I read an article in Nature news about about a cure for palsied mice. It brought to mind a little quote a while back that made me chuckle. A researcher was asked how she felt about how close science was to a cancer cure. She replied “If you’re a mouse with cancer… I have good news.”
Joking aside, it is a lot harder to do medical research on humans. I read the original paper that inspired the news bit and I was struck by this graph. There are 3 lines: mutant palsied mice, identical mice injected with a placebo and identical mice injected with human brain cells. The mutant mice lack a functional kind of cell that surrounds and protects the other brain cells. These glial progenitor cells become cells that produce myelin. Brains without proper myelin produce symptoms like Multiple Sclerosis. If a mouse accepts the new, human cells, the mouse recovers. So why not just skip the mice and cure people? I imagine there are a hundred good reasons, but take this graph as one example.
The fact is that that if you are a mouse with Multiple Sclerosis, I don’t have very good news. The red line is your best bet, and even there you don’t have a great chance of ending up ‘cured.’ This will take a bit of work before it’s time to try this out on people.
But it’s a good step, and that’s what it’s all about. I am really impressed with this kind of work. Look at the scale of the X axis on that graph: that’s a year of someone’s life devoted to taking care of a population of sick mice. I think this understated fact is the really amazing thing about science. It is not about a smart loner spending a few weeks in a laboratory and then fighting the ‘establishment’ for recognition. It’s about year-long endeavors that, in the end, produce one graph. That graph represents a small, hard-won step toward a loftier goal. I find it more noble to work so hard for a small, steady step than to blaze brilliantly onto the scene with claims of a scientific revolution. The fact is that most ‘scientific revolutions’ aren’t.