Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More precious than gold

This is a post about science.

I am a scientist.  It's really cool for me to say this, because I suffered from imposter syndrome* until about a month ago.  Part of being a scientist at an academic research institute is getting grant money, money from the government that we use to do our jobs.  Only some of this money pays for salaries; some of my salary is from one grant, but most is from the institute where I work.  Most of the money goes towards equipment, reagents, and other supplies necessary to do the research.

I am a scientist, and I am not rich.

My boss got a huge grant last year in September, and it's enabled us to work on this supercool project.  We hired a graduate student, K., who is working on the project with us.  We tend to work on different aspects of the project; I do most of the cell culture and optimizing of the conditions, as well as collections, and he's learning how to work with RNA and protein.  Recently, he began to prepare for some Western blots, which are used to determine what proteins are present (you pick a target protein, stain for it, and see if it's there and how much there is).  You use antibodies to perform Western blots, so K. put a bunch of antibodies into the ordering book, and I put in a requisition for them.  The grant for the project is huge, so it can accomodate expensive items like antibodies.

That's right, antibodies.  The little Y-shaped molecules your body produces to take care of foreign particles, cells, or tissue that invade your body.  You make them for free.  Biotech/pharma companies make them for lots of money.**

Today, K. was aliquoting his nice new antibodies, from abcam,*** when he realized that he was getting a tiny volume of antibody (as low as 50µl) with a tiny amount of antibody (like 100µg).****  So we wondered: how much does an entire gram of antibody cost, based on abcam's pricing?  And how much is it compared to the cost of one gram of gold?

We set out to find the answer.

Micrograms (µg) are teensy.  100µg is 0.0001g.  Small.  And these vials of antibody with 100µg cost $319 each.

Gold, according to the internet, costs $42.90 for 1 gram.

To compare the costs, we first calculated how much 1 gram of antibody costs, and then divided by the cost of gold to figure out how much more expensive it was.

Well, that's not too hard.  To get from 0.0001g to 1g, you multiply by 10,000.  And you multiply the price by 10,000: $319 * 10,000 = $3,190,000

$3.2 million for 1 gram of antibody.  Divided by $42.90?  3,190,000/42.90 = approx. 74,359.

Antibody costs 74,359 times gold.  And that's why you get tiny amounts and are told, "For Western blot, dilute 1 to 10,000 in blocking buffer."

* Imposter syndrome, more common among but not limited to professional women, is the term for the overwhelming feeling that you are not qualified for your position, and that you have somehow managed to fool everyone around you into thinking you don't suck.  Yes, that means I used to stand at the bench, doing science--and doing it pretty well--thinking that I was so bad at science, I shouldn't be allowed in the building.  I no longer feel that way, and it's a relief.

** I have friends who have left industry (what we call biotech/pharma companies) for academia or vice versa, and the general idea is that you're still not making millions in industry.  A lot of money that companies make goes towards making up for all the money they've spent trying to develop their drugs and reagents.  When you see the final product, you don't see all of the failed experiments and failed trials that came before it.

*** I'm picking on abcam here, but their antibodies are not excessively expensive compared to other companies' antibodies.  They actually have some of the best antibodies out there; I always get great staining with them on immunohistochemistry, and my boss prefers them for Western blotting.  I'm picking on them because they're the ones we were aliquoting today.  We usually pick on Santa Cruz because their antibodies frequently don't work, especially if they're the only company that manufactures antibody for a particular site of interest.

**** For a lot of people who don't work in scientific fields (and some who do), µg or µl, or µanything might be meaningless.  The Greek letter mu (µ) is the symbol for "micro," which is one 1000 times smaller than milli (milligram, millimeter, milliliter), which is 1000 times smaller than your every day measurements (gram, meter, liter).  So if you're not very sciency, go find a ruler.  Take a look at the length of one millimeter (mm).  That's 1000 times shorter than one meter.  Small compared to a meter, right?  Now, imagine a length that's 1000 times shorter than one millimeter.  There's your micron (we don't say "micrometer.").  Same for liters.  Grab one liter o' cola and try to take 1000th of it: that's 1 milliliter (ml, also known as a cc, squared centimeter).  It's small.  1000th of that is one microliter, a measure of volume we use in the lab constantly.  Just the other day, I put 1 µl (microliter) of RNA solution into a machine called a NanoDrop, which measured the RNA concentration (0.2µg/µl!).  So when a company sends us 100µg of antibody, that's tiny.  Really tiny.

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