Unnatural Obsessions

A farewell post.

Natalie Angier -a nonfiction writer and a science journalist for the New York Times– wrote a 1988 book published with the title “Natural Obsession”, chronicling the one year-period spent by the author in two of the most prominent laboratories involved at that time in the rat-race research which was aimed at discovering the first cancer-causing and/or cancer suppressing gene (these labs were those of Robert A. Weinberg at MIT and of Michael Wigler at CSHL). In particular, the title of the book refers to the words of a third famous scientist –David Baltimore– who admitted during an interview to Angier that perhaps the most important characteristic a scientist should be endowed with is the natural obsession he carries towards his research subject. Well, although I appreciate the intrinsic truth of this –still- I never became really convinced of its necessity. Doing research requires an incredible amount of energy and time, it’s a full-time job, an all-accomplished (hopefully) lifelong experience (we need lifelong dedication to penetrate a subject from all the needed point of view). But I feel that whenever it becomes obsessive it immediately looses its beautiful essence. It becomes an excuse, a pretext – it looses its virginity. I fear this is particularly true in our business-driven world, where scientific discoveries often pave the way to economical investments. So –in my present opinion- scientific obsession is rather un-natural and obliterates the genuine intuition that brings to knowledge.

 

Thinking that a different science is possible and that this kind of science is deeply and harmoniously connected to a rich and interesting life, I would like to wish to Mario –leading editor of educeX- and Stefania –his wife and a researcher herself- my best wishes and an extraordinary big “Good Luck” for their imminent post-docs. My friends, this is gonna be another incredible adventure: Don’t forget that –in spite of all- the most important thing is having fun! Better than mine, the words of Joseph E. Murray describes the beauty of a life in science:

“My only wish would be to have ten more lives to live on this planet. If that were possible, I’d spend one lifetime each in embryology, genetics, physics, astronomy and geology. The other lifetimes would be as a pianist, backwoodsman, tennis player, or writer for the National Geographic. If anyone has bothered to read this far, you would note that I still have one future lifetime unaccounted for. That is because I’d like to keep open the option for another lifetime as a surgeon-scientist.” [Excerpt from JEM autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Prize website – link: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1990/murray.html%5D

An Odd Question

Doctors had told his parents the chances of finding

an exact match for the desperately sick infant were about 1 in 20,000.

“I said, ‘Well then, I’ll add 20,000 people to the bone marrow registry’”, his father remembered.

“They looked at me like I was crazy.”

Michael Guglielmo

 

A very brief post this week – I apologize for that but these’re busy days in the lab. Anyway I want you think about a few numbers I found on the internet. So, consider the following odds related to the chances one person has to die from a specific cause (based on series relative to year 2001; http://www.livescience.com/environment/050106_odds_of_dying.html):

 

  1. 1 in 100 is the chance you have to die in a motor vehicle accident (I don’t drive motor vehicles!);
  2. 1 in 5,000 refers to the probability to die for electrocution (impressive!);
  3. 1 in 20,000 is the probability to die in a air travel accident – air travel companies spend a huge amount of money to reduce chances to make mistakes (in each procedure) very close to zero, but it still remain numerically considerable;
  4. 1 in 60,000 is the chance you have to be in the midst of a tornado and (likely) to pass away;
  5. 1 in 100,000 is the estimated probability to die after snake, bee or other venomous bite or sting (probably following untreated anaphilaxis);

 

Well, 1 in 100,000 is also the chance one person has to find a (allogeneic) matched donor if diagnosed with an haematologic disease which eventually requires Bone Marrow Transplantation (BMT) from an unrelated donor as the preferred (and often life saving) treatment modality. This is an odd question.

 

Becoming a donor will transform chances into favorable outcomes. Here you can find one blog regarding a personal experience of hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) donation and the astonishing story of Giovanni Guglielmo. See you next week with related stuff.

 

Emma Caitlin’s “The Bone Marrow” Blog:

http://caitlinzemma.wordpress.com/author/czemma/

 

Giovanni Guglielmo’s story:

http://helpgiovanniguglielmo.org/default.aspx

Something about Stem Cells

I wish this post might be a very short introduction to the basic terminology of the field (i.e. words you can find in popular science magazines; this does not pretend to be conprehensive or complete anyway). I hope this will be either a trigger of further questions and a link between Mario’s (past) and Mathias’ (next) discussions. I provide interesting links below for those who wish to have detailed reviews on this topic.

One year before getting his MD (at solely 20 years) Giulio Bizzozero (1846-1901) provided evidences supporting the hemopoietic role of bone marrow – this was the first of an impressive list of experimental achievements (including the association of platelets with hemostasis) which crowned Bizzozero as one of the fathers of scientific medicine in Italy. Being involved in the teaching of histology and (experimental) pathology, he suggested one classification of the cells that reside in animal tissues: these were supposed to be labile (it. labili), stable (it. stabili) and permanent (it. perenni). Although its simplistic form, he recognized through this classification one essential biological truth: that is, the degree of regenerative capacity among different tissues varies greatly and can occasionally be triggered by specific stimuli (e.g. hepatocytes –stable cells- can start dividing upon hepatectomy in order to eventually reconstitute a [fully] functional organ). This intrinsic regenerative capacity is actually due to special cells called stem cells. It indirectly refers to the stamen –the reproductive organ in plants- and then to fertility, which is the capacity to generate. This is the first and most important concept to keep in mind: stem cells are able to generate more differentiated (i.e. endowed with specific physiological function) cells through a process of sequential change in the expression of [their] genes. This process is in turn due to exposure to tissue-related growth and differentiating factors and take place both in fetal and –although differently- in adult life. Isolated stem cells (or supposed to be stem cells) can be defined experimentally by using surface molecular markers (i.e. molecules expressed on their plasma membrane) and challenging through a variety of assays their capacity to multiplicate indefinitely or to differentiate. The capacity to generate one or more differentiated cell types is called potency and –according to the degree of potency- stem cells can be considered to be pluri-potent (e.g. able to generate cell types belonging to all three germ layers) or multi-potent (progenitors or precursors; think of hematopoietic stem cells [HSCs]). The ‘most potent’ (say toti-potent) array of stem cells is the embryo itself; indeed, one general distinction is made between embryonic stem cells (derived from different anatomical structures of the developing embryo and the fetus) and adult stem cells, which usually reside in specialized niches (a homely place in which the stemness is uniquely preserved) in their tissue of destination. The source of stem cells for research and/or curative intents is argument of ethical, social and scientific debate and much can be found either in the web and books on it (further issues will be developed in the blog, too). The most intriguing observation –I guess- is that wether what I have briefly described seems a one-way process, actually it is not exactly the case. Manipulation of adult differentiated cells (e.g. fibroblast in the paper by Szavo et al.; see “The plasticity of stem cells”) is a powerful tool to induce genetic reprogramming of cells toward a different phenotipyc identity from the original one. Anyway, further experimental proof (especially long-term monitoring of induced phenotype) is needed in order to apply this tricky biological game to cure disases. As we wait for that proof, the field of regenerative medicine grows prolific and promise to approach a variety of pathologic conditions. In spite of Bizzozero’s classification of cell types (which was insightful and innovative at the time), the harnessing of the physiologic potential for auto-reparation of the organism to improve our own condition –together with its corollary pro’s and con’s- is a necessary step, I guess.

1. Here a very well-done web pages dedicated to basic knowledge about stem cells:

http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/

www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/stem_cell/

2. Paolo Mazzarello, Alessandro L. Calligaro & Alberto Calligaro (2001) Timeline: Giulio Bizzozero: a pioneer of cell biology Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 2, 776-784.

I Wish Everyone Could Experience a Creative Leap

I wondered what I may write as the very first post when I remembered a cartoon I had seen some years ago in a book I found in the library of my college (www.sssup.it). The book was one Albert Einstein’s biography and the cartoon was a reproduction of a diagram drawn by the scientist in a letter written to his lifelong friend Maurice Solovine -a romanian phylosopher and mathematician- to eventually explain his view of the scientific process (the picture is reproduced below). I feel that the remarks one can derive from it are very consistent with the mission and intents of our blog EducereX, firstly because it offers a comprehensive view –although in abstract form- of what we call science. The germanborn physicist explained himself the meaning of the drawing: the lower horizontal line represents the real (i.e. the material) word with phenomena scientists wish to investigate. The curve line on the left figures the ‘creative leap’ one shall make to interpret phenomena; This ‘idea’ may be very consistent and insightful but is pre-scientific -if not scientific at all. The final output of the creative leap is an axiom (indicated by the letter A), from which a number of consequences (or predicitons: the smaller circles in the diagram) can be sorted out. The scientific process begins when the scientist challenges the real word with the consequences (let’s say: try to falsificate by doing experimentation). If there is no match between the consequences and the real word (dotted vertical arrows), then the idea may not be worth enough (in other words falsification has occurred). On the contrary, when the scientist obtains proof that the consequences of his original idea are correct, the idea can have merit with particular regards to those phenomena it aimed to explain. Each time an experimental work is published and thus shared with the scientific community, the community itself shall enter the process. I find this summary of tremendous beauty: its powerful abstraction recapitulate a complicated set of events and it’s applicable almost to any field in science. Although the dynamic that rule the sequence of experimental achievements is not as linear as represented in Einstein’s diagram, it suggests a more general principle in designing and performing experiments: theories (i.e. ideas) must adhere to data, not the contrary. Due to overwhelming pressures related to economic issues scientists are often induced to force the interpretation of their results, forgetting that if not accompanied by intellectual honesty, curiosity is not sufficient to drive scientific inquiry. One can also figure out that science (for the sake of the science!) is a double-faceted stuff in which either a creative flavour and an analytical mind are equally important. However, if analytical skills shall be exercised through application and experience, creative mood can not be summarized in books and that’s exactly why I wish everyone –myself included- could experience a creative leap!