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Episode 17: Immortalised


Rhys: Case number 20150317-01-SO, recorded 2nd of October 2018, Statement of Dr Sarah Ojo…

Bethan: (Walking in through the door)

Rhys, have you seen that statement from last week, you know the one where the Mari Lwyd’s haunting the accountant?

Rhys: Bethan! I’m recording!

Bethan: Oops, sorry!

Rhys: Never mind. I put it back in the filing pile, it’s probably three folders down by now. [amused] It’s a good one though, I like the bit where it chases him to his girlfriend’s house and he falls in the canal.

Bethan: He died last year, didn’t he?

Rhys: Not from falling in the canal. All right yeah, not that funny I suppose. On the filing pile. I think it was in a red folder?

Bethan: All right, I’ll look there. Diolch!

Rhys: No worries, now sod off, I’m supposed to be recording.

Bethan: OK, OK. Lunch later?

Rhys: Obviously. Go away!


Case number 20150317-01-SO, recorded 2nd of October 2018, Statement of Dr Sarah Ojo… or… O-ho, I’m not sure how to pronounce that… regarding one of the patients involved in a pancreatic stem cell trial she worked on during late 2014. Received by e-mail at the SMPC 17 March 2015 from a address. Statement is incomplete as the text of the file has become corrupted due to the length of time spent on the server, or possibly unusual sunspot activity from the solar eclipse that happened around then? I dunno. Bits of it have been replaced by random characters anyway. The remaining text has been transferred onto both paper and this recording as those seem to be the only stable media in this environment for some reason. Statement… mostly… retrieved from server by Ieuan… what was his name? Can’t remember. Poor Ieuan, you would think he’d have got used to what things are like around here, but all it took was the server room being full of spiders that one time and he was off without working his notice period. Honestly; that’s just the sort of thing you got to expect if you take a job here, Ieuan. Anyway, audio recording by Rhys Llewellyn-Jones, archival assistant, Sefydliad Materion Paranormal Cymru, Welsh Institute of Paranormal Affairs.

Dechrau’r datganiad - Statement begins.

Dear SMPC,

Hopefully this story is the sort of thing you are looking for? I don’t know who else to tell. I suppose I’m hoping that telling you might get it all off my chest. I’m just going to write it all out as a stream of consciousness, so apologies if some of it doesn’t make sense. I’ve been referred to the staff counselling service because I still can’t go anywhere near a tissue culture lab. They think… er… this bit’s corrupted, I think it was a name. They think …whoever-it-was’s death affected me badly and made me think I saw things.

It all began last year when I was working on the… corrupted data here I think… the something study. I’d just left a postdoctoral position I really enjoyed in Heidelberg, because we weren’t able to secure more funding for the project, but I’d managed to get a position in the …this is just a string of zeros… in the something lab in Cardiff as the research associate with responsibility for the laboratory part of the project. I would be collecting pancreatic stem cells from donors with aggressive late-stage cancers and trying to get them to grow in a tissue culture dish. The aim was to make a bank of rare pancreatic cancer types which could be studied and used as a model system for testing new treatments. I’d be working with a research nurse who would see the actual patients and ask them to be part of the study and if they agreed I would collect tissue from their biopsies that wasn’t needed for the clinical work. The research nurse was great – her name was Linda… huh, finally a name that isn’t corrupted… and she was a godsend. She was so kind, and she really helped me find my feet. She took me with her to the wards a few times when there was someone who wanted to ask for more in-depth information about the project, and sometimes just to show me what it was like and let me meet the patients. Some were in the chemotherapy clinics, and some were on surgical wards or in with infections as they didn’t have much of their immune systems left from the chemo. We lost a lot of our patients on the trial, which is what you expect in an oncology study but… still sad. Linda would sometimes tell me after staff meetings that Mrs So-and-So had died, and we’d have a bit of a moment to remember her.

It’s one of the patients on that trial I want to tell you about. I’m not going to give his name because of patient confidentiality, and also because it would be pretty easy to google him if I told you his name, because he was a famous concert pianist, or at least he had been until he was diagnosed with a very rare neuroendocrine glucagonoma – patients who get that are usually older than fifty so he was very young to have it, only in his… question mark question mark question mark… must have been younger than fifty then! This sort of cancer presents a lot like diabetes, but there’s also a characteristic red rash with crusting over in the worst cases, and he had it badly on his lower legs. Linda brought me to meet him because he wanted to ask about the study, and I think maybe because she liked him. She always brought me to see the nicer patients. He was a very sweet, quietly spoken man, thin and fragile from his illness but I think he was probably pretty thin before as well. He asked a lot of very complicated questions that made me think he’d done a lot of reading about his cancer. Some patients like to learn everything they can. I answered questions about the research as best I could and then the rest of the questions, I took notes so I could ask my boss – he was a clinician with a great many years in the field. I didn’t know if I’d see this patient again, but if I did I wanted to be able to answer things for him. He asked me about what would happen to his cells and I explained about the process of immortalisation – how we could take his cells and induce targeted mutations which would allow them to keep dividing indefinitely, or at least for a long enough time to use them for research. He seemed to find this concept fascinating. He said something that has stuck with me ever since, all through the strange, horrible things that happened afterwards. That he had thought that all that would survive beyond his death would be his music, the recordings of his piano playing, but now there would be cells from his tumour as well. I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I think I murmured agreement. He agreed to donate his biopsy cells and signed the consent forms Linda gave him, and then we left him, as he seemed to be getting tired.

I was curious, so I looked into him, which I probably shouldn’t have, but I wanted to hear some of his playing. It was sublime. I cried listening to it. It seemed so unfair that someone who could produce such beauty would be dying in this way, in such pain with his skin covered in brown and red scabs. Don’t get me wrong, he was no less loved or less worthy than any of our other patients, and you have to get used to this sort of thing, working in cancer research. But I was sad that someone who could play like that should be taken out of the world so young.

I picked up the cells from his biopsy from the pathologist at the other end of the hospital in a pot – we usually got them as a little lump of tissue cut off from the main biopsy. Then I transferred them into tissue culture media – that’s a pink fluid which contains all the nutrients cells need to grow. This is always the difficult bit because we don’t know whether there will be enough cells in the tissue biopsy or if they will be able to grow outside the tumour. His did grow, though. Very well, but that’s what cancer cells are good at, so it didn’t seem weird to me. I took some cells off the culture and froze them for the library. Then I started the immortalisation protocols. We had several we were trialling, including a new method from a recently published paper in a dermatology journal that I’d thought looked interesting. I’ve attached a copy to the e-mail in case you need it for context or there’s anything relevant to your investigation in there. The cells were already growing well, but after I used that protocol, they exploded. I think their doubling time was reduced to hours – normal experimental cells lines take around a day to double. I was struggling to keep up with them. I also discovered they were producing huge amounts of glucagon – that was to be expected from those cells, but not in the levels these were churning out. I remember briefly thinking about their commercial potential for the pharmaceutical industry before kicking myself for it. But I didn’t get a chance to investigate any of that because of what happened next.

Linda caught me after a meeting that week and I knew she had sad news. She told me… series of exclamation marks interspersed with the dollar sign, er… from the context this must be the patient …had died. We took a moment to be sad about it together. I didn’t tell her about the strange way his cells were acting. I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t connect it with what happened next until later.

I went to check on my plates, and when I opened the incubator, the media in one of the plates had turned yellow. That’s a bad sign, it means the cells have either become infected with bacteria, or they’ve overgrown so badly that they have turned their environment acidic. I took them out and looked in the dishes – instead of the normal thin layer of cells, there was a thick layer of scabby skin-like tissue, red and brown. I’d never seen anything like it before. I looked under the microscope and saw… skin. Those were definitely skin cells. I couldn’t explain it. Perhaps something to do with the protocol from the dermatology paper, I wondered? The cells had differentiated into skin? I couldn’t see any bacterial cells floating in the media, so I assumed it was some sort of random effect. I dumped the plate in bleach to sterilise it and threw it in the bag for the autoclave.

The next day another plate was yellow. The same issue. I showed it to my boss, and he couldn’t explain it either. I discarded that plate as well. I kept an eye on the other plates from that patient for a week and nothing further happened.

The cells were still growing so fast I occasionally needed to come in over the weekend to change their media. It can be a bit spooky being in over the weekend. There’s not many people around apart from security or other people who are taking care of their own experiments. You have to log in on the lone working system for your own safety. I came into the lab the following Sunday, intending to stay about an hour and do the minimum to keep everything going. When I got my plates out and put them in the sterile tissue culture hood there were no more yellow ones, but as I sat down, I started to feel uneasy. I thought I could hear the faint strains of piano music, music I thought I recognised. I tried to ignore it and get on with my pipetting, but the feeling got worse and worse. I think I rushed the last couple of plates to get finished sooner, and I worried I might have contaminated them. I put them back in the incubator and closed the door and then I… screamed.

Illegible string of Greek letters… again I assume this is the patient …was standing there next to the incubator, staring at me, sadly. And, as I watched, red scabby tissue spread up his neck and across his face, which melted into a mass of yellow liquid. When I could move, I ran out of the tissue culture room all the way to the security desk. At first I couldn’t explain to the security guy what was wrong. In the end I told him I thought I saw an intruder. He did a thorough sweep of the labs but he couldn’t find anyone. I’m sure he thought I was making a fuss over nothing. I went home after he’d given me a cup of tea and I barely slept that night. I came into work late the next day. I almost called in sick, but I’d agreed to do a tutorial and I didn’t want to let the students down. I waited until the afternoon, when I was sure there would be other people in the lab next door, to check the cells again.

Every single plate from that batch of cells was yellow. I glanced out through the open door to the tissue culture room to make sure there were people around before I took any of them out. I almost asked if someone else would look at the plates to confirm what I was seeing was real. I slid one of the plates under the microscope. Skin cells again. There was something different this time, some sort of discolouration on the surface. It was the same rash from the patient’s legs.
I’m not proud of what I did next, but it seemed like the only thing I could do. I took every single plate of those cells, and I dumped them in bleach. Then I went to the liquid nitrogen container and took out the cells I froze down, I dumped them in bleach as well. I took it all straight to the autoclave and made sure they went in the next load and waited while the machine sterilised them all and melted the plastic into a twisted mass. I considered finding some way to get the original biopsy, but I knew that would be in formaldehyde by now, nothing living there. I destroyed everything I had cultured from that patient. I went to the spreadsheets where we logged all our samples and wrote that the original sample had been irredeemably contaminated and had to be destroyed. Then I sent an e-mail to my boss saying I was having a rough time because of the patient’s death and losing all his samples to this contamination. He told me to take some time off, and I have. I just don’t know if I’ll be able to go back to that work. I keep seeing his face.

Well, the e-mail signature seems to be corrupted as well, so diwedd y datganiad - Statement ends.

Investigation. Obviously, I’ve tried to contact Dr um… Ojo. She was easy to track down, as she’s now got a fellowship and her own research group in the US. But she ignored my first email and when I sent a follow-up she sent a very curt response saying she would not be discussing what had happened during that postdoctoral project as it was very difficult for her mental health, and asking me not to contact her again. So, there we are. I checked her publication list, but er… none of the ones listed on her research profile seem to be from that period. On the subject of publications, needless to say the one she attached to her email was also exceedingly corrupted. But, I found a service online that could repair damaged PDFs and sent it to them – oop, need to put the expenses in for that and send them to Bethan – they were able to get enough text out of it for me to do a search on the scientific databases. The original publication was by Ambrose et al and was indeed published in a small and obscure dermatology journal. I have printed a copy and attached it to the transcript. I imagine it’s relatively safe as a publication, nothing weird happened when I read it, the danger will be in using any of the protocols in it on human cells. But, handle with care just in case, eh, especially if you know what… tumour necrosis factor alpha is? I also e-mailed the school of biosciences and got no response, so I got my friend Nia who works in admin at the Business school to see if she could find out anything. Business school’s just down the road from Biosciences, see. She asked the secretary of the Dean of Research or Innovation or something, and she checked the site records. One of the tissue culture rooms in that building was apparently shut down due to an unknown contaminant killing everything that anyone tried to grow there. They’ve repurposed it into a radiation lab.

Diwedd y recordiad - Recording ends







Rhys: Hmm. [ANGRILY] I did turn that tape off. I know I turned that off. Whoever you are, whatever you are, don’t you dare mess with me.



This episode of “For The Record” was written, directed, and performed by Lou Sutcliffe (as “Rhys Llewellyn-Jones”) with Ceri Dare as “Bethan”. It used sounds from, under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License. For full accreditation, see the show notes. To be kept up to date on new episodes, submit your statement, or to get involved in production, you can follow us on Twitter @ftrecordpod, on Tumblr at fortherecordpod or view our website at Stay safe, take care, and live well.