Health Care and Higher Education

Basic research: investing in the discoveries of the future

March 30, 2018
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Science and medicine rarely follow a simple path.

Most techniques used today to treat diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s are built on the foundations of discoveries that came before, spurred on by a drive to shed light into the darkness and uncover the connective principles that create life.

Science devoted to fundamental understanding — such as how our genetic code is regulated or the shapes and structures of critical chemical messengers in the brain — is known as basic research. Designed to cultivate knowledge of the most foundational mechanisms and relationships in nature, basic research contributes to our understanding of what makes us and the world around us tick.

Scientists working in basic research might not always make the front page of the newspaper or be featured on the evening news, but their work is vastly important to the development of innovative applications aimed at improving human health and advancing new diagnostics, treatments and, ultimately, cures for many human diseases.

Having faith in the unexpected

Basic research is science in its most exploratory, creative form. For many scientists, it gives them the opportunity to delve into new territory where the pursuit of knowledge can lead to unexpected results.

More than 60 years ago, the double helix structure of DNA, the winding molecule that houses our genetic code, was first described. Its discovery sparked a scientific renaissance that transformed the biomedical research landscape and created a completely new way of looking at the very building blocks of heredity. This significant scientific achievement was developed from years of basic research, involving scientists using simple organisms, such as viruses and bacteria, to understand new concepts and go boldly into uncharted areas. They were not researching a specific disease or trying to uncover a concept that could be immediately applicable to a product; they were doing what basic scientists do best: exploring.

A rush of firsts followed — the sequencing of the human genome, the rise of epigenetics and, more recently, cutting-edge gene editing techniques that not only power further discovery but hold great promise for treating a host of diseases.

Basic research is the backbone on which translational, or applied research, is built, and while the unpredictable nature of these efforts might not immediately seem relevant, they can often be the launch pad for life-changing discoveries. In the case of DNA, basic research helped usher in a new era of personalized medicine that changed the way we treat human diseases. A prime example is cancer, which we now know is the result of genetic mutations — aberrant changes to our DNA — that allow cells to proliferate unchecked. Thanks to the application of basic research discoveries, we can sequence DNA from an individual patient’s tumor, which allows physicians to better tailor treatment to combat their specific subtype of the disease.

Translating discovery

Those seeking to improve human health depend on the important connections that exist between basic research, technological innovation, as well as translational research to create impactful applications that can help patients.

Examples of fundamental research with outstanding potential to benefit humanity are all around us. Take The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), for example. It’s a National Institutes of Health-funded, multi-institutional effort to molecularly map more than 30 cancer types. The data derived from this ostensibly basic research is publicly available, giving scientists an invaluable tool in developing new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

The burgeoning field of epigenetics also is the result of basic research that is now being translated and applied to human health. Epigenetic mechanisms regulate the instructions written in our DNA; without them, the genetic code would be a closed book with no way for its elegantly mapped-out instructions to be acted upon.

In the 1980s, Dr. Peter Jones, Van Andel Research Institute’s chief scientific officer, made the discovery that changing the DNA methylation pattern prompted cells to transform from an immature, blank slate to a functional, mature cell, such as a muscle cell. This finding upended scientific convention at the time, and now, the lessons it taught and the subsequent discoveries it spurred are being used in the clinic to treat blood cancers. Research into epigenetics’ role in cancer also has uncovered potential new therapies for lung, bladder and colon cancers that are being investigated as part of the Van Andel Research Institute–Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team.

Support is fundamental

Basic research didn’t just give us the groundbreaking discovery of the double helix, the human genome and epigenetics, it also is responsible for penicillin, global positioning systems, MRI scans, laser pointers and the CRISPR targeted genome editing tool. The possibilities for what comes next are endless.

At its core, science is about our desire to uncover things that we do not know and not only understand them but put them into a larger context. Supporting research that is exploratory, risky and novel is critical for moving the biomedical research needle forward. Science cannot be relegated to what we can understand and profit from today; it must always be an investment in what we might know tomorrow.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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