Cancer research worth $500K may be lost as a result of power shut-off

Sarah Morris/Courtesy

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After last week’s PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoff, campus doctoral student Sarah Morris found herself in a situation she called “research purgatory.”

The outage — which closed the UC Berkeley campus from Oct. 9-11 — may have cost Morris’ laboratory $500,000 and two years of cancer research. Other campus labs were also affected, and, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, several experiments were impacted.

“Some experiments were unavoidably disrupted by the shutdown and may have to be restarted, and we are assessing the impact of those disruptions,” Gilmore said in an email. “We will know more this week, but we feel very good that we weathered the PG&E shutdown reasonably well, thanks in large measure to our very dedicated animal and facilities staff.”

For the last two years, Morris has worked to find new therapies to treat drug-resistant forms of cancer. After PG&E announced the outage, Morris said she was left with 12 hours to salvage her research.

Requiring specific temperature control, some of her samples were moved to special tanks on campus powered by generators, while others were carefully transported to UCSF, which was not affected by the outage.

Removing cells from their growth conditions imposes stress, death and risk of contamination on them, according to Morris. She added that she hopes the experiment will be successful despite these obstacles.

During the outage, the refrigerated samples experienced a 45 C increase in temperature. As a result, 46,080 items will be tested to determine any losses.

Since the various samples require different testing protocols that can cost more than the initial sample, Morris must triage and decide what is worth testing.

“The fact that my research was jeopardized by a ‘planned’ outage is infuriating. This should not be the reason why my experiments failed,” Morris said in an email. “I refuse to have my dissertation thesis titled, ‘Power Outages Kill Cancer Cells—Because They Kill All Cells.’ ”

Morris added that not knowing when the power outage would start “was like building a house of cards.” In the future, she hopes PG&E will regard public safety as their utmost concern.

The UC Berkeley administration has contacted Morris and is working to “brace another extended power shut off,” including in Morris’ research building, Morgan Hall.

“I think this is an opportunity for researchers to look beyond their four laboratory walls and to connect with the public for a common cause,” Morris said in an email. “These power outages affect us all and speaking in one voice may actually bring forth change for the better.  If not…well, what other disaster will it take before we can expect safe, reliable power?”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.