One of the most pivotal cocktails in history

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Scientists have been studying cancers in a strange way, Ed Yong points out — or, rather, in a strange medium:

In 1959, an American physician named Harry Eagle mixed up one of the most pivotal cocktails in medical history — a red blend of sugar, salts, vitamins, and amino acids that allowed scientists to efficiently grow the cells of humans and other animals in laboratory beakers. This red elixir, known as Eagle’s minimal essential medium (EMEM), became a bedrock of biological research. Sixty years later, the medium and its variants are still heavily used whenever researchers want to study animal cells, whether to investigate the viruses that infect us, or to work out what goes wrong when cells turn cancerous.

As its name suggests, EMEM was designed to be as simple as possible — it has everything a cell needs to grow and nothing more. And in recent years, scientists have started realizing that such pared-down concoctions might be skewing their results, by warping the ways in which cells process nutrients. It’s as if they had spent decades studying the health of people who had only ever been given rations to eat.

Instead of using generic “culture media” like EMEM (or its more concentrated variant, Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium, known as DMEM), it might be better to start creating concoctions that more accurately reflect the chemical profiles of our bodies. That’s what Saverio Tardito did in 2012, when he joined the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. “Around 90 percent of the papers in cancer research are using the same two or three commercially available media,” he says. “We researchers are aware that the medium you choose at the beginning of the experiment will affect the output, but it’s too easy to open the door of the fridge and use what’s there. I think we have been all been a bit too lazy.”

Over several years, he fine-tuned a mixture called Plasmax, which contains around 60 nutrients and chemicals at the concentrations usually found in human blood. “It was a side project — just a way of obtaining a better tool to do better research,” Tardito says. “But from the beginning, we noticed that the medium was making a difference.”

His colleague Johan Vande Voorde realized that cancer cells, when grown in Plasmax, behave more like they would in actual tumors, without several weird behaviors that are triggered by commercially available media. For example, DMEM contains a substance called pyruvate at 10 times its normal concentration in blood. These abnormal levels force cancer cells to grow as if they were starved of oxygen, even when the gas is abundantly present. In DMEM, the cells act as if they were being choked. In Plasmax, they do not.

Unlike DMEM, Plasmax also contains selenium, an essential mineral. By comparing the two media, Vande Voorde showed that when breast cancer cells are grown at low densities, they die in the absence of selenium, but flourish in its presence. That’s a little worrying. Several researchers have tested selenium supplements as a way of preventing cancer, but despite many studies there’s no strong evidence for a protective effect. Instead, Tardito wonders if such supplements could be risky: If selenium allows cancer cells to survive in sparse populations, it might make it easier for fragments of tumors to spread to other parts of the body. “We’ll need to follow that up in animal studies,” he says.

David Sabatini of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has also been mixing up his own culture medium that mimics the nutrient levels of human blood. In 2017, he showed that cancer cells grown in this mixture are much less sensitive to a chemotherapy drug called Adrucil.

These results come at an interesting time. In recent years, cancer biologists have been grappling with a possible reproducibility crisis, in which results from several experiments involving lab-grown cells can’t be repeated by other teams. More broadly, researchers have struggled to translate the results of basic experiments involving such cells into new treatments that actually help cancer patients. Although there are many possible reasons for these problems, Tardito wonders whether he and his colleagues might get better results if they grow their cells in more realistic media.


  1. Kirk says:

    See, this is one reason why I am always suspicious of “science”. Look, guys… I’m a reasonably intelligent and well-read layman; to me, the idea that you’d use growth medium that did not replicate actual conditions that cancer cells find in the human body…? Yeah, that’s an obvious problem that you would think that the supposed “experts” would have cottoned on to, decades ago…

    And, it’s taken how long for them to figure this out? WTF?

    Geniuses. All of them. Absolute geniuses. I wonder how much other stuff like this is out there, in the “sciences”. It’s no wonder we’ve got this whole “reproducibility crisis” going on, with this sort of crap experiment design being the baseline. If your growth medium doesn’t reflect the environment that cancer cells are growing in, how the hell do you ever get the idea that anything you’re doing with them is going to have any effect once you transition that treatment to an actual human body…?

    This is the kind of crap that a half-way intelligent layman looks at, and goes “What the hell…?”. And, you wonder why so many people engage in magical thinking; the damn researchers are doing it, too: “Oh, this easily available growth medium (that doesn’t match the environment of the human body that these cells grow in…) that everyone else uses will not affect the results, at all…”.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    Yeah. When the strongest force in society is equality — starting with school — then not much is challenged. Culture does not allow it. Let’s just do what everybody does…

  3. Eddie Osh says:

    Reminds of something I read awhile ago about how lab rats and mice are kept at too low a temperature and hence they respond in unnatural ways to treatments. Sorry, I can’t find the citation.

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