In 1959, an American physician named Harry Eagle mixed up one of the most pivotal cocktails in medical history—a red blend of sugar, salts, vitamins, and amino acids that allowed scientists to efficiently grow the cells of humans and other animals in laboratory beakers. This red elixir, known as Eagle’s minimal essential medium (EMEM), became a bedrock of biological research. Sixty years later, the medium and its variants are still heavily used whenever researchers want to study animal cells, whether to investigate the viruses that infect us, or to work out what goes wrong when cells turn cancerous.
As its name suggests, EMEM was designed to be as simple as possible—it has everything a cell needs to grow and nothing more. And in recent years, scientists have started realizing that such pared-down concoctions might be skewing their results, by warping the ways in which cells process nutrients. It’s as if they had spent decades studying the health of people who had only ever been given rations to eat.
Instead of using generic “culture media” like EMEM (or its more concentrated variant, Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle’s Medium, known as DMEM), it might be better to start creating concoctions that more accurately reflect the chemical profiles of our bodies. That’s what Saverio Tardito did in 2012, when he joined the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. “Around 90 percent of the papers in cancer research are using the same two or three commercially available media,” he says. “We researchers are aware that the medium you choose at the beginning of the experiment will affect the output, but it’s too easy to open the door of the fridge and use what’s there. I think we have been all been a bit too lazy.”