Basic science research is indispensable for future medical discoveries
Dr. P. Lynne Howell is Senior Scientist in the Molecular Medicine program at SickKids. She is also Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto.
Dr. Perrin Baker is lead author and CIHR Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at SickKids.
Today there is increasing pressure for scientists to move away from basic scientific research towards translational research. Basic research aims to understand the molecular mechanisms that drive life. At SickKids, researchers study almost every aspect of cellular function, from the way our own cells process nutrients, grow, communicate, respond to stress, and ultimately how cells die. This exploration ranges from the level of an organism down to examining in atomic detail the role that chemical changes to protein structure play in biochemical processes. Translational research, on the other hand, is geared towards developing new clinical practices, diagnostics or therapeutics that improve patient outcomes. What is essential to remember and understand is that basic science research and translational research are so intimately interconnected that the decline of basic research has consequences for future development of innovative biomedical therapies.
Modern medicine has made quantum leaps technologically as genetic and communicable diseases which were once terminal can be easily treated, their symptoms alleviated or in some cases prevented when diagnosed at an early stage. These treatments and diagnostics are rooted in the knowledge generated by basic science research. From an economic prospective, basic science research creates new knowledge and scientific capital, creating a fund from which translational applications of knowledge are drawn. The biomedical processes and products, which aid in today’s treatments, are founded on these novel conceptions and discoveries. However, it is equally important to realize that this is a cyclical economy. As clinician scientists make new observations about the nature of a disease or condition, this in turn provokes new questions in the lab, driving basic science in uncharted directions. Progress in one research area provides data for the other and vice versa, highlighting the interconnectedness of scientific discoveries. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to preemptively identity what basic research will be impactful in medical applications.
Working at SickKids provides scientists with opportunities and avenues for advancing fundamental research into the clinical setting. Recent research from our laboratory on pathogenic microbes provides an excellent example. To survive harsh environments, microbes form a “biofilm” - a multi-cellular community surrounded by a self-produced wall. This wall, composed of DNA, proteins and sugar polymers known as exopolysaccharides provides protection against antibiotics, disinfectants and our own immune system. Our basic science research program studies the molecular mechanisms of the formation of sugar polymers, which is integral to both biofilm structure and function. This research recently led to the discovery that microbial genomes contain genes that encode enzymes that are capable of breaking down these sugars. In the May 20th issue of Science Advances we demonstrate that we can exploit these enzymes by feeding them back to the biofilm-embedded microbes. This results in the disintegration of the biofilm wall, allowing antibiotics to infiltrate and kill 100 times more cells, and amelioration of our immune system. These enzymes represent a promising method of treating chronic infections. Their utility and potential as therapeutics could not have occurred without the knowledge base accumulated through basic science research.
While the path from basic discoveries to scientific and technological applications is rarely a straight line, a cyclical knowledge economy means that an investment in basic science research is an investment in translational research. While the payoffs of basic science research may not be immediately observed, this research is indispensable for future medical discoveries.