As part of the STREAM workshop series, Dr. Jeremy Howick gave a seminar on March 25th on the usefulness of basic science research. This a great question to ask, and in his answer he makes two valid observations: 1) there’s a 70/30 split in research funding favoring basic science over clinical research and 2) historically, we have had more scientific advances accidentally than through the current system of finding a protein, characterizing its metabolic pathway, and developing and testing a drug that takes advantage of it. The best example is aspirin – we used salicylic acid for centuries before figuring out how it works.
Dr. Howick argues that we should test the wealth of information we already have – urban legends, homemade flu remedies, medicinal herbs – in more trials, and depend less on basic science research’s ability to develop drugs that we may (read: probably cannot) end up using. He argues that this is something of a win-win situation. For example, consider the case of chicken soup: Grandmothers are under the impression that it cures colds. If we test its efficacy in trials and it really works, we can figure out how, and perhaps develop a drug that is more effective. Whereas if the soup fails to cure colds, we can then definitively disprove its effectiveness, saving a lot of people, a lot of money in the canned-goods aisle.
Given the billions of dollars wasted each year in drug development, this seems a promising proposal. The presentation sparked an hour-and-a-half-long debate, however, probably because it was given to a room full of people with basic-science backgrounds. Although I agree with Dr. Howick on a lot of points, I don’t think using observational data to generate hypotheses is quite the panacea he makes it out to be. Sometimes testing folk remedies actually ends up creating more confusion. Take, for example, vitamin C: despite the dozens of clinical trials disproving its ability to cure the common cold, I’ve seen people (pharmacology students) swear up and down that it is the best cold remedy ever bottled. This just shows how pseudoscience (I’m looking at you, homeopathy) can be incredibly difficult to disprove.