Debbie Knight

A Day in the Life: October 17, 2011

In research log on October 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

From time to time, I will give a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of a research associate and talk about what I’m doing in the lab on a particular day. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…”

Experimental controls.

Sometimes the bane of a scientist’s life.

Without the proper controls, an experiment can look like it worked when it really didn’t. So controls are pretty important to the scientific method.

Controls can make or break the experiment. They can make a scientist yell “Eureka!” (although in my 20 years in the lab, I’ve never actually heard a scientist utter that particular word). They can make a scientist go back to the proverbial drawing board. And they can drive a scientist to find that tiny spot on the wall that says “bang head here” (a place I’ve been many times).

It’s a love-hate relationship between scientists and controls.

Case in point: my experiment last week.

I have been looking at the whether some patient populations have certain antibodies floating around in their blood. I was pretty excited that patients with susac syndrome had antibodies that bound to some very specific proteins which might help in diagnosing their disease.

So, I’d worked hard to identify those proteins.

But one piece was still missing from my story – a control of sorts.

Susac syndrome is a pretty rare disease, so most clinicians haven’t seen many cases. Because of this, some patients are initially misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis rather than susac syndrome.

Well, it took a long (long!) ribbon of red tape, but I finally received some blood samples from multiple sclerosis patients.

And last week, I finally had the opportunity to try those specimens in my assay.

I was excited to see the results …  until I saw them.

What I expected to see: serum antibodies binding to proteins larger or smaller than the ones to which susac syndrome serum antibodies bind.

What I saw: the protein profile looked very similar to that of susac syndrome patients.

Now that’s not to say they ARE the same proteins – to determine that will require further testing.

So, this wasn’t the answer I expected. It wasn’t the definitive answer I had hoped for. But, as often happens in science, one answer to one question leads to more questions (plural).

So, while these experimental controls didn’t lead me to the answer I wanted, it lead me to an answer I needed.

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