The lab at the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI) may be much quieter than normal these days, but it is far from empty. In observance of the need for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the science team has been working from home since mid-March. However, there are many aspects of our science that simply cannot be carried out remotely. A handful of scientists and researchers have been going into the lab in Cambridge, MA, while observing strict precautions, to continue experiments that are critical to our mission to find effective treatments for ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Andy Moreno and Josh Kidd are two of these researchers. Josh and Andy normally work side by side in our animal care facility, helping carry out experiments in mouse models of ALS. However, since late March they have only seen each other online in Zoom meetings or virtual social hangouts. The rest of the time they alternate, every other week, going into the lab to make sure the animals living in our facility are cared for and that the crucial experiments that rely on them continue uninterrupted.
“The animals are needy, says Josh. “Somebody needs to go in and just make sure that they're getting food and water every day. But also, you can't really stop the studies. If you stop them, all the time you’ve spent on them is wasted. It's just the nature of animal care. It's an ongoing, everyday thing.”
Despite the lockdown, many aspects of their work have not changed, however the circumstances surrounding it have. During their respective weeks on-duty, they will arrive at the lab in the morning wearing a mask and carrying their ID cards – currently required to even enter our building. They will then see what experiments they will be carrying out for the day. They then prepare the drugs–often pre-aliquoted for them by other scientists in the lab– to be given to the mice for each study.
Each mouse is then put through a series of tests and given a neurological score to help track the progression of their disease–and see if the drugs that they are being given seem to be affecting it. The results are entered into a computer system that allows the scientists leading each experiment to observe the results.
“This allows the scientists to look at what's going on,” says Andy. “They can see each individual mouse’s neurological score, how much weight they’ve lost, and how they’ve progressed. If they see a drug seems to have made a difference in how long the mouse survived, they can choose to run the study again.”
Besides these tests, Josh and Andy have also temporarily taken over the maintenance of ALS TDI’s relatively new zebrafish facility, normally cared for by scientist Val Tassinari. Josh says that he now often helps to receive mail deliveries, and has also undertaken the watering of the many plants throughout the office.
They both say things feel very different in the lab these days. Even though there are usually a few other scientists around working on their own experiments, it’s a much smaller crew. Everyone tries to keep their distance as much possible and wears personal protective equipment like gloves and masks. They’re constantly cleaning their equipment and work surfaces. It’s a lot different from the usual bustling, social atmosphere in the lab.
“The first few weeks were probably the weirdest,” says Josh, “because the lab’s never that empty for that long, except for weekends and holidays. It is definitely a little strange.”
Despite this, both Josh and Andy are glad that they can keep their research going, even in the face of a global pandemic that has disrupted so many other aspects of our everyday lives.
“I feel very proud that we’re still doing ALS research,” says Andy. “We're still trying to find a cure. I feel honored to be doing this, to be a part of this, to be there. And nothing has particularly slowed down from our end. Our studies are still going.”
Early in June, in accordance with the phased reopening in Cambridge, more ALS TDI scientists will be permitted to re-enter the lab. ALS TDI will continue to follow strict safety protocols to ensure that we are able to continue to move research forward while keep our scientists and our community safe.