The Nobel Prizes in science have been handed out and once again, each one honours a decades-old discovery that is now improving our health and our lives. The awards also highlight the importance of fundamental research as a whole and not as a targeted or priority-based approach. After all, in two out of three cases, the end result leading to the award was not the reason for the original research.
This is quite normal in science. Researchers perform experiments in a variety of different fields. Results are then shared with the community and at times the public. When that happens, someone in another field might take note and realize the potential to use those techniques in another way. Working together, a new advancement can arise. This crossover effect, better known as translation, is the reason fundamental research is so important.
The best example happens to be the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Dr. Arthur Ashkin and the team of Dr. Gérard Mourou and Dr. Donna Strickland. These individuals who changed the way eye surgery could be performed. But, at the time of the discoveries, they had much different goals in mind.
Ashkin developed a technique to be able to manipulate individual atoms using lasers, known as optical tweezers. His goal was to find ways to modify atomic environments, not eyes. Only years after did he realize his work could be used to alter biological material. Yet, there was a problem. In order to make these changes on such a large scale compared to atoms, he would need stronger lasers that could be manipulated to ensure the technique was both effective and accurate.
That's when Mourou and Strickland came up with a way to improve the strength of lasers. They figured out how to ensure short but strong pulses could be made. For them, this was a means to be able to manipulate light in a way that had never been seen before. There was really no intention to help people as they were trying to find a way to mimic radar signals using lasers.
When the discoveries were shared, the eye surgery world took notice. Soon, the concept of using light to perform complex and risky procedures gained ground. It took another decade before it was approved and another before it was widely used. But thanks to the fundamental research that came from these three researchers, which had nothing to do with our eyes, we have a reliable method to keep our eyes focused.
Sometimes, fundamental research is based on an idea or theory that may not pan out the way people expect. That is revealed by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which went to Dr. Frances H Arnold, Dr. George Smith, and Sir Gregory Winter. They believed they could achieve a goal many believed could happen but few understood how to do it. They wanted to cause evolution and then harness it.
While the idea of playing with evolution may seem to have no bearing on our everyday lives – and go against some beliefs – the benefits are being seen by everyone. For example, if you suffer from an autoimmune condition, such as arthritis or eczema, one treatment is a chemical with a name that ends in "mab." That means the product is an antibody. Without the technique Winter and Wilson developed in 1985, known as phage display, this molecule would never have been found and people would continue to suffer without hope.
Using evolution isn't limited to medicines. Dr. Arnold figured out in 1993 how to change the way a protein looks and acts. This may sound benign but her work has contributed to the development of a revolution in environmental sustainability. Her technique was the base for the identification of molecules and pathways to develop biofuels. Her work has also opened the door to better environmental remediation. By modifying microbial enzymes known to degrade plastics, we may be able to develop a technique to clean up polluted areas and maybe prevent larger problems from occurring.
Of course, sometimes the Prize honours a lifetime of work from fundamental research to actual advancement. The Nobel Prize in Medicine to Dr. James P. Allison and Dr. Tasuku Honjo reveals just that. They believed they could figure out how to use the immune system to help fight cancer and succeeded.
They found what are known as immune checkpoints. As the name implies, they are molecules used to determine the difference between a healthy call and a cancerous one. If a cell doesn't pass inspection, it is targeted and destroyed by the immune system.
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Cancer cells have the ability to mask themselves and their environment to trick the immune system into believing all is well. The laureates discovered two of the molecules involved in this evasive tactic. The discoveries opened up a new realm for cancer treatment using our own immunity. It took nearly two decades to figure out how to do it but a path was found. It's known as known as immune checkpoint inhibition and is now an option for many different cancers.
This year's prizes offer a glimpse into the world of fundamental research and its importance. Even if a project may not appear to have value in the moment, it is still worth doing as the translation may help to change the world. Unfortunately, conveying that to the public and to politicians is not easy and many Canadian researchers struggle daily with a variety of concerns ranging from funding shortfalls to public indifference to politically motivated attempts to derail their work. The path is long and bumpy and can lead many to leave the profession or seek to work in another country. Each time that happens, we all lose out.
If you happen to know someone involved in fundamental research, be sure to let that person know you recognize that work is important. While most will never see a Nobel Prize, there is little doubt the discoveries will lay the foundation for an improved society. In light of the continued troubles we face in all aspects of our lives, we need these devoted people to help ensure the future always will be better than the present.
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