Novel Therapies Starting as ‘Frivolous Science’: it’s More Common than you Think

Glowing bacteria [image: collaboration between Cambridge 2010 and Peking 2012 iGEM teams]


Recently I was preparing a lecture focused on a trick that bacteria use to communicate amongst themselves called quorum sensing. This process was discovered by Dr. Bonnie Bassler, and was the subject of her excellent and nearly 2 million-times viewed TED talk. The process is the target of some promising new medications to combat infections that are currently very difficult to treat due to antibiotic resistance. These developments are exciting and promising from a clinical perspective and a potential windfall for developers, investors, and shareholders involved in commercialization of these compounds. Good news all around, right?


[Image: Discover Magazine]

Sure…but there is an important hitch here that warrants discussion. Dr. Bassler did not work on infectious agents. She made her critical discoveries using an organism called Vibrio fischeri, which produces the glowing characteristic of the light organ found in the Hawaiian bobtail squid. In other words, had someone not seen the value in funding and supporting research focused on how the light organ of a squid functioned, quorum sensing would never have been discovered. The fact that disease-causing microbes also use this strategy would have remained in the dark. These new strategies for treating highly lethal infections would not have developed. Quorum sensing is certainly not the only example. Another great (and coincidentally somewhat related!) one is the discovery of luciferase, the enzyme responsible for light production in fireflies. The underlying chemical reaction has been capitalized on extensively as a biotechnology tool, from which much private revenue has been generated (see?).


This topic warrants discussion for a very important reason: we never know what the next discovery will be. We never know what will be found that can then be applied for a completely different purpose, a purpose that could cure diseases or serve as the basis for a paradigm-shifting tool. The climate for pursuit of scientific support has never been more hostile in recent history. Periodically political figures or pundits will recite the titles of Federal grants funded by the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health that they find particularly “frivolous”. What they do not mention is the rigor involved with obtaining those grants. They are reviewed by three independent scientists and then discussed amongst a twelve-member panel of national experts, all of whom have scrutinized each study for both its intellectual merit and its capacity to move the scientific ball forward. Why consider this nuance when one could read a title and frenzy up the masses, though? They claim to want to increase transparency on taxpayer-funded projects, but do not mention that the proposals for all funded Federal grants are publicly available online already. When the next political figure inevitably talks about “frivolous science”, please remember the Hawaiian bobtail squid. Remember why fireflies glow​. We never know what we will discover, and it w​ould be a crying shame to miss out.


Hawaiian bobtail squid [Image: Wisc.edu]

[Note: The #1 study cited by Rush Limbaugh as frivolous in the article linked above was the grant of my friend, Dr. Christine Miller from the University of Florida. Her group continues to do excellent science at UF to this day]