Originally published April 6, 2015
How many times have you been asked to donate $1 for juvenile diabetes, cancer, ALS, MS, or Alzheimer’s research at the grocery store checkout? What about space exploration, how bacteria fight infections, or the basis of all life? Chances are pretty high that you’ve been asked the former, and about zero that you’ve been asked the latter. We know why – diseases pull at people’s heartstrings. We most likely all know someone, or know someone who knew someone, who has had cancer. We want to cure diseases; that’s why we study biology. Obviously we’re not in it for the money or the fame. Does this mean that everyone should solely study a cure for some disease? Is it wrong to be motivated by wanting to learn more about the world we live in?
A poll conducted by the winners of a 2013 video competition sponsored by FASEB, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, asked the general public of San Francisco the following question: If you had $10 to spend on research, would you donate to research affordable diabetes treatment, or to study how bacteria protect themselves? The public overwhelmingly chose diabetes, but in the 1960s, the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, chose the latter. By doing so, scientists discovered that bacteria produce restriction enzymes to cut up foreign DNA. Now almost every lab uses restriction enzymes for cloning. Not just that, but this discovery allowed scientists to clone human insulin - which was previously only purified from cattle and pigs or chemically synthesized with poor yields - and express it and purify it from bacteria. The bacterium used, E. coli, quickly earned the nickname “the laboratory workhorse.” This dramatically reduced the cost of insulin for those suffering from diabetes, and today, almost all diabetic people use recombinant human insulin instead of animal insulin.
Anyone who has written a grant application for the NIH knows that the proposed research has to have a translational impetus. “Why should I care?” is a question we are taught to answer. We are required to provide evidence as to what contribution our research will make. If the answer is “We don’t know how this will benefit medicine, energy, or technology...yet,” does that mean it shouldn’t be pursued? A survey of the research laboratories in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, or GDBBS, here at Emory, shows that about two-thirds of faculty research descriptions contain a specific type of disease, drug development, or the word disease. That number is most likely lower than the actual percentage of labs that focus on the disease state. I am not arguing that studying the disease state is not fruitful. Of course we need to know how a disease operates if we ever want to treat or even cure it. I argue, however, that sometimes the solution can be answered in a way that would not be obvious if we solely focused our efforts on curing cancer. Studying how nature works in a non-disease state can tell us a lot about how nature stays healthy, and thus, how we can stay healthy. If the stigma surrounding basic science research is prominent among scientists, how can we expect the public, and therefore, the federal government, to support such important endeavors?
“But so much more is known about biology than 60 years ago,” one could argue. Sure. Does this mean we have learned all we need to know? Of course not. Yes, biology has had an explosion of knowledge in the last half century, but people still suffer from disease, even if they are different than the ones we saw 100 years ago. We also know that cancer is a lot more complicated than we originally thought, and the reality of a cure-all cancer drug is now just a figment of our imaginations. Although we have learned a lot in the last 60 years, much is clearly unknown, and focusing solely on diseases can limit our ability to find solutions that could be applied to multiple problems. Most scientific advancements, especially technological ones, are based off of how nature operates, so further exploration into how nature works in general, not necessarily in the disease state, is crucial for scientific advancement.