Monday, February 16, 2015

CUTTING RESEARCH: CUTTING OFF THE HAND THAT FEEDS US

A politician looks to the next election; a statesman looks to the next generation. ~unknown

I enjoy paying taxes; with them I buy civilization. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Every once in a while, when I ponder something I have just learned or when I am the beneficiary of a marvel of modern science or medicine, a small light bulb will flash over my head, lit up by the idea that this thing I have just heard about or experienced “was probably the result of somebody’s life-long research in a lonely laboratory.”  I have such thoughts in regard to something as commonplace as the wireless magic that allows me (alas!) to instantaneously purchase and possess the Bach cantata I have just heard on the radio, or—perhaps more profoundly—in appreciation and awe of the
Although the robot looks like he's ready to take over,
the doctor actually performs the surgery!
robotic equipment used in my recent successful surgery. (I was relieved to learn—pre-surgery—that it was actually the doctor, and not the robot, who would be conducting the operation!)

“Life-long research,” and “lonely laboratory” may be something of a romantic exaggeration—but not much of one, in many historical cases. And in this modern era, their successors are to be found in both the gleaming laboratory filled with research assistants and the one-man garage workshop.

According to last week’s episode of PBS’ “American Experience,” laboratories and one-man sheds each contributed to the breakthrough that led to the modern treatment of tuberculosis in the twentieth century. Although the disease is statistically the biggest killer in human history, the documentary was titled “The Forgotten Plague,” because of how thoroughly (if not completely) it has been eradicated. Because of research.

I’ve watched almost every “American Experience “ that has aired in the last thirty years; I had decided not to watch this one because it seemed to me that it would be “depressing.” In any event, I sat down, became engrossed, and watched the last ten minutes of the program with tears in my eyes. The tears were not for the millions of victims stretching back through the millennia; they were rather something like a delayed reaction to being told that one had been reprieved of a death sentence. That sounds a bit dramatic, but there is a bit of drama—selfishly, for me and my generation—in the timing of this saga: After rampaging through the human population for 6,000 years, the first effective vaccine was administered in the early 1940s, clinical screening tests in schools shortly after that, and I was born in 1946.  As the narration of the documentary caused that realization to wash over me, another reprieve came to mind: I was diagnosed with—and eventually recovered from—a “mild” case of polio in 1950, when I was three years old. This was at the time the Salk vaccine was achieving its first successful trials. Although I am fuzzy as to what part—if any—the vaccine played in my recovery, it was soon universally administered to school children, relieving what has been described as the most frightening epidemic in history (especially for parents).

It is safe to say that each of us, dear reader, can subscribe to or add to this list of potential terminal illnesses from which we or our children or grandchildren have been spared. (We can all add smallbox to the list.)

Robert Koch, 1843-1910
Robert Koch, of Germany, won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his groundbreaking discovery of the bacterial cause of tuberculosis. (His 1882 presentation demonstrating his discovery is considered by many to be “the most important medical lecture in history,” according to the Nobel Prize Organization.) His American disciple, Edward Trudeau, did painstaking follow-up work for years in something like a garage (actually an outbuilding he added to his home for the purpose). Jonas Salk worked in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh before taking advantage of a larger space at the fledgling National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. To read the stories of the findings (indeed, the careers) of all of these men is to read a history of research. From Robert Koch’s lab demonstration in 1882 to the first successful tuberculosis inoculation in 1941 is a lot of research. For the most part, government-sponsored or academically sponsored or
Jonas Salk (1914-1995), in his laboratory
publicly sponsored research.


In my neck of the woods, the University of Minnesota is currently lobbying for more money for research. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is suggesting that the budget of the great University of Wisconsin should be cut by three million dollars, and that professors should help by just “teaching more classes.” Nationwide, there is a movement among a significant number of politicians to cut taxes to the minimum for the sake of cutting taxes to the minimum.  It is not my intention to be churlish when I suggest that—whatever their political stripe—they have something in common with me: They are alive (or healthy) as a result of the very approach to clinical and other research that their short-sighted proposals would cut. All they need to do is recall their birth year, and then read the history of research.  Somewhere in there they will find a “life-long researcher in a lonely lab.” Or maybe a huge university medical facility. Perhaps the light bulb will come on.

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