At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, laboratory project manager Andrea Towlerton took in a breath and peered through the twin lenses of her microscope.
On that July morning, more than two years of careful planning and hard work were at stake. She focused on a tiny droplet of liquid gingerly pipetted onto a glass slide. “It was either going to be great, or not,” she recalled.
Towlerton knew she could be looking at a landscape of dead cells, one that would send her entire team back to the drawing board.
Quickly, she had her answer. “I have to admit I almost started crying,” she said. “I saw those big, beautiful cells were alive.”
That microscopic beauty is deceptive. These cells came from a sample of Kaposi sarcoma, or KS — a disfiguring cancer that often involves the skin, lymph nodes and other organs. They had been drawn from a tumor on a patient treated 8,800 miles away in Kampala, Uganda, where KS is a leading cause of cancer death.
Yet because Towlerton’s teammates in the U.S. and Uganda had successfully brought these cells alive to Seattle, it was now possible for Hutch scientists to analyze cancers in Africa with the same depth and detail as cancers in the United States.