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.

Science Advances.


The above article in the Globe and Mail tells us the exciting—if true—news that scientists have now created a particle that moves faster than the speed of light. For those of us who are impaired in our knowledge of physics, this news brings a sense that the world will somehow change, even as our understanding of it does. And perhaps it will. If objects, albeit at this point neutrinos, can move faster than the speed of light, what does it imply for science-fiction concepts such as time travel and teleportation. And what about weapons? It seems that every advance in pure science brings in its wake those who choose to use the new knowledge or technology to create ever more efficient ways to kill their fellow creatures.


This article in the New York Times tells of a break-through of a hopeful sort. Scientists who used their knowledge of a killer—the AIDS virus—and used it to construct a weapon of a different sort, this one loaded with genes that will seek out and destroy cancer cells, in this case the B cells of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The article has an excellent explanation and graphics.

I think the authors downplay the risks of the treatment. It is no small matter to have all your B cells destroyed and live dependent on infusions of gammaglobulin to fight everything from hepatitis to the common cold. On the other hand, to have these little T cell grenades, reduced in number once they have done their job, but waiting, waiting for next evil cancerous cell to appear, must be comforting. The treatment itself, once the first days of fever and racking chills while the battle ensues are over, seems benign, with no side effects save for the long range one of susceptibility to infection.


Another outside the box thinker. Dr. George Whitesides has manipulated the science of microtubules and miniaturization to create a laboratory on a piece of blotting paper no larger than a postage stamp. This was done with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This technology has the potential to put testing into the field far from the conventional laboratories and indeed into the hands of the patients and other users, i.e. farmers. Yes, farmers.


And finally a low-tech solution that any woman in a sari-wearing nation could use to keep her family safe from cholera and other water-borne illnesses. The sad part of the article is the drop-off in use over time if there is no outside reinforcement. However there was a 25% increase in those who had not been trained to use the sari now filtering their water.

This same information appeared also in 2010 http://mbio.asm.org/content/1/1/e00034-10.full