But of course, startup funds are neither infinite nor renewable. As a result Shi, like all researchers, has to think long and hard about any new hires. In particular, he would like to hire a bioinformatics specialist, but in the absence of a new grant, such a position would necessarily have to be for no more than two or three years. “Without additional funding, I won't be able to support them for longer than that.”
Shi also has had to make some hard decisions on the experimental front. He's spent quite a bit over the past year on next-generation sequencing experiments. His team developed a method to use Illumina sequencing to monitor mRNA polyadenylation, but at the moment, that project is not yet grant-funded. Each lane cost between $1,100 and $2,000, consuming at least four lanes per experiment. His lab ran some 10 to 20 samples in 2011, he says, costing between $20,000 and $40,000. Add in the cost of sample preparation, and his lab spent some $50,000 on sequencing alone. “I would love to do more [sequencing], but we have to do what we can, not exceeding the budget too much,” he says.
And then there's cell culture work. Shi works with mouse embryonic stem cells, and would like to grow them in bulk for protein purification. Unfortunately, mESCs require expensive sera and growth factors like leukemia inhibition factor (LIF) to grow, and he simply cannot afford it.
His solution is to use a stem cell “surrogate” — a cell line whose behavior mimics that of stem cells, but that can grow in the absence of LIF. P19 rat cells, for instance, exhibit some of the characteristics of stem cells and can also be induced to differentiate, albeit not in quite the same way, or with as much plasticity, as stem cells.
“You have to sacrifice sometimes,” he says.
When it comes to getting a lab up and running, sometimes occurs more often than not.