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Making a Case for Fundamental Scientific Research

By Carlos Moreno, Winship researcher and associate professor, Emory University School of Medicine

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Erwin Van Meir is leader of Winship’s Cancer Cell Biology Research Program and studies new approaches to brain tumor therapy.

Sometimes the biggest breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer can come from very basic research. Basic biomedical research addresses fundamental questions of biology that help us understand how normal cells and organisms function. At first glance, this research may seem unrelated to cancer, but understanding the fundamental mechanisms of how cells grow, divide, survive, migrate, and avoid the immune system are critical to developing new and innovative therapies for cancer treatments.

Advances in our understanding of the basis of cancer have come from a wide variety of sources, often from very basic research such as how DNA is copied or mutated or repaired. While this research may seem a long way from the development of new drugs, it sometimes opens up entirely new ways of treating diseases, or points to new ways of repurposing drugs that have already been developed. For example, scientists who study how bacteria fight off viruses have identified a new method (called CRISPR) that makes it possible to edit any genome, including that of a cancer cell. This raises the possibility of one day targeting genes that were previously considered undruggable.

Detailed studies of the genomes of many tumors have revealed an entire class of proteins that help control other genes (called chromatin modifiers) and are frequently mutated in many cancers. The connection of these genes to cancer was previously underappreciated, but now the basic research on how they switch genes on and off is very important for developing new drugs to target them.

Thus, it is important to remember that the next new groundbreaking cancer therapy might come from the biologist studying how cells communicate with each other in worms, or the chemist trying out a new type of reaction, or the geneticist who identifies a new way in which DNA is modified. Tomorrow's cures depend on today's discoveries, and today's discoveries depend on basic research.

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