Funding: Alex's NY message

Keith Robison robison at
Thu Jan 4 08:27:30 EST 1996

U27111 at wrote:
: robison at (Keith Robison) wrote on 3 Jan 1996
: 20:02:38 GMT:

: >Putting a man on the moon is comparatively simple in relation
: >to complex health problems such as cancer and AIDS.  You have
: >a few well-defined systems which must be built, straightforward
: >physics, etc.  In contrast, both AIDS and cancer can be
: >described (to a first approximation) as malfunctions of
: >a poorly understood highly complex machine.

: It's only complex because we have too many self-interested
: researcher's pushing *their* paradigms down our throats and
: political 'conclusions' of what must be true overshadowing
: the real 'truths'.

: This makes the pools of scientific knowledge very muddy indeed...
: and a somewhat 'complex machine' *appears* more complex then it
: probably really is.  ???

Probably not.  The scientific reality is that AIDS is a disease
which somehow results from a retroviral infection -- a direct
invasion of the cellular machinery.  Much of the AIDS research
has gone into understanding this invasion process, because
it was poorly understood.  The virus somehow wipes out
segments of the immune system, which itself is largely
a big black box.  This is all happening in the context of 
the human body, a complex, dynamic environment which itself
is not well understood in fine detail.

Compare this to the problem of keeping 3 men alive for a week,
and using the laws of Newton to send them to another body and return
them.  The former was already well-studied (e.g. for submarines).
I'm a huge fan of the space program, but putting a man on the
moon was a relatively straightforward technical problem, with
clear problems and subprocesses in a well-defined environment.
The moon project is a great example of technological prowess,
but a bad analogy for most scientific research.

Put another way: Apollo involved finding suitable technology
to solve known problems; AIDS (cancer, Alzheimer's, etc.) involves
first figuring out what the real problems are before we can
consider the technology to solve them.

: >: For if we could get a man to walk on the moon in such a short
: >: period of time... why is it 15 years into this pandemic and we
: >: still have little to nothing to show for it?

: >Hardly little-to-nothing.

: Agreed!

Then why do you repeat this claim later down?...

: >In particular, a significant cause of the spread of AIDS was
: >quickly identified (the blood supply) and dealt with.

: ??? Really ???

Let's see (from memory).  First cases were 1979.  Identification
of hemophiliacs as one concentration of victims suggested
blood-borne transmission by the early 1980's.  HIV identified
in 1983.  Blood test followed soon after (1984?).  Yes,
there was an unconscionable delay in initially requiring the
screening (1985?), but the fact remains that since then the blood
supply has been made safe.  Furthermore, the AIDS pandemic
helped drive safer blood products to market (in particular,
the replacement of blood products by proteins produced 
by recombinant DNA).

: Is this what you were taught?

: There were no politics involved, no egos and especially no greed?

: What a wonderful view you must have wearing your rose-colored
: glasses way up there in your ivory tower?

I never claimed this.  I am well familiar with the politics that
have gone on, the clashes of personality, etc -- I've followed
AIDS since before it was a media event (so no, I wasn't
_taught_ -- I taught myself).  But despite your
claims, the truth remains that there were some early successes
in the AIDS war:
	1) A probable causative agent was quickly found
	2) Blood tests were developed to protect the blood supply
	3) Useful treatments were found for _some_ AIDS-related
	   conditions (e.g. pentamidine for PCP).

It's also easy to blame egos/greed for the lack of practical
progress in AIDS, but in reality there are a couple of prominent
examples catching all the attention and a lot of good science
that goes alone quietly (of course, the true verdict on the
quality of this science will be history's to make).

: >AIDS also illustrates that medical solutions are not all that we
: >must consider: the transmission mechanisms of AIDS are relatively
: >well understood, and it is now a matter of politics and sociology
: >in dealing with them (the latter of which the moon program was
: >quite devoid of -- another reason it got done).

: And we can quietly ignore how some medical solutions are only to
: make patent holders more richer and those who are HIV+ die
: sooner... or suffer more greatly?

I suspect you are alluding to AZT -- and I do not feel qualified
to judge whether it will be viewed in the long-term as the
equivalent of quinine or bloodletting.  

: I'm sorry... but you have just hit on a very *hot* subject here.
: For not only has 15 years of AIDS research have little to nothing
: to show for itself... it has put the pursuit of politics, greed and
: egos to a whole new level within the scientific community!

Again, making the claim that "15 years of AIDS research have
little to nothing to show for itself" is demonstrably wrong;
perhaps you can indict the last 10, but the first few years
provided very important findings.  The fact is that the
blood supply is generally safe.  

: >: Research techs and phd's need to become certified in their
: >: respected specialties and labs should become accredited.

: >How do you certify someone in scientific research?

: The way I see it, we already have plenty of societies which already
: exists out there (like the tissue culture association for example)
: which already offers seminars and courses... and all we have to do
: is make these societies responsible for 'certifying' research techs
: in that particular discipline.

: If we make these societies and associations responsible for giving
: out accreditation and certifications to various research
: labs\personal.. and only allow grants submitted which have
: certified personal or accredited labs able to receive monies.  Then
: most labs would HAVE to learn the proper ways of doing these highly
: specific tests within the proper research environment and use of
: the scientific process.   And all this would then lead to more
: accurate and valid data being produced and well as
: increase in attendance to the various meetings and seminars.

: >If I am using a technique which was invented 3 months ago, how
: >am I to be certified in it?

: I think PCR may be a good example here.

: Back in 1987-1988 it was still a relatively new technique... IF we
: were under my present idea and lab personal were certified and labs
: accredited *at that time*... then personal would *have* to attend
: at least two seminars/courses per year for that lab to keep it's
: accreditation (just like we already have in clinical labs).

: Thus, they could learn what is going on in the development/use of
: this technique and let's say by 1993... as PCR becomes a *hot*
: technique and widely used... it can then become a newly certified
: one.

: >Certification is a good idea for fields where _the_ answer
: >is expected reliably (forensics, clinical settings); it is
: >entirely inappropriate in an experimental field.

: Thus you are saying experimental research does not have to be a
: highly reliable field?

No.  What I am saying is that research fields may well change
too quickly.  The downsides of certification is that someone
must come up with the rules, and someone must adminster the tests.
The former guarantees that in a fast-moving field the certification
standards will be behind the state-of-the-art; the latter guarantees
that certification has a significant cost (both $$$ and opportunity).

: It's ok for people who run HPLCs to use standard control data from
: 2-3 months prior (instead of a new set with each new set of
: samples)?

: It's ok for people to *make* standards for controls using ddH2O
: (because the curve tends to come out better?)... while using in-
: house DI water for the sample solutions in the same run?

: And one of my personal favorites... its ok to pH balance homemade
: physiological buffer solutions?

All examples of bad science -- but do you really think certifying
the yahoos who do such things would help?  Do you really think
that anyone foolish enough to do such things will be changed
by extra training?  Is it ignorance or laziness? (I would
tend to think the latter, in which case there isn't much hope).

Keith Robison
Harvard University
Department of Cellular and Developmental Biology
Department of Genetics / HHMI

robison at 

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