During an interview years ago, Herb Abelson, the leukemia researcher after whom the abl gene is named and whose work with viruses in mice helped unravel how a chromosomal mutation leads to chronic myelogenous leukemia, said to me, “No good science is ever wasted.”
That phrase stuck with me because I think it is very true when it comes to drug development. Even when the science has no clear finished product in mind, it’s still worthwhile. I suspect that no readers of this blog, or of PLoS in general, would question that. But there is a tussle between basic and applied science that needs to be bopped on the head from time to time so it can return to its hole underground. Should there even be terminology separating the two?
You might be tired of reading about the new protease inhibitors for hepatitis C virus. Perhaps its moment in the news cycle sun has passed. But let’s not be subject to such fleeting trends, for there is yet more to glean from the story of how these drugs came to be.
For example, did you know that Charlie Rice, whose work was integral to solving the structure of the hepatitis C virus, traces his involvement back to the 1980s research he and others were doing on the genome structure of the yellow fever virus? That arthropod-borne virus, a member of the flavivirus family, has a particularly harsh strain that causes severe acute hepatitis. Rice had also been studying how viral RNA is replicated and translated, and how viral proteins are made. In fact, he had begun researching viruses as a grad student at Caltech. And if you ask him why he was so captivated by viruses, here is what he will say: “Random chance. I can get interested in pretty much anything, I guess.” He has proof to back up that assertion. His primary interest when heading off to grad school was developmental biology, and his fate was sealed only by the size of the program. “There was a really good developmental biology lab at Caltech, but it didn’t have space, so I got plopped in a virology lab,” Rice recalled. “And that was that.”
Fast forward 30 years later, and Rice’s work on yellow viruses, which got him recruited to work on the hepatitis C virus, has led to two drugs that offer a vast improvement over the previously available medications for HCV.
Considering that trajectory, is there a real distinction between basic and applied science? The saying “bench to bedside” is often used to describe the need to move useful findings out of the laboratory and into patient care, to convert a discovery into a product. But what that phrase sometimes misses is how far back in time, how extensive, and how often unpredictable that journey can be. In our results-oriented time, it’s important to remember that, as Abelson so wisely put it, no good science is ever wasted.