Imagine you have to fix a broken down car that doesn’t start. You are told you need to fix this car but you have a huge problem, actually several huge problems: you don’t know anything about fixing cars nor do you even know “what a car is?” or “what it means to be a car?”
So what’s the first thing you do?
Well, since you have no idea what a car is you first try to think about what you are good at fixing.
You ponder for awhile and then….lightning strikes, “Yes! I know! I’m really great at fixing my relationships with my neighbors.” Every time things go awry, you pick lots of berries and give them to your neighbors. So, you start picking armfuls of berries and give them to the car every evening. A few weeks go by, but the car is still broken.
Hmmm…..you think, “maybe the car needs to be punished?” You’ve always had success throwing rocks at people when they don’t behave properly and it always works. So, you begin searching for as many rocks you can find and start throwing them at the car. You notice that the strange clear barriers of the “car” start exploding into pieces when the biggest rocks hit them. This strategy doesn’t seem to be working….so you decide it’s not worth fixing, you pick up the berries and go home.
OK, what kind of a goofball story was that?
I’m trying to make a point about how problems are solved. To solve any problem it is almost always essential, barring random chance like throwing rocks or giving berries at a problem, that you understand every fundamental basic component of a given system and understand exactly how each smaller piece functions and communicates with all of the other parts in order to make the system work properly.
In our case, I’m referring to all of the individual components in a cell, DNA, RNA and protein, and how these parts carry out their individual jobs within a cell, within a given cellular process and how they properly communicate (signal) with one another, all giving rise to a healthy fully functioning cell, then healthy tissue, then organ, then connected organ system, and finally a healthy multicellular organism. To get a visual understanding of what I’m talking about see the image below.
Basic research strives to do exactly this: to understand all of the essential parts and fundamental cellular processes, which together as an integrated, communication, memory and functional processing network give rise to a fully functional healthy organism.
Basic biomedical research has been essential for modern medical advances in patient care and in the discovery of new medical treatments. Though we generally think about human biology as being special, complex and separate, our cells contain many of the same fundamental components (proteins, DNA and RNA), cellular processes, and metabolic pathways as those of all living things.
Basic biomedical research, though many mistakenly think is only about studying “a single simple organism and therefore has no relevance to human health or disease”, has expanded our understanding of the fundamental molecular and cellular processes underlying the very existence and propagation of all cellular life as well as what defines a healthy cell and what causes a particular disease.
Solving complex biological problems, especially those concerning how treat a particular human disease, necessitates a thorough understanding of essential DNA, RNA, proteins, enzymes and cellular processes and how biochemical and cellular mechanisms can malfunction in ways that lead to a particular disease, such as cancer.
Multicellular organisms thrive when all their cells function in accordance with the rules that govern cell growth and reproduction. Cancer is just one example of cells breaking the rules of biology. Our current understanding of cancer has been achieved through many basic biomedical research discoveries. Researchers who asked the question, “Why does a normal cell suddenly start breaking the rules, dividing recklessly, consuming metabolic resources, invading surrounding tissues, and later killing the organism it lives inside?”, made discoveries that have greatly expanded our understanding of cancer.
If you are trying to understand how and why a cell is misbehaving, you first need to understand the normal functions governing the growth and reproduction of a healthy cell. Research in a wide array of fields including, molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology has yielded remarkable detail about the molecules and processes that allow cells to divide, grow, differentiate, and perform their essential functions. This abundant wealth of knowledge has led to practical discoveries and medical treatments, which have spared millions from suffering.
Thanks to basic biomedical research, we now have vaccines to protect us from smallpox, polio, measles, rabies, cervical cancer, flu, shingles, and meningitis. Because of basic biomedical research the survival from the most common childhood leukemia is now 90 percent. The application of particular technologies, which grew from the Human Genome Project, has dramatically expanded our understanding of genetic susceptibility to various cancers. To date, over 70 common genetic variants have been discovered that increase risk for 15 cancers including cancers of the pancreas, colon, breast, prostate, brain, testis, bladder, and lung, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Thanks to early detection, some of common cancers such as colon, breast, and cervical cancers are now treatable. In some cases, abnormal precancerous tissues can be detected early, before the cells become cancerous, and surgical removed preventing the cancer for developing. For the first time in history, within the United States, we are seeing the absolute number of cancer deaths decrease. Since 1991, we have seen a 20% decrease in cancer mortality rates for both men and women. Together, this means that more than 400 lives are being saved every day, lives that would have otherwise been lost to cancer.
To give you some examples of the progress we’ve made in cancer research: causes, prevention and treatment:
Cervical cancer was discovered to be caused by particular strains of the human papilloma virus or HPV. More than 500,000 women are diagnosed each year, and over half of these women will die from cervical cancer. Most of these deaths occur in in low-income countries. Today, a vaccine against the cancer strains of HPV is now available.
Stomach cancer, the fourth most common cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death, has been found to be linked to the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori). Though, H. pylori bacteria are naturally found within nearly half of the world’s population, only a small percentage of become develop illnesses such as ulcer, gastritis and stomach cancer. Today, researchers are searching for small genetic differences in people, which make affect the individual’s ability to fight bacterial infections and increase their risk for developing stomach cancer.
Breast cancer is a common cancer. Approximately 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. In the US alone, about one in nine women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. The first gene associated with breast cancer was BRCA1 (for BReast CAncer1). Only one year after the discovery of BRCA1, a second gene associated with breast cancer – BRCA2 – was discovered. Individuals with particular mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have an increased risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer. Children of parents with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation have a 50% chance of inheriting the gene mutation. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes that prevent the growth of cancerous cells by playing important roles in DNA repair. Particular BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations result in the accumulation of DNA damage, a hallmark of all cancers.
See the estimated risk of developing breast cancer for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations: