Basic Science: Why It Matters


Basic Science: Why It Matters


Leonard Zwelling

In recent weeks, there have been two stunning stories about the triumph of basic science in addressing critical human problems. Both have been decades in the making. Both were reported in The Wall Street Journal (see attached).

In the first, a personalized mRNA vaccine was combined with novel immunotherapy to improve the response of malignant melanoma. This is amazing on two fronts. First, it suggests that it is only through the individualization of cancer therapy that the true eradication of cancer will be realized. One kind of surgery, radiotherapy, or chemotherapy is unlikely to be the ultimate solution to the problem of established cancer in a group of heterogeneous humans with heterogeneous cancers. But, devising a vaccine targeted at the specific mutations that characterize an individual’s cancer and a boost to the patient’s natural immunity may be the key to ridding people of systemic cancer. Second, it is the immune system that holds the key to curing cancer. Only by activating those mechanisms that keep most of us cancer-free for years, will the conquest of cancer finally be achieved.

In the second development, the long- sought fusion-based generation of energy has finally been accomplished without the use of a thermonuclear device. Using 192 lasers, scientists have been able to generate more energy through atomic fusion than was put into the system by the lasers. What this means is that sometime in the not-too-distant future we will be able to generate unlimited amounts of energy from natural sources.

Neither of these marvelous accomplishments came easy and both demanded unwavering devotion to basic science in biochemistry, physics, and advanced engineering technology. It was understanding the basic concepts, devising practical applications, and showing that it works. Government and industry were the drivers here.

The role of the academic center in these sorts of endeavors is unearthing those basic principles that govern the science and allowing them to be eventually harnessed for the good of mankind.

MD Anderson has got to be a major site of basic science discovery and clinical application. A new, cancer-associated biochemical pathway may be discovered in an Anderson lab. It’s role in cancer will be defined and how to interfere with it will be devised. At that point the ball may have to be handed off to industry for scale-up and development. When the new discovery is ready for clinical trial, it should be brought back to Anderson for testing. That’s what ought to be happening, but that first piece is essential. I am quite sure that Anderson is very good at the last step—the clinical trial, but what about the first? How many important discoveries are emanating from Anderson labs? Well, Dr. Pisters—how many?

Rather than worry about how nice and diverse faculty members are, help them to be more productive. More money for research, better recruitment, and easing regulatory burdens would go a long way. By the way, that includes fewer mandatory on-line training sessions and fewer lawyers interfering with research.

The reality of modern cancer care is more than just full clinics and 15-minute turnover times for returning patient visits. MD Anderson must be the place where the basic discoveries are made and their clinical utility tested. If MD Anderson is to stay number one in cancer care, basic science is essential.

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