(Lack of) Self Preservation in Biomedical Research

Not going to be about diseases this week. Instead I wanted to look at the extremes of personality, genius and confidence that some researchers take into biomedical research.

This is what come up first if you do a Creative Commons Search for Biomedical Research pictures. I don't know if this makes me happy or sad. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/john-norris/3509352904/)

Australian’s have, for a long time, venerated individuals that approach questions from unique points of view or do things people don’t expect, even if it comes off a little silly. Ground breaking work on flatulence was started by Australian scientists and it officially documented, among other things, that men fart more than women and score higher on a ‘potency scale’. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on belly button fluff and Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes from the CSIRO in Australia calculated the number of photos that need to be taken to ensure that everyone’s eyes will be open and even produced an equation that accurately describes their observations. But arguably the silliest (or boldest) Australian science involves the researchers putting themselves (potentially) at risk, such as the work done by Frank Burnet, Frank Fenner and Barry Marshall.

These three men all have something in common, they could have potentially put themselves at risk during their research, but did so intentionally in order to make a point. Such a flagrant disregard for occupational health and safety regulation is healthy in my opinion, injecting yourself with a deadly (to rabbits) virus or ingesting ulcer causing bacteria is not. They also had something else in common, something I will bring up later.

By now most people, and all Australians (I would hope), have heard of the work performed by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren on the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. Against the advice of people who should of known better these two researchers challenged the assertion that the major cause of stomach ulcers and cancers were diet and stress and that bacteria could not survive in the highly acidic environment of the stomach. After Warren had found spiral shaped bacteria of gastric biopsies and eventually identified them as Helicobacter they were well on their way to a pretty significant discovery. Still facing dismissal from other researchers Marshall drank a culture of Helicobacter and promptly got sick, specifically he started to show all the hallmarks of gastritis proving that the bacteria can survive the passage through the stomach and were then able to cause disease. This means that a researcher, knowing full well what would happen did everything he could to develop a pretty serious disease, to make a point. What I find particularly interestingly about this is that Marshall would have had to undergo ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of his insides to prove his point, a process arguably more uncomfortable then a gut full of ulcer causing bacteria.

Again I'm let down by the Creative Commons search. Type in Gastritis and you get this guy. Could be a ass demon I suppose. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/horificies/3339063/)

Burnet and Fenner challenged the scientific community in much the same way. Despite the overwhelming influence Burnet and Fenner have had on science and the Australian scientific community in particular many people are unaware of these two great men. Last year I had the great pleasure of seeing Fenner speak about his life and work and I have to say, it was prolific. You can check an abridged version of their achievements here for Burnet and here for Fenner.

The important work that I alluded to earlier was the development of the myxoma virus. Rabbits are an introduced species in Australia and it is widely suspected that they escaped from Barwon Park (near Geelong, Victoria, Australia) after Thomas Austin released 24 rabbits, 5 hares and 72 partridges onto his property for hunting sport on Christmas Day, 1859. From there they spread throughout the mainland and by 1900 rabbits were considered a plague and a pest throughout Australia. By the 20’s we were becoming more and more aware of the impact rabbits were having on our native flora and fauna so a plan was enacted to control rabbit numbers. A Brazilian scientist, H. de Beaureparie Aragao (I don’t know how to say that name, what the guy looks like or anything else about him. What I do know is that in my head I picture him in a Safari suit, twisting an epic mustache with one hand and smoking a pipe with the other) proposed an idea to control the pests using a disease of some kind and this idea was taken up by the Australian government.

The CSIRO started a project, eventually headed by Frank Macfarlane Burnet and Frank Fenner to develop a virus to kill of the rabbits. By the 50’s, after a few false starts, we had a virus that would kill 99.5% of rabbits within 9-11 days. The most important thing about this virus was that it was species specific, it could not infect any other animal. Burnet and Fenner proved this in spectacularly cavalier fashion by injecting themselves to the eyeballs with it. Of course they didn’t get sick and the virus was ‘successful’ in reducing rabbit numbers by eradicating an estimated 99.5% of the population. I keep the apostrophes over ‘successful’ because 99.5% ≠ 100%, the remaining 0.5% of the population was immune to the myxoma virus and was able to rebound and restore rabbit numbers whilst also providing future generations with and underlying immunity to myxoma based tomfoolery. Work on a definitive control system is still ongoing.

What else did these researchers have in common? A Nobel prize of course. The holy grail of academic endeavour.

After putting themselves through hell they got their results and were awarded prizes for being oh-so-brilliant. So is all this personal sacrafice worth it. Hell I dont know they havent given me a Nobel Prize yet!

There are many more examples of scientists or otherwise doing ‘silly’ things that changed the course of their field by putting themselves in harm’s way. Tell us your stories in the comments below!

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