In fact, a recent Research!America poll showed that most Americans cannot name a single living scientist.
This is beyond unfortunate; it’s dangerous. The lack of knowledge and appreciation for science and research, and the dedication of the men and women who conduct it, represents a real threat to this country’s long-held status as the world leader in medical science.
In a sad irony, it also coincides with an era in which remarkable progress is being made. Discoveries that will lead to better ways of preventing and treating cancer and other deadly diseases, for example, are on the horizon.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three extraordinary researchers, Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak – all Americans working in major American universities.
Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak received the prize, announced last week, for their work defining the role of telomeres in protecting cells against degradation. Telomeres play a critical role in how cells divide and age, and they therefore contribute to our susceptibility to cancer and other diseases.
Although the earliest work on telomeres dates to the early 1930s, the basic knowledge of cell structure and function necessary to understand their importance did not exist until 1978, when Blackburn discovered that the ends of chromosomes are composed of simple repeat DNA sequences – the telomeres.
Shortly thereafter, Blackburn collaborated with Szostak to demonstrate that what she calls “those little blobs at the end of chromosomes” serve as protective caps. Blackburn compares them to the tips of shoelaces; when the tips get worn down, the laces begin to fray.
The next critical piece of the puzzle was supplied by Greider, who discovered the enzyme responsible for restoring telomeres when they are worn down.
This matters because normal cells with worn telomeres become more susceptible to genetic mutations that play a role in cancer. Cancer cells appear to have the capacity to divide infinitely and yet preserve their telomeres, avoiding the programmed death that affects normal cells. Knowing this raises the possibility of developing new treatments for cancer that deprive cancer cells of telomerase, the enzyme that all cells use to restore their telomeres and halt their ability to grow and divide.
This is just one example of the targeted therapies that are the future of cancer medicine. The implications for other diseases and conditions – ranging from cardiovascular disease to chronic stress and inflammation to a number of inherited syndromes – are significant.
This kind of great science doesn’t just happen. It begins with a fundamental observation or hypothesis and develops over years into clinical advances that improve our ability to prevent and cure diseases. The gap between the laboratory and the bedside is narrowing, but the process still involves an extraordinary mix of scientific insight, curiosity, hard work, and dedication.
Discoveries that lead to improvements in public health require substantial funding and other resources. Although this may sound like an old refrain, science in this country could become an endangered species in the foreseeable future. Fewer American students are choosing to enter scientific fields, and young men and women who complete years of training frequently become frustrated by the lack of opportunity, turning to other fields at the point in their careers when they could be most productive.
Meanwhile, countries in Asia and Europe are rapidly expanding their commitments to science, pouring billions of dollars into research and technology, and luring top investigators from the United States with tempting offers of long-term support and top-notch facilities.
It’s time for Americans to see science for what it is – exciting, dynamic, and vital to our well-being. Rather than trying to get themselves in the spotlight, scientists do the work that leads to breakthroughs that keep our families healthy. Though they do not seek conventional fame, when they receive a small measure of it – as have Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak – the American public should take the opportunity to understand the impact they have on our lives.