In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered a blue-green mold growing on a plate of Staphylococcus, observing that the mold was producing a substance that killed the harmful bacterium. He called this substance penicillin. This widely used antibiotic is still used today to treat mild bacterial infections. Furthermore, this discovery opened the floodgates for research into antibiotics, research that has revolutionized our society.
Werner Arber, Dan Nathans and Hamilton Smith were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery of restriction enzymes. Restriction enzymes cleave DNA at specific sequences, like a pair of scissors that recognize certain parts of a DNA molecule and cut it in half at those places. This technology is applied in paternal tests and in criminal investigations because each individual’s DNA has a distinct pattern when cut with these molecular scissors.
WHAT IS ACADEMIC RESEARCH?
What these case studies have in common is that the scientists involved made their discoveries while practicing basic academic research. Pharmaceutical companies did not employ them, and I don’t think any of these scientists could have predicted how their discoveries have revolutionized our society. Basic academic research is research for the purpose of understanding the fundamentals. This is difficult to conceptualize without a concrete example, and I’ll use my lab in this case, but know that basic research comes in many forms, and in many fields. I work in a lab that studies the bacterium Vibrio cholerae (V. cholerae), which causes the severe diarrheal disease cholera.
We study a particular part of this organism; a microscopic machine called the Type Six Secretion System (T6SS) that put simply, stabs other bacteria and kills them by injecting toxins. It looks like an itty-bitty poison dagger. If you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cast your minds eye to the episode titled Graduation Day Part 1, (spoilers!) in which Faith shoots a poison arrow at Angel and leaves him to die. This is precisely what V. cholerae does to its prey. In our lab, a few of us study the toxins it loads onto the dagger, some of us study when it’s turned on or off, some of us study what it can kill and what it can’t.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “How is this useful?” Maybe you’re wondering if I could, say, take the toxins and purify them and use them to kill something useful, like the weeds in your garden? I have no idea, but that’s the point. The reason we study the intricacies of how these toxins work (By intricacies I mean any question you could ask yourself about a toxin: what does it stick to? How much of it needs to be there? Is it more toxic if we add pickle juice?) is so that perhaps, one day, the information will be useful. This could be anything, producing a drug, making a new drug delivery system, killing weeds, making tastier pickles. We don’t know where the research will necessarily go, but we know that it won’t go anywhere unless we know the basics. I can tell you first hand that sometimes it feels futile and pointless, but I take comfort in knowing Alexander Fleming probably felt the same way while he studied the biology of Staphylococcus, perhaps even just before he made his big discovery. Basic research is often unappreciated, but it is essential for scientific advancement. It is what fuels industry, and due to recent cuts by the government, it is under siege in our country. This threatens our entire scientific community and will ultimately put Canada behind other counties in terms of scientific achievement, and technological improvements. You wouldn’t try to write a Bulgarian love poem before you knew how to speak the language, just as you wouldn’t try to make a vaccine against a virus you don’t know anything about. Basic research is essential.
FUNDING ACADEMIC RESEARCH IS ESSENTIAL
Discoveries made in the research labs at your local university are what inspire new technologies that ultimately make your life better. Therefore, recent cuts made by the conservative government to Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the National Research Council of Canada, Statistics Canada, the National Science Adviser, Law Commission of Canada, and National Round Table on Environment and Economy seriously endanger science in our country. We as Canadians need to stand up for science. The Harper Government has done nothing but show its lack of understanding into the importance of scientific research. Particularly after shutting down the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a hallmark of environmental research. The research conducted at these 58 small lakes has contributed to understanding of fresh water ecosystems, acid rain, fish farming, climate change and a host of other broad environmental issues that are of the utmost importance to the health of our planet. The ELA has received numerous prestigious awards for the excellent research conducted at this facility, and has produced thousands of papers regarding their research. This week the prestigious journal Nature weighed in on the issue in an editorial where the magazine scolds the government for these cuts. “If the Harper government has valid strategic reasons to undermine vital sectors of Canadian science, then it should say so — its people are ready to listen…. If not, it should realize, and fast, that there is a difference between environmentalism and environmental science — and that the latter is an essential component of a national science program, regardless of politics,” states the editorial. They also go on to argue that the government has targeted environmental research because it doesn’t agree with the results being produced.
SHOW YOUR SUPPORT
Instead of focusing money on research sectors that will produce economic gains quickly, money must go to fund basic science. Nature knows it, scientists know it — that’s why they protested on Parliament Hill earlier this month — and frankly, the government knows it too. By going to http://saveela.org/ and signing the petition you can show your support for the ELA project and let the Harper Government know that you are against the death of scientific evidence.
NEED MORE CONVINCING?
If you still aren’t convinced that basic research is important, a recent study on HIV published in Nature Chemistry might change your mind. HIV hides inside the body’s cells. This is why completely eradicating the virus from the body is a problem for scientists, because the virus could be hiding in a variety of the body’s cells where it cant be killed by the drugs. Therefore, even after the virus is no longer highly active in the body due to the use of anti-HIV drugs, it cannot be entirely eliminated due to these hidden reservoirs. A number of years ago, a compound made by a mossy marine organism was found to force HIV out of its hiding place, and this drug, called bryostatin, even made it to phase II clinical trials, but the trials were ended because the drug was too difficult to obtain from the organisms. Inspired by this research, an organic chemist set out to create chemical analogs of the drug. A chemical analog is a molecule that looks nearly identical to the original, but with minor modifications. Imagine a hundred “spot the difference” pictures lined up beside each other: the same basic molecule, but each variant has a tiny and unique difference. Furthermore, these are made synthetically in a test tube or a beaker. The best part about making things synthetically is that chemists are great at making molecules efficiently, safely, reliably, and cheaply. Currently the researchers have made a number of bryostatin analogs, and are studying them in animal models. These compounds may be the first step towards HIV eradication therapy. So now I ask you, if no one had paid the scientists who conducted the original research on bryostatin, or the biologists who studied the marine organism it came from, or the chemists who first thought of synthesizing chemical analogs and who developed reliable procedures for making them, would this promising HIV research have occurred? And more importantly, how do you think the government would answer this question?