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Healthcare and the Role of Funding Basic Science Research

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If you had a million dollars, what would you invest in: developing an affordable treatment for diabetes, or conducting research on how bacteria protect themselves from invasion?  The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health are two important government agencies that allocate tax dollars to scientists and allow them to delve into a basic understanding of human health. In the 1960s, these agencies decided to fund research that studied the mechanisms of how microbes protect themselves, simply because it was an interesting question. There was no way of knowing how such basic research could affect human health; they were curious about bacterial biology and pursued it with conviction.

Normally, when a virus enters a bacterium, it adds its own DNA to that of the bacteria, invading it and taking over. Researchers found that bacteria protect themselves from such viruses by selectively cutting the viral DNA. This finding lead to the scientific discovery of restriction enzymes—an enzyme that cuts specific chunks of DNA and uses this technique to move genes around. In fact, scientists quickly learned how to move human DNA into bacteria. Due to rapid bacterial replication, scientists can use them to make large quantities of human proteins.


Healthcare Applications

Why is this at all useful for modern medicine?After this discovery, researchers were able to efficiently produce human insulin, by introducing the human insulin gene into bacteria—a significant advancement in diabetes research. Prior to this discovery, insulin was expensive, unsafe, and less effective. In fact, it was harvested primarily from fetal cows. Because of heavy federally funded basic science research in the 1960s, human insulin is currently an effective and affordable treatment for diabetes.

Translational research is the buzzword of the moment, while basic science research has taken the “back seat” in research development and funding. Most obviously, one reason for this new emphasis is the political pressure on government agencies, like the NIH, to show tangible public benefit from all the basic science investment. Translational science research funding for the testing of new treatments, vaccines, and diagnostic tests seems far more valuable to politicians and to most of the general public. Furthermore, there has been an increasing impatience with the pace of basic scientific discovery that results in new products and cures.

Historically speaking, the past generation has been filled with revolutionizing scientific discoveries. Because of our current age of “instantaneous Google search results” and rapidly developing gadgets, we have far greater expectations for basic science advancements. The progress toward prevention and cures for widespread diseases, such as AIDS and cancer, has not been as rapid as we would like.

It is worth noting how such policy views and pressure on the NIH has directly affected funding. Every grant application to the NIH is evaluated on its practical merits—should this be an essential requirement for funding? In the 1970s, I don’t believe the practical application of basic research into the DNA polymerase of Thermus aquaticus could have been sufficiently justified. It is a simple thermophilic microbe with no medical or agricultural consequences. However, today, in retrospect, heat resistant Taq DNA polymerase is one of the most important enzymes in molecular biology because of its use in polymerase chain reactions (PCR). Similarly, how would one have justified the study of the practical application of fungal metabolism, which led to the discovery of statins? In hindsight, we know the clinical value of statins in lowering cholesterol and thus, we can reassure ourselves that it was a wise investment.

In the 1960s, the discovery of restriction enzymes, which has saved millions of lives by the creation of human insulin and other proteins, began with the simple question of how bacteria protect themselves. This has paved the way for scientists to ask other novel questions, create new knowledge, and further revolutionize science, with the discovery of DNA fingerprinting, biofuels, cancer drugs, vaccines, and HIV medications. Given enough funding to basic science, who knows what has yet to come. It is wise to consider funding basic science research as a critical investment in our future. Basic science provides the raw materials for clinical translation and will always represent humanity’s best hope at meeting a wide range of public health challenges.

The argument can be made that this system is wasteful, because although there are few fruitful successes, there are many more projects that yield no practical results. Consider a box of many particles, each trying to escape through a small door—they will randomly bounce around until they find the door. Finding the door is like finding its significant application to science and humanity. What do we do? Do we only choose to give all the energy to the small number of particles that are on track to hitting the door very quickly? Or do we allow all the particles to bounce around, each given less energy? Each particle, given enough time, will find the door, and since we have no way of knowing which particle (or basic science research) is the most fruitful, we must give all particles the opportunity to be energized (funded). This is because, after sufficient time, we will all reap the application of this research.

Given that this opportunity cost exists for any number of projects we exclude from our funding (even if we exclude one), we must fund them all. This argument makes no claim as to the distribution of funding; rather, it simply highlights the importance of funding basic science research.