A Day in the Life: “Do good experiments, and don’t worry about the rest”

Uwe Karsten reflects back on a career spanning over 40 years, and uses his experiences to give advice to researchers who are still early in their careers.

World Cancer Research Day
24 September is World Cancer Research Day, which raises awareness of the important and lifesaving work done by researchers. As part of this the EACR asked a variety of members to share a day in their life as a cancer researcher.

Name: Uwe Karsten
Nationality: German
Last place of work: Glycotope GmbH, Berlin-Buch, Germany
Last position: Consultant
Total years worked in cancer research: 1976-2018

Uwe Karsten
Immunofluorescence microscopy was essential in my work

The special day I want to write about is not a day of a great event or positive results in the lab. Days that lack results happen. Some days are even better than days with results contradicting your latest brilliant hypothesis. However, my special day is different. It is the day of my retirement from more than 40 years of cancer research.

It is inevitable that this day is a day of reflection. Has your scientific career been successful? Did you find out something really new and important? And finally, were your results helpful to patients?

Uwe Karsten
Our group 1997 at the Max Delbrück Center

Instead of trying to answer any of these questions, I would like to discuss some general points which arose during my scientific life. Interestingly, I performed cancer research under three very different conditions: fifteen years at the Institute of Cancer Research of the Academy of Sciences of the then German Democratic Republic (‘East Germany’), ten years at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine founded after reunification of Germany, and finally fifteen years in a company doing translational research. A peculiar fact is that it all took place at the same site, the historic science campus of Berlin-Buch. It might be interesting to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these three different surroundings in detail, but this is not my intention on this occasion.

I entered cancer research by transferring from experimental cardiology to tumor immunology in the lab of Günter Pasternak. This occurred at the time when Köhler and Milstein invented the ingenious hybridoma technology. It became my task to establish this technique in our lab in order to generate monoclonal antibodies for tumor antigens. When we started, there were no CO2-incubators available, and pipette tips were cleaned and re-used. Our first useful antibodies were directed to AFP (alpha-fetoprotein). Others followed, until we finally concentrated on antibodies to tumor-specific glycans.

Uwe Karsten
Dialog microscopy of hybridoma cultures

We continuously improved our techniques. For instance, we were the first to introduce electric field-induced cell fusion to the generation of monoclonal antibodies. One of the first antibodies produced this way was A53-B/A2 (also named KS19-1), an antibody specific for human cytokeratin 19. It appeared useful in histology, but nobody could imagine at that time that it once might become useful in the clinic. However, it did happen, and this antibody became an essential part of a serum tumor marker test (CYFRA21-1) detecting fragments of CK19 in the serum of lung cancer patients.

I am telling this story only to make two points in addressing young fellows entering research. First, take care of your methods. Don’t simply follow the flow chart taken from next door. Try to optimize it. Find alternatives. Do sufficient controls and repeats. Second, follow your ultimate goal, but remain open-minded. Or, as César Milstein (one of my most admired scientists) put it: “Do good experiments, and don’t worry about the rest”.

Uwe Karsten
Immunofluorescence picture showing breast cancer cells (cell line MCF7) stained for cytokeratin 19

Let me finally add another general remark. I am to some extent concerned about the present system of science funding. It is too much short-term and mainstream-oriented. As a result it leads to hasty publishing and in the end to too many (often redundant) papers. Also, it absorbs too much time and effort.

Dear young cancer researchers, I wish you at least as much joy and success as I was happy to experience. I hope that you can do your career in peaceful times. And: do not use too much plastic in your lab.

How can you get involved with World Cancer Research Day?

1. Sign the World Declaration for Cancer Research

2. On 24 September share a snapshot on social media from a day in your life as a cancer researcher: use #WorldCancerResearchDay

Click here to see more posts about a ‘Day in the Life’ of other cancer researchers.

About Uwe Karsten’s career

I worked in experimental tumor immunology. Most of my work was concerned with the gereration, characterization, and application of monoclonal antibodies to tumor antigens. These are either proteins, glycoproteins, or glycans. Applications include the identification of circulating tumor cells and the sensitive detection of tumor cells in sentinel nodes. One antibody is part of the commercial CYFRA21-1 test. One therapeutic antibody is at present being tested in clinical trials, another in preparation for clinical studies. Another field was the developmennt and/or improvement of methods. I am documented in over 150 original publications and some reviews.