Neuroscience is the underdeveloped frontier of medicine. While it has taken decades for new therapies such as targeted immunological approaches to treat melanoma and other cancers, there has been virtually no progress in understanding neurological diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease.)
Why is that, I’ve often wondered? With the billions of dollars spent on research throughout the world every year, why has medical progress been so slow for so long?
Then a popular craze comes along spurred by celebrity participation – such as the ice-bucket phenomenom that raised $100 million dollars in 2014 for ALS research. How many participated? And how many clucked their tongues thinking it was a waste of time and money? It was easy to do and nobody thought much more about it afterwards.
Well, guess what? With some of that ice-bucket money, they’ve discovered a new gene involved in 3% of ALS patients, both inherited and spontaneous. That may sound like a small thing but it has the potential to lead to new treatments. What was compelling to me is that it took research done at EIGHTY labs in ELEVEN countries throughout the world for this discovery to happen.
Maybe that’s what breakthroughs in medical science require: MUCH BIGGER SCALE. That is, maybe people have underestimated all this time what’s required to make miniscule progress and that “it takes (more than) a village” to make progress or to solve problems facing mankind.
This is exactly the opposite of “divide and conquer” – the ugly and selfish politics of Donald Trump.
Rather, even people working together at a small scale is not enough – but working together at a much more massive scale in the world and cooperating together – is what the world really requires if we are to make any progress at all to solve mysteries of science and medicine that would benefit everyone.
So you can think small and build walls to keep people out or, what? Can societies who have such different self-interests band together at a new scale in order to make progress? What a concept! It’s taken a FAD like an ice-bucket challenge to reap a tiny new breakthrough in ALS. But the real take-home message is much more significant: we are stronger working together than we are apart. And we should be doing it at a much larger scale in order to make breakthroughs that we all need.
P.S. After this post was published, it occurred to me that the reason science makes such slow progress is due to the enmired secrecy culture of scientists – who hoard their own work so no one else will get credit for it. Things may be evolving now for larger consortiums to work together on scientific problems – but the old “I’m going to win a Nobel Prize” syndrome is still pretty entrenched with researchers that I’ve known for a long time.