Happenstance and Science

Quest for a wonder drug started with shrew bait – The Globe and Mail.

An article in this morning’s Globe and Mail tells the story of a researcher, Dr. Jack Stewart who started to look at the pain-killing possibilities in shrew saliva. Sounds unlikely doesn’t it? But that is the nature of science. It was known, the article tells us that shrew saliva had paralytic properties. Dr. Irwin G. Martin had published a paper on the subject in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1981. Dr. Stewart’s research into the chemical that caused the paralysis led him to his recent discovery. A typical chain in science: primary research in an area as unlikely as shrew saliva at one end and a potential treatment for not one but three major cancers— ovarian, breast and prostate— at the other.

This is the chain that politicians, businessmen and other non-scientists don’t seem to understand. Much of medical discovery comes by happenstance. Vincristine and Vinblastine are potent anti-cancer agents derived from the periwinkle plant, common now in many of our gardens. The plant searchers, funded by amateur botanists and Royal Societies, brought plants and seeds from all over the globe, often to London. From there the seeds were shared, first to Paris, according to Michael F. Brown, writing in Who Owns Native Culture, 2003. Folk medicine revealed that many plants were in common use as treatments for disease. Anthropology, botany, chemistry, medicine, all studying these plants, often a considerable remove from any thought of practical application, but all leading through the cross-pollination of publication, to the drug that brought hope at last to childhood victims of acute leukaemia. I first met the drug while I was working as a resident at the Hospital for Sick Children in 1972, treating those children, mostly under five years, who now had a chance, not just for survival, but for a cure.

This won’t happen, can’t happen without the funding of primary research,  research without a known outcome. How can you predict that shrew saliva might cure human cancers? But you can fund the inquiring minds, let them talk to one another, and wonderful things can happen from that cross-pollination.

We deny funding to universities and basic science at our peril.

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