Friday, 8 October 2010

Some thoughts on why #ScienceIsVital

Jenny Rohn, scientist and instigator of the Science is Vital campaign, has given the battle to save UK science funding its most memorable slogan (Science - it beats living in caves) - but the article following that magnificent headline is even more valuable as Jenny shares with us her reasons for wanting to be a scientist.

I recall very clearly reading an article - thanks to the wonders of t'interweb I've found it on the New Scientist archives (login required) - during my days as a GCSE student. The article concerned the creation of human artificial chromosomes - synthetic lengths of DNA that host cells can assemble into replicative and heritable genetic packages - which at the time was a truly remarkable achievement. My interest lay less in the chromosomes themselves and more in the implications they raised for a new-fangled therapeutic paradigm that was still in its infancy.

Gene therapy is the delivery of genetic material to cells in order to correct a disease-causing defect, and the artificial chromosomes were seen as a potentially useful tool for gene delivery; according to the New Scientist article,
such chromosomes might provide a way of smuggling beneficial genes into patients undergoing gene therapy. The gene shuttles are usually viruses, genetically engineered to be harmless.
These gene shuttles - or vectors as they're more commonly referred to – have come a long way since the late ‘90s. Unknown to me at the time, just a year earlier a team from UCL (a team I’d end up joining years later) had managed to safely deliver genes to the light-sensitive cells in the retina of mice – at first, just a few cells were reached by the vector, but with much painstaking effort over the years we can now deliver cells to virtually every photoreceptor in an eye, and can use similar vectors to effectively treat a host of conditions from retinal degeneration to haemophilia. Worldwide there are hundreds of clinical trials underway to study the efficacy of such vectors in patients of all ages – a huge leap from the benchside studies of a decade or so ago.

The New Scientist article on artificial chromosomes helped inspire me, convinced me that gene therapy was where my future lay; that I wanted to do my bit to research better treatments for disease, helping to translate the application of basic scientific findings into clinically useful therapies. With hindsight it’s clear that unforeseen technical challenges have thus far limited the use of artificial chromosomes in gene therapy, whereas viral vectors – which come with safety concerns of their own – have become the delivery method of choice for many potentially life-saving therapies.

And here’s the crunch. There was no way that anyone, without the benefit of hindsight, could have known which gene delivery method would be more effective – just like there was no way to predict that Charles K. Kao’s work on primitive fibre optics (for which he won the Nobel prize for physics last year) would revolutionise telecommunications decades later, nor that sticking bits of Scotch tape to pieces of graphite would produce a Nobel either – or indeed whether that research will itself lead to commercially useful applications. And yet this predictive game is exactly what the UK government wants to play – restricting funding to research that is ‘commercially useful.’

There’s just no way of knowing what will end up being commercially lucrative, and even if there were that would be no basis on which for the public sector fund scientific research – you could argue it’s precisely those areas of research that the private sector rejects as not commercially viable that government funds need to focus on.

The unpredictability of the fruits that research will bear is the main reason that I will be at the Treasury tomorrow, joining the masses as we proclaim that Science is Vital. Jenny asked at the end of her article for more suggestions for slogans – I hope Richard Dawkins (and possibly Evan Harris) looks away now, as the most appropriate one I can think of comes from a religious text, the Bhagavad Gita, which roughly translated reads:
You have a right to perform your duty, but not to the fruits your duty may bear; never make the fruits of duty your aim.”
We have a duty to explore fully the world around us through science, but no claim on the fruits that exploration may result in – nor should those fruits be our motivation. Not as catchy as ‘Science – it beats living in caves,’ but so very true nonetheless.

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