By A.C. Woolnough
Most financial advisers recommend a diversified portfolio — primarily to reduce risk and maximize potential growth. If you, as an investor, put all your eggs in one basket, you may hit a home run like those who put their life savings into Apple, Microsoft, Amazon or Starbucks many years ago. On the other hand, you may be homeless and hungry like some who invested every penny in Enron or with Bernie Madoff.
Medical research is similar. Various foundations, institutes, centers, academic institutions and drug companies have different “investment philosophies” as they search for better treatments, therapies and the silver bullet—a cure. Some focus very narrowly while others take a broader approach. I’ve heard it said that some people learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing; others learn less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.
Big Pharma’s approach is the easiest to explain. They are less interested in finding a cure than they are in creating a product that will cover the (usually) large investment of time and money and make a profit. Most avenues of drug development end in expensive dead ends. That explanation does not excuse the sometimes immoral and unethical prices charged for new medicines. Nevertheless, Big Pharma is a service that creates and offering new treatments. To demonstrate how difficult this can be, consider that the “gold standard” drug for Parkinson’s Disease was discovered more than 60 years ago. Nothing since has proven as valuable.
Moving on, it is necessary to differentiate between basic research and clinical trials. Basic research is just that—an attempt to understand and increase “the science” that serves as the foundation of the molecular biology of a disease. This includes everything from exploring calcium channels to mitochondrial dysfunction to genetic mutations and on and on. Clinical trials are the process that leads to testing in humans and FDA approval of a drug. Clinical trials will be explored in more depth in a later column. (Spoiler Alert: involves brain surgery, vaccines and inadvertent side effects, including death!)
This month, however, we will focus on one specific individual who is taking a two-pronged (diversified) approach to basic research. May I introduce to you Dr. Brad Morrison: Idaho’s only Parkinson’s Disease researcher. Brad toils away at Boise State University. Part of the time, he teaches vertebrate histology (the study of the microscopic structure of biological material and the ways in which individual components are structurally and functionally related) and genetics.
The rest of the time, Dr. Morrison pursues a diversified, two-pronged approach to research. Science usually grows incrementally. Each researcher adds a little more knowledge, each experiment leads to a better understanding of the subject, and each published paper suggests additional lines of inquiry. Brad’s work in apoptosis (a process of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms as opposed to necrosis — cell death due to injury or trauma) and autophagy (essentially the internal garbage and recycling system of cells) adds to our knowledge base and is very valuable but not revolutionary. How and why cells die or how they stay alive by getting rid of toxic byproducts is necessary to understand the inner working of the brain and thus, Parkinson’s.
Because Brad is both a teacher and a researcher, he frequently takes a practical commonsense approach compared to some pure scientists. For example, some researchers start with an interesting gene and go looking for a disease. Dr. Morrison starts with a disease-relevant gene/mutation, and then obtains relevant information regardless of the outcome in animal models.
The Morrison Lab (research labs are typically named after the PI or primary investigator) also serves as a training ground for future researchers. While visiting the lab, I met one young second year doctoral student working with undifferentiated cancer cells. These cells can be manipulated into behaving like the dopamine-producing brain cells that die in PD patients. It is comforting to me as a PWP (person with Parkinson’s) that there is a new generation of researchers being prepared.
Sometimes, science grows exponentially. It may be due to an “aha moment” or an accidental discovery or simply serendipity. Dr. Morrison’s passion involves his other, non-incremental, research, which has the potential to have extraordinary impact on Parkinson’s Disease. Brad uses the metaphor of a cheap sweater: If you find the right thread, you can unravel the whole thing and find answers. After observing that brain cells in two regions of the brain do get replenished — not all and not always —Brad’s thinking led him to ask the question: Can dopaminergic neurons (brain cells that produce dopamine, but which die in people with PD) be replenished with stem cells? This is a highly controversial hypothesis and may result in a dead end and a professional black eye… or, it could lead to a dramatic breakthrough in our understanding of how the brain works. This, boys and girls, is exciting stuff! We’ll just have to wait and see if he’s right.