Case Study: Marian Case, Newcastle University

The research context

Marian Case is a research associate with the Northern Institute for Cancer Research (NICR) based at Newcastle University. Her work is aimed at improving the treatment of children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia so that some children could receive fewer drugs, thereby decreasing the toxicity of chemotherapeutic drugs they are given, but still achieve complete cure. In addition her group is working towards finding drugs that would specifically target the disease in individual patients who have treatable genetic profiles. Another aspect is looking to use drugs that are already tested and available for use, but are used at the moment to treat other unrelated diseases.

The type of research Marian is involved in involves analysing and sorting mononuclear cells from blood and bone marrow of patients with acute lymphocytic leukaemia using flow cytometry equipment with up to ten colour fluorescence.

What is the equipment?

Flow cytometry technology uses lasers to analyse a continuous stream of single cells that are fluorescently labelled. The machines used cost up to half a million pounds and they vary in their specification, for example numbers of lasers they use – up to 6 – and the speed of their analysis which can be thousands of cells per second.

This equipment is often purchased as part of major research projects. The NICR has flow cytometers of their own. Marian uses equipment including the Amnis Image Stream cytometer, the ThermoFisher Attune NxT and the BD FACS Aria. However, when machines they don’t possess are needed, they often use shared equipment within Newcastle University and occasionally at other universities.

Finding the equipment

When looking for equipment that are not held in the NICR the first port of call is within Newcastle University. Newcastle has an internal database of equipment using “Kit Catalogue” which lists several flow cytometers that are available to book. However, researchers in Marian’s field are more likely to use Flow Cytometry Core Facility at Newcastle which has 15 instruments available to be shared.
Occasionally Marian’s group uses facilities at other universities. In one example, having read a research paper from Manchester University, Marian’s group was interested in doing something similar but did not have the equipment required, so a PhD student from Newcastle visited Manchester to do some analysis using the equipment that the Manchester group were willing to share.

In general, however, Marian feels that there is a lack of knowledge regarding equipment held in other institutions.

A number of universities have flow cytometers and 30 are listed on the Jisc Equipment.Data service at 11 different universities.

How is the equipment accessed?

The type of experiments that Marian generally does means the samples are not routinely sent away for analysis because they degrade quite quickly. Shared equipment normally needs to be within a few minutes of their lab. However, as in the case mentioned above, researchers might visit another site and prepare samples during the visit.

Sharing by physically moving the equipment is not practical since most machines are large and very sensitive.

Marian is not aware of a central, national service or facility providing access to flow cytometry equipment.

What are the barriers?

The main barrier to equipment sharing that Marian identified is a lack of awareness of the availability of equipment. Some research groups may not make equipment available to others because of concern about equipment being booked out when needed by the group.

Use of equipment by Marian’s research group generally incurs a cost, even internally, with charges being made to fund the equipment service contracts etc.

As previously mentioned the shelf life of samples can be a barrier making it difficult to send them to remote sites for analysis.

Marian does not think that the research funders were currently requiring equipment to be made available to other researchers.

Benefits and the future

Clearly a major benefit is the ability to use equipment that the research group don’t possess. This allows processing to take place that would not be possible or would involve extra costs. Additionally sharing with other research groups provides access to specialist expertise and opens up possible collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

In some cases research groups are keen to share their equipment because it means that they will be cited on research papers produced as a result of use of their equipment.

Marian feels that as funding becomes tighter the need to share equipment will increase in future. Also, online systems that improve the knowledge, locally and nationally, of equipment that is available to be shared, along with booking facilities, will enhance the equipment sharing possibilities.

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