On March 5, Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, briefed congressional staffers on the importance of basic science for medical breakthroughs. In remarks that highlighted recent Nobel Prize-winning research, Berg detailed how basic science discoveries are leading to advances against diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
“You can’t translate things you don’t understand,” Berg said, paraphrasing former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. While translating discoveries into cures is essential, medical breakthroughs require an understanding of the basic science behind disease, Berg said.
In his presentation, Berg highlighted the work of ASBMB member Carol Greider and her colleagues Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack W. Szostak who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Their research about how telomeres and telomerase protect chromosomes has led to importance advances against cancer.
While their use is often questioned, model organisms – such as yeast, fruit flies and mice –are important for medically relevant discoveries, Berg said. Telomerase and telomeres originally were studied in protozoans known as Tetrahymena, and more recent research with beetles has made discoveries relevant for anti-cancer drugs, Berg said.
But, he said, the discovery of telomerase is just one of many success stories for researchers funded by NIGMS. Since its founding in 1962, NIGMS has funded the prize-winning research of 73 Nobel laureates, Berg said.
Discoveries can take years to be fully appreciated, but some newer basic science research already is beginning to inform medical treatment. Berg detailed new research in pharmacogenomics that uses a patient’s genome to more accurately predict the appropriate dose of life-saving medications.
The congressional briefing was organized by the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research and co-sponsored by ASBMB, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and 13 other medical research focused organizations.
Find out more about NIGMS on its Web site.