Keeping medical research diverse

November 26, 2015

Dr. Nigro, Filipodia Editor



A conversation with a neurosurgeon began like this at a recent brain tumor meeting. “Who wants to work on that? The models simply take too long.”

In one sentence, the neurosurgeon summed up the current trend for what to prioritize in our culture today-there isn’t time to do the projects that might take time to do. It is as if everywhere we are in remote control mode. TV offers hundreds of channels which we gladly click through until we reach the end only to start over again. On the Internet, we move from one story to the next before completing the first. We travel around the world and hop from one city/village/town to the next without ever really staying to discover something about the local people or culture. Another one off the bucket list. Leaders seem to lose their vision as they are bombarded with infinite ideas of what every other business and lab is doing from one week to the next. So it seems that we no longer have the ability to focus our attention fully on a project, or even have a vision for a project greater than any one of us alone that would take a couple years to complete.

And what may be worse, is all of this extra sensory stimulation leads potentially to a lack of appreciation when we do focus on a long term goal.

Science, in particular medical research, is not immune to this trend in society. Add to this a highly competitive funding environment and suddenly, ideas that take “too long” to develop are becoming like an endangered species. Scientists will not take the risk.

But biology is something you can’t really change. Technology can improve efficiency or enable us to answer questions we could not before (such as whole genome sequencing), but a mouse only develops so quickly (although 21 days is pretty fast). While we have even managed to find a solution to this problem-you can work in a frog or a fish-some tumor types, for example, grow only so fast.

The pressure to publish today is consequently also great, and it is tough to maintain your course when the emphasis starts to be on the number of papers rather than content or the purpose of the project. I still try to keep in mind some of the following considerations for each publication in order to reach the broadest audience.

The first is that regardless of where you publish, you can write a beautiful paper. The basis for a well organized article is however a well constructed study, so your paper writing begins before you even start to collect the data.

The second is that while the journal/impact factor is important, what is more important is to have your article published. It used to be that we were limited in what we could read based on availability of print journals. Today, we simply go onto PubMed and search. If you write a good paper with solid results, then people will find it regardless of impact factor. So while it might be easy now to submit to high impact journals (“just to try”), use this choice judiciously in order to facilitate publication.

Finally, I feel we should support public access whenever possible. Funding for most of us comes from the government of our respective countries so that it is effectively the average citizen supporting our research. We might want to have a more universal attitude that our work should be available for anyone, anywhere to read. It also works for you because your next best idea may come from an unexpected source.

The neurosurgeon had really broken my research heart. “It is too long if we never work on generating representative models for these patients. That’s for sure,” I responded. If the funding bias/criteria are for those projects that move quickly and produce the most papers, we might be losing some vital areas of research and delay solutions for some diseases. It is even possible that the more common models currently in use might not give us the answers we are looking for.

Philosophically science is about taking risks. It took me over three years to publish my work which in some respects should never have worked. Models for lower grade gliomas are a niche field even in brain tumor research, but one reviewer recognized my efforts and simply commented, “Magnificent piece of work.” That review was something worth waiting for.