by Alexander Nassar
Six months ago now, when I set out to choose the last ten courses of my undergraduate, I came across ‘Research Readiness – Advancing Biomedical Discoveries’, a smart-sounding, unconventional course with no cumbersome prerequisites. An ideal splash of colour on an otherwise quite banal transcript. Little did I know how much the course would impact my perceptions of scientific practice. Arguably the most meaningful piece of wisdom I’ve taken away from it (so far) is to question the efficacy and utility of the status quo in scientific research. The way research is conducted, the way results are shared, utilized, and commercialized have produced a repertoire of successes for humanity that have immunized scientific pursuits to public scrutiny or criticism, and endowed the field with an untouchable grandeur. Would any member of parliament dare slam the lucrative endeavours of big pharma? Would any journalist dare walk down the path of exploring the pharmaceutical lobby?
Budget-wise, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S.A.’s NIH funding for biomedical research had been slowly but steadily decreasing. The last boost in funding came from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment act. This is of concern because of the highly hierarchical model of public funding for biomedical research in America, with the NIH at the top. In other words, without the NIH’s funding, the U.S. would lose its spot as the leading publisher of scientific papers. Elsewhere, the European commission (EC) occupies the second spot in terms of funding potential. The EC functions by supporting research conducted by laboratories that are not within the institution of the EC. Essentially, this means the EC only acts as a funding agency and does not conduct ‘intramural’ research like the NIH. Many more funding agencies exist in North America and Europe and are the driving forces in biomedical research. Some are public funds, others are philanthropic, but like the NIH and the EC, all allocate their (immense) resources largely according to one method: untargeted, competitive project grants.
While the competition this generates is a tried and tested, healthy driver of scientific discovery, a problem lies in the overlap that the general disconnect of researchers creates. In the minefield that is pharmaceutical drug discovery, the art of producing a non-threatening, seamless proposal that can be appealing to any faceless committee is the key to unlocking those gold coffers. In a brilliantly delivered TED talk, Dr. Aled Edwards, Professor of molecular genetics at UofT among other prestigious positions, tells a tale of perpetual redundancy in science. The graphic evidence he produces is almost unsettling, if not shocking, and puts into question the efficacy of a system that has remained virtually unscathed by the emergence of the data giant that is the human genome. In a commentary published in Nature, he goes on to describe open science as the solution to the two-faceted problem stagnating advances in biomedical discoveries. The problem being that scientists, under the current regime, are forced to keep their preclinical findings secret until they can ensure that their final drug product is clinically successful and claim the benefits, or suffer the consequences of failure. This secrecy means that many scientists in different countries and at different institutions often invest time and money into a common investigation without knowing it, and either race to victory first or lose in solitude. To address that, Edwards proposes to democratize chemical probes, treasured tools in preclinical investigations.
At the Structural Genomics Consortium (SCG), of which he is CEO, a team of dedicated scientists characterized the structure of poorly understood but hugely promising histone marker-recognizing proteins. These were then released to the scientific community worldwide, with no strings attached. Based on the precedent established by GSK’s open ‘donation’ of probes for nuclear receptors and the ensuing prompt development of useful drugs, it is expected that biomedical advances will be greatly facilitated by this open approach to scientific research. This diverges from, if not defies, the slowly failing status quo, but is still appealing to stakeholders in industry. If the proof-of-concept, in vitro, preclinical step of research is made pre-competitive, failures shall no longer be solitary, and successes no longer bitter victories so far apart. The SCG has attracted the attention of the likes of Oxford University, our very own University of Toronto, the NIH, and GSK. It is curious to see how long it will be before the scientific community is swayed, and more institutions realize the value of this scientific revolution which has proven so efficient and lucrative during the COVID-19 pandemic.