Archive for the ‘science policy’ Category

When identical genes just aren’t enough

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

This image of neurons that were derived from induced stem cells comes from a Nature paper itself--but I found it on a cool blog that features both beautiful biological images and pithy explanations!

For the last decade, everyone has been excited about the medical possibilities of stem cells.

Need a new liver?   What if we could grow one for you in essentially the same way that you grew your first liver when you were in your mother’s womb?

That’s the promise of stem cells, that scientists could take an undifferentiated cell, just like the cells that made you up before you were even you, insert your own DNA into it, and direct it to differentiate into a new liver or kidney or heart. Even better, because the new liver has your own DNA, your body’s immune system will welcome it as one of its own. In a traditional transplant, your immune system must be suppressed, or it will recognize the new liver as an outsider and “reject” it (that’s a euphemism for killing the new organ).

One problem. Those embryonic cells, known as embryonic stem cells, come from only one place: embryos. This fact has made a lot of people uneasy or worse, especially because human embryonic stem cells are derived from aborted embryos. So you can imagine everyone’s excitement a few years ago, when scientists were able to take adult cells and turn them into stem cells. These are called induced pluripotent stem cells—“induced” because they didn’t start out as stem cells, and “pluripotent,” because they have the potential to become many (think “plural”) different types of cells.

This achievement eliminated the ethical problems of using aborted embryos.  Even better, it could still produce cells that were genetically identical to the person receiving them, thereby avoiding that pesky immune system problem.

So scientists assumed. But sometimes identical genes just aren’t enough, as it turns out.  Thus transpires another opportunity for us all to learn that genes aren’t everything!

“Epigenetic effects” are biological changes in cells that are outside or beyond (that’s “epi”) of the genes. Throughout my life, my genetic sequence remains the same in every cell of my body. Clearly, however, in different cells and at different ages, those genes are “expressed” differently, meaning that different proteins are produced from the same genes under different conditions. My poor old cells know that I am heading into my mid-30s, despite the fact that their DNA is identical to the DNA of the fresh young cells that I rocked in my 20s.

Sadly, some adult cells induced into becoming stem cells may not be able to forget their real age either. A group in San Diego just published a paper in Nature showing that some types of induced pluripotent stem cells overproduce certain proteins, which allow the immune systems of the animals (mice, in this case) receiving the implanted cells to recognize them as intruders and kill them.

There are other ways of inducing pluripotency, so it’s really not the end of this kind of research. But hopefully it’s the end of assuming that it’s enough to be genetically identical. It’s also one more reason to reconsider the use of embryonic stem cells. Even on the cellular level, youth is one thing you just can’t fake.

For further reading on this research, see the link to the Nature paper above and check out the New York Times coverage.

For further reading on how scientists became fixated on DNA as a “master molecule,” check out the work of some fantastic females from my field and enjoy Evelyn Fox Keller‘s The Century of the Gene and Lily Kay‘s Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code.

The confusion over funding basic science is about much more than an ignorant Canadian chiropractor.

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Over the last few days Canadians have become positively apoplectic over the comments of their Minister of State for Science and Technology, the Honorable Gary Goodyear.  It’s really hard to believe how this whole affair began.  In an interview with The Globe and Mail (a Torontonian newspaper that is distributed nationwide), Goodyear was asked whether or not he believes in evolution.  To which he replied, “I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” 

When I first read this, I thought there must be some mistake in the transcript.  They couldn’t possibly have asked him a question about evolution and received an answer about religion, right? Apparently, however, this is exactly what happened.  After which Goodyear insisted that his attitude toward evolution is “irrelevant” to his position in the Canadian government.  As if the sudden insertion of religion into the conversation hadn’t already demonstrated that relevance was—-well—-irrelevant?

Of course, Goodyear’s attitude toward evolution really is relevant to his post when scarce funds are being divvied up between cash-starved research agencies.  Society grants money to the research projects nearest and dearest to its heart.  This is true on a large scale, as in the case of widespread enthusiasm for medical research, and on a small scale, in the case of individuals making case-by-case granting decision.  In any case, it’s hard to imagine how Goodyear could even assess the relative merit of different research programs, since he is not trained as a scientist and has likely never performed any kind of research himself. He is a chiropractor.  According to the original Globe and Mail piece, his qualifications for steering Canada’s science policy include undergraduate science courses and his high school education in “welding and automotive mechanics.”

In case the suspense is just killing you, let me relieve your mind: In a follow-up interview with the local CTV, Goodyear clarified that he does believe in evolution.  He then demonstrated that he actually has no idea how biological evolution works.  Evolution happens “every year, every decade” he claimed, in response to such things as walking on pavement or wearing high heel shoes.  With a lack of biological knowledge and a lot of imagination, anything is possible, I guess.  In this scenario, sore feet from bad footwear results in lower reproductive success?  OK, maybe.  Then footwear shifts the genetic makeup of the human population within the span of a year?  Never.

While I find Goodyear’s ignorance unnerving, the journalist’s response was far worse.  She didn’t even call him on his imaginary version of “evolution.” What’s the point of asking Goodyear such a question if you can’t even suss out a nonsensical answer?

I guess I should not be surprised that journalists deep into the Goodyear drama really don’t understand the science that’s at stake. Even in formulating arguments in support of so-called “basic science” research, journalists get it wrong.  Here is an excerpt from the original Globe and Mail article on Gary Goodyear:  “Many scientists fear 10 years of gains will be wiped out by a government that doesn’t understand the importance of basic, curiosity-driven research, which history shows leads to the big discoveries. They worry Canada’s best will decamp for the United States, where President Barack Obama has put $10-billion (U.S) into medical research as part of his plan to stimulate economic growth.”

History does, indeed, show that “basic, curiosity-driven research” can lead to “the big discoveries.”  The 20th century left us with some neat stories about basic research leading to powerful technological application.  These stories begin with that esoteric, ivory-tower kind of science, like theoretical physics or the search for the structure of DNA, and end with big explosions or tools for directly manipulating genetic material.  None of them begin with $10 billion to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) for medical research.  Medical research is not basic research—it is research driven by an explicit goal, by the desire to solve a specific kind of problem, not by curiosity.

Many Americans will probably be pretty excited that U.S. policy is, for the first time in almost a decade, being held up as an aspirational standard. A piece in The Globe and Mail on the same day pointed to Obama’s economic stimulus package as an exemplar of investment in scientific innovation.  Don’t believe the hype, though—there isn’t much good news for so-called “basic science,” even in the vaunted economic stimulus package.  The U.S. stimulus package does, indeed, contain a large amount of money for the NIH.  In fact, the much-touted $10 billion for medical research is being granted to the NIH in addition to the approximately $29 billion that it already receives on a yearly basis.  In other words, the NIH will get about $40 billion from the federal government in 2009.

By contrast, the National Science Foundation (NSF), established just after WWII to support basic research, that elusive brand of research that doesn’t try to sell you a panacea for all of society’s woes, is receiving $6.5 billion.  That doesn’t sound so bad. Until you learn that this is the NSF’s entire budget for the year.  And last year it received $6 billion.

OK, so my husband, who is one of these basic scientists (He studies the evolution of fungi.  No, he does not study possible anti-cancer agents found in mushrooms.  Nor the bioremediation of toxic-waste spills by fungi.  He studies what happened to fungi thousands of years in the past.) interjects here: “Think of how many more proposals the NSF will be able to fund with an extra half a billion dollars!”  Granted.  But proportionally speaking, well, I think you see my point.

It’s intuitively appealing to imagine that research aimed directly at finding the next miracle cure yields more bang for our scanty bucks than basic biological research.  But science policy should be steered by something more substantial than intuitive appeal.  The research projects funded by the NIH are, by and large, not exploratory.  They will likely break no new ground, and it’s misleading to claim that they will somehow lead to the next big “discovery.”   To the contrary, medical research usually builds upon ground broken by biologists who were not even hoping for a medical breakthrough, biologists funded by agencies like the NSF or, in the Canadian case, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

The honorable Gary Goodyear has rightly become a symbol.  But rather than a symbol of broad societal ignorance of evolutionary theory (which, don’t get me wrong, he is), I see him more as a symbol of the confusion over notions of “basic research” and technological innovation.  Funding medical research is essential.  But investment in basic research, in building knowledge even when its application is not immediately obvious, is equally essential.

(For an interesting take on how to spend these billions of research dollars, check out this week’s guest columnists on Olivia Judson’s NYT blog.  Definitely an interesting proposal–again, like most basic research, though, an investment in the future.  There’s no instant gratfication in the practice of science.)