Editorial: Rewards of basic research

Published in The Hindu on October 7, 2006

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine awarded this year to Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello is in recognition of their path-breaking work in discovering a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information. While the flow of genetic information from deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) to proteins via messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) is already known, the two researchers have successfully used this information to develop a technique to control the information flow called ‘gene silencing.’ In an elegant breakthrough, the two researchers showed that RNA had to be double-stranded and needed to carry the same code as the gene to be able to silence it. Likewise the discoveries of Roger D. Kornberg, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, help understand how the genetic information stored in DNA is transferred to those parts of the cell that produce the proteins. While Dr. Kornberg’s discoveries of the various facets of transcription process have provided new insights into stem cell research and diseases such as cancer and heart disease, the discovery by Drs. Fire and Mello has opened new vistas in treating ailments such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and viral infections. While clinical applications using gene silencing are still largely confined to the laboratory, there is a possibility that it will one day be used for treating patients. Clinical trials are already under way for testing drugs for treating macular degeneration.

While Dr. Kornberg’s many discoveries of the transcription process were made over long years of research, the discovery of the double-stranded RNA structure that silences the gene came about when the researchers performed “a series of simple but elegant experiments” with roundworms Caenorhabditis elegans. These two cases drive home some simple messages – the discovery with roundworms could have come from any dedicated laboratory, including those in developing countries; and science for science’s sake, without being obsessed with immediate recognition, is an imperative in basic research. With science becoming less attractive for students in India and research neglected, the chances of the country producing Nobel Laureates are becoming slimmer. Basic research will always remain the cornerstone of science. Discoveries such as the ones that won the Nobel for chemistry and medicine will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of research in many fields. Countries that understand this and adopt practical measures to make science research attractive will remain in the forefront of development.