a
>6-hour safety course.  These courses have both general safety
>information and institution-specific information.  The system
>works well for several aspects of isotope use:  1) Everybody knows
>we are serious about radiation safety (we also cite people for
>violations with the threat of removing their user status for
>failure to rectify the violation), 2) Everybody has at least
>minimal training, 3) The safety office knows what isotopes are in
>which labs, and 4) There are few incidents of unsafe radiation
>practices and even fewer incidents where there is any possible
>radiation exposure above the federal or state guidelines. The
>system, however, does nothing to affect the quality of the data
>obtained from using the isotopes.

I've also seen people [mostly grad students] use the radioactive
garbage for biohazadous (and visa versa)... I've seen one secretary
clean out an entire filing cabinet and toss the papers in the
radioactive garbage because (it was a large enough container to fit
everything at once).  I've seen M.D.s who are constantly tossing
papers into both ones (they have no concept of the cost involved in
processing this waste).

I've also seen students who are afraid they may have already had
their monthly allotment of exposure (how they figure this I have no
idea) so they don't wear their badges for a few weeks (they keep
them in one of those lead transport containers).

I've seen people who handel radioactive material and then answer
the phone without taking their gloves off (and I hand to *insist*
to the local safety officer that he takes a swipe of the phone!...
a phone I refuse to use unless I wore gloves actually since this
was a constant habit of theirs)

I've seen people toss radioactive material down the wrong sink (ie.
a community sink which was not designated as a radioactive one).

And only on one occasion have I seen where they had to remove and
entire wall from misuse (BTW, the tech's nickname was Wild Bill...
that was years ago, never knew what happened to him later in his

And once I saw a door to a room completely sealed shut with all
sorts of warnings, etc. on it... never new what had happened but
the date on the door went back a few years?  Whatever it was...
they never got around to cleaning it up?

etc. etc. etc.

I know the people who run the radiation safety office is very
serious about what they do... but they are just not as serious as
the P.I.s who only care about end results of experiments and the
students/techs who don't know better or who just plain don't care.

And in all honesty, how this all effects safety... I don't really
know.  Mostly I just do what I am told.

>        Since the state is involved via licensing our institution,
>the system is more than self-policing.  Frequent inspections by
>the safety office and monitoring by state inspectors goes a long
>way toward forcing safe use of radioactive materials.  If the
>paperwork looks good, but the swipes show contamination in the
>lab, a violation will be issued, and unless the lab cleans up its
>act, its ability to order and use isotopes will be terminated.  Of
>course, the safety office cannot tell if contaminated items are,
>say, removed from the lab and dumped in the Hudson river, but such
>procedures are much more bother than complying with the safety
>regulations (and can be prosecuted by outside law enforcement).
>I can assure you that any whistle-blower who reported such a
>practice would be taken very seriously and protected from
>retaliation.  Again this does not address the quality of the
>research--only its safety.

This is all fine and good on a state level... but as far as I was
lead to believe, federal institutions do self-policing.  They are
not subject to state inspections.

>: I've been in the business far too long... you can't tell me that
>: people really pay attention to actually how much radiation gets
>: tossed down the sink or into the garbage - I've been taught by
>: this system to 'just make it add up on paper'.

>        Whether people pay attention is a function of whether the
>safety office pays attention and their willingness to apply real
>sanctions against offending PIs (and lab techs).

True.  Very true.  I've also seen foreign students who barely spoke
english who were brought into this country to work for a particular
guy... they had little to no idea how to handel radioactive
materials and was allowed to work with some very hot stuff (don't
ask me which one, I know very little of this subject)... anyway, in
the end nobody on the entire floor was willing to share the lab
with them - everybody moved their radioactive work to different
labs and left the guys alone because they were so sloppy.  [this
was federal labs BTW]

>  And as a side note: due
>: to the tricky calculations of half-life, even if you did attempt
>: to keep track of everything you do with radioactive materials...
>: it still isn't very accurate/realistic anyway.  It's all
>: guesstamation which you try to present as accurate when you fill
>: out your inventory sheets.

>        Half-life calculations are not all that tricky; either you
>have a long lived isotope like 14C, where there is little
>correction for decay, a short lived isotope like 32P, where you
>count an aliquot on arrival (you *do* do this to determine how
>dark your gels will be etc. don't you?) and reduce the activity by
>a factor of two every half-life (and use log tables or a slide
>rule for fractions of a half life), or something in between like
>3H, where there are occasional corrections to be made.  Other than
>that, it is just a matter of keeping track of where the isotope
>could possibly go, gathering all the pads, solutions, equipment,
>animal litter, etc., counting samples to determine the total
>activity accounted for, and making sure there is none unaccounted
>for.  There is no black magic, and any nucleus has either decayed
>or must still be around somewhere.  If the safety office insists
>on care in accounting, all the undecayed nuclei can and will be
>accounted for.  Except for allowance for counting
>statistics--which can lead to errors for low-level activities--the
>accounting should be accurate and realistic.


All I can tell you is we see how much we started with... and when
we do the inventory at the end of the month; we make sure it
exactly adds up (between sink and garbage).  I was told half-life
calculations are tricky and don't even bother... just make sure the
numbers add up.  And that's about as far as I have been trained in

In truth, I have not used a lot of radioactive materials in my
career... only once in a while.  I don't do gels on a regular

>: If somebody is caught doing fraudulent work (under the lab
>: accreditation/certification system)... you just 'find' other
>: things wrong with the lab for them to lose their
>: accreditation/certification and eventually funding.  In other
>: words... make sure all the 't's are crossed and 'i's are
>: dotted... make it uncomfortable for them to continue.

>        No, no, no.  If somebody is caught doing fraudulent work,
>you simply remove their certification permanently and for cause.
>If somebody is doing sloppy work, you apply a sliding scale from
>requiring a refresher course to maintain certification (for minor
>problems) to temporary removal of certification (and suspension of
>grant funding) for the more serious cases.  There is not only no
>need to 'find' other things, but such a practice is both subject
>to corruption and counterproductive to getting the real issues
>corrected.  If the certification system is to have any value in
>improving research, it must be seen to have real teeth and to be
>aimed directly at the issue of research quality.  There should
>also be no possibility of the inspector being able to 'find'
>something and threaten to shut down a lab unless (s)he is given a
>bigger hotel suite (or a bundle of cash).

Good points.  But I think you hit it right on the head... it has to
have *real* teeth.  And as much as I like my own idea... I tend to
doubt a system such I have described would be allowed to have
*real* teeth?  Thus my hypothesis.

: What else explains this so obvious lack of progress?

>        There have been periods in all sciences where there is
>astounding progress and those where things seem to
>stagnate--especially as regards major breakthroughs.  Physics
>provides two examples this century.  Sometimes fields progress
>rapidly with the introduction of new technology, sometimes it's
>some-one's brilliant idea, and there is a series of discoveries
>followed by some consolidation, then, when all the obvious stuff
>has been done, there is a time of filling in details where
>progress seems to stall.  I am not an expert on cancer, so I
>cannot assess the state of that field, but could this not be an
>explanation?  If the recent results finding both genes and viruses
>associated with various cancers are good work, then the deeper
>understanding of cancer can be expected to lead to improvements in
>prevention and/or treatment.  If there are no such breakthroughs
>in the next 20 years, I will probably agree with you that little
>or no competent cancer research is being done.

"If the recent results finding both genes and viruses associated
with various cancers are good work,..."

Again, you hit the nail right on the head.

No this has not been good work... it has been slow in coming.

And if you read the book "A Conspiracy of Cells" by Michael Gold,
you'll see why.

The major problem with cancer research has been cross-cell
contamination.  This dates back to the very beginning of cell
culture but was not discovered until the early 1970's... when HeLa
cell contamination was first identified.

And with HeLa cell contamination came various monkey virus
contaminations into various tumor cell lines.  [because HeLa cells
were used in early polio labs for titer testing - thus they 'picked
up' various monkey viruses and brought these viruses with them when
they contaminate a cell line]

There are famous stories of people who worked with one cell line
only to find it was something entirely different.  For example, one
guy worked for 16 years on what he 'thought' was a prostate cancer
cell line... only to find it was HeLa (cervical cancer).  I believe
it took him another 2-3 years before he would admit it in public?

Anyway, guidelines were established which would then minimize the
possibility of cross-cell contamination... but 20 years later...
not only do people still not abide by these guidelines - but with
modern testing techniques, it is very easy to do cross-cell
contamination testing (species specificity testing) - but very few
labs bother to do this (*very* few).

And as recently as last summer, I interviewed with a guy at Cook
County Hospital here in Chicago who claimed he had found evidence
of a virus in his prostate cancer cell line some years ago... but
was never able to identify it... considering his lab set-up - I had
no doubt he found evidence of a virus... it was more than likely a
monkey virus from a HeLa cell contamination!

And take Dr. Mokyr's lab as I previously described... where she had
a cell line which had changed but instead of species specificity
testing - she just decided to attribute this to genetic drift.  If
this is indeed cross-cell contamination... how does this effect the
identification of the tumor markers she is working so hard on?

I can go on and on with what I have seen... it's no wonder this
work is slow in progress.  And when some progress is made... often
it's not able to be duplicated or once you get it to human level of
testing, it doesn't work as well as initial testing indicated it

And as long as people decide this ignore this problem of cross-cell
contamination and do sloppy work... progress will remain slow in

Thus, sloppy work is a very big part of the problem in Cancer (and
I suspect AIDS) research.

On a more personal note:

You know, I just came back from seeing the movie Apollo 13 [great
movie by the way!]

Anyway, it reminded me of why I left that federal lab I was working
in.  My uncle had just died of lung cancer and I had decided I had
had enough of working with poor quality graduate students in a low
caliber lab... I wanted to get back to cancer research and do
'something'.  So when I ran into this particular M.D. in an
elevator and he offered me a chance to do just that - I grabbed it.

I had such high hopes and dreams... not that I would find a cure or
something like that - but just to be able to add something
significant to the pool of knowledge that may one day help to find
a cure.

Anyway, after three weeks working there I discovered differently...
I had bought into a pipe dream.

Anyway, he talked me into just chugging alone and trying to get the
lab up and running... promising me everything else would just 'fall
into place' later.  I knew this would not be true but I gave it my
best anyway.

Then one night me and my mother sat up and watched them do the
repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope... the team work, the
dedication, the paying attention to details - it was amazing.  And
somewhere between 2-3 am in the morning it finally hit me - that's
what I was looking for.  Oh no, not to go into space... just the
feeling of working with a group of people all with one goal.  And
who puts that goal above everything else.

Anyway, the next day I went into work and looked around the labs...
at the pile of dirty mouse cages sitting in one corner, the
surgical instruments sitting points down [rusting] in a beaker of
water, the bench tops dirty with tiny pieces of animal's skins
which never got cleaned up and in what was suppose to be a
molecular lab; all the glassware sitting on shelves out in the
open, bottles of reagents with 1-2 years old dates on them and
little fuzzy things growing on the bottom, and a water bath so
dirty you couldn't even see the bottom for all the fuzz growing in

Later that same day I watched these two guys I worked with drop
what they were doing so that they could take their daily hour-long
lunch [which was exactly at the same time every day] and then I
watched them go home [one at 2:30pm and the other at 3:30... no,
they did not come in early]

Anyway, that's when I sat down and wrote my letter of
resignation... challenging him to either fire these guys and allow
me clean up the place; or let me leave - a few months later I left
with what I previously wrote as to what he said to me about
significant discoveries being random events.

And ladies and gentlemen, that's what is missing from cancer and
AIDS research... dedication, paying attention to 'details,' putting
the validity and credibility of the work above politics, greed and
egos and working as a team to find a cure.

Science of the 90's have lost all of these properties... these
exact same properties which got us to the moon and back.

You know... for all of the complaints directed towards NASA over
the years to help justify constantly cutting their budgets... at
least they have had more accomplishments than the NIH could claim -
who have had much less budget cuts over the years.

It's funny... but when the public gets mad at slow [or lost] mail
deliveries - the Post Office reorganizes.  When NASA is under fire
for loosing a shuttle [and admittedly, it took an accident of such
magnitude to demand it] - but they re-organized.

So when are people going to have had enough of the lack or progress
towards AIDS and cancer research and demand the NIH reorganizes?
Like I've written before - a day may come when one too many a
person will have died [combined with one too many investigations
for misconduct] before something will be forced to be done?

I don't know.


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