We live in an era of breathtaking biomedical discoveries, unprecedented in their potential to heal as well as in the insights they provide into the intricacies of life. Each new discovery builds upon a foundation of knowledge resulting from countless experiments performed by generations of researchers, most largely unheralded.
Paradoxically, we also live in an era of increasingly scarce financial support and respect for those who have chosen a career in research. Worse, science itself is often under attack by those who view research discoveries as equivalent to opinions voiced by political pundits.
In this era filled with promise as well as debate, it is perhaps worth pondering why biomedical research is important and where we would be without it.
Let’s try to imagine a world without biomedical research. A world in which emerging deadly microbes are not identified and vaccines or antibiotics are not discovered. A world in which genes are theoretical rather than tangible bits of information that can be manipulated for our benefit. A world in which all cancers are treated alike and survival is a coin-flip. Do we want to live in that world?
Let’s take this exercise one step further and imagine a world in which clinical training programs occur in the absence of biomedical research. A world in which youngsters yearning for a clinical career will meet the medical challenges of the future with knowledge based solely on discoveries from the past. Will this suffice?
Clinicians are expected to be challenged by an infinitely more complicated future in which patients live longer and require treatment for a plethora of complex chronic ailments, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are the norm, climate change and environmental toxins have affected every species on Earth and deadly infectious agents are just a plane trip or animal transport truck away.
Instead of relying solely on discoveries of the past, wouldn’t we prefer that future clinicians be informed by research insights gleaned today and in years to come? And how will current and future discoveries be made and translated into practical solutions if support for biomedical research continues on its current downward spiral?
Every patient treatment, every diagnostic test and every medical intervention in use today is the result of innumerable biomedical research discoveries, some made in the distant past. We rely on these medical miracles to determine the precise cause of ailments and rescue loved ones in distress. Even so, in many cases results are less than satisfactory or the cure is more expensive than we can afford.
What does the future hold? In the absence of biomedical research, what hope can we provide for those suffering from metastatic cancers, degenerative diseases or debilitating chronic pain? How much longer will these patients have to wait for relief?
Can we afford to slow the pace of discovery in a world in which 19 of every 20 experimental drugs fail to show efficacy, a world in which cancer has been shown to be not one disease but more than 200 distinct diseases and in a world in which stem cells may soon be coaxed to rebuild lost or degenerating tissues?
To tackle the clinical problems of today, and those yet to come, we must find a way to reverse our current course and ensure support for biomedical research and respect for the scientific method.
Jonathan Horowitz is an associate professor of oncology in the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine.