Basic Research: Fueling Future Solutions

Today we announce the 2015 class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars, seven extraordinary researchers who are working to expand our understanding of the fine-tuned phenomena that enable our bodies to grow, survive and thrive. While each of their projects represents a new beginning, their efforts build on the findings of a succession of distinguished scientists who have grappled with big biological questions for generations.

Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy is applying the latest techniques to shed light on decades-old observations of depression treatment, while John Schoggins aims to harness natural antiviral molecules to inform the development of new therapies. Jeremy Wilusz is working to decipher the functions of circular RNA molecules, which were identified only a few years ago.

Minoree Kohwi is following up on her own recent observation of genomic rearrangements during brain development to better understand the control of cell fate. And Julie Law is examining the functions of chromatin, the molecules that surround DNA, whose vital activities are just beginning to be explored.

The two recipients of the Rita Allen Foundation Award in Pain are also building on the progress of their predecessors: Yi Ye is searching for the underlying causes of pain associated with head and neck cancers, with the aim of bringing pain relief up to speed with cancer treatments. Robert Sorge is expanding on findings that point to immune cells in the central nervous system as mediators of pain to investigate how dietary choices may mitigate these pain responses.

One of our earliest Rita Allen Foundation Scholars was Kathleen Foley, a neurologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who was instrumental in establishing the fields of pain management and palliative care. In the 1970s, as the Center’s chief resident in neurology, she helped to create an official pain service for cancer patients. She later directed the Project on Death in America, spurring changes in attitudes and policies toward end-of-life care.

Foley now serves as Medical Adviser to the Foundation and leads the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee in selecting each class of Scholars. In an interview about the impact of her research, she shared with me that “the most important change for patients is that pain is now recognized as the fifth vital sign, like blood pressure, and is monitored every day. In 1974, pain was not being monitored or treated. Now, patients who report pain can have a specific pain consultation, and medications will be ordered.”

She also cited “a growing interest in pain and palliative care research and in developing a research agenda.” Now, more than three decades since our initial support for Foley’s pioneering research, funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow the Pain Research Forum to expand its efforts beyond the pain research community, creating resources and news stories to help patients and the public understand advances in pain research. This enhanced outreach will catalyze greater awareness and advocacy for the research and treatment of chronic pain, which affects more than 100 million individuals in the United States alone.

Taking a longer view, it’s clear that today’s flourishing field of pain research would not have been possible without decades of investments in basic biomedical research made by government agencies, foundations and others. The same is true of treating cancer, infectious diseases and metabolic disorders. Mary Lasker, an eminent supporter of biomedical research during the mid-20th century, once said that she viewed money as “frozen energy.”

And the best uses of that energy often come from unexpected research directions. Imagine that in 1960 you were given $10 to invest in science. Would you spend it on research into how bacteria fend off viruses, or on developing an affordable diabetes treatment? This video, which won the 2013 Stand Up For Science competition, uses colorful cartoons to illustrate the outcomes of this choice. Remarkably, bacterial defense mechanisms became the basis for recombinant DNA technology, which ultimately enabled the production of human insulin by bacteria. Indeed, all modern molecular biology research, including that of our Scholars, depends on this fundamental knowledge of bacterial biology.

Expressing the payoffs of long-term investments in basic research is essential for bolstering society’s support of fundamental science. The Rita Allen Foundation provides extraordinary young scientists with the resources they need for creative research and the tools they need to communicate this important research to audiences outside the narrow circles of their scientific fields. In collaboration with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Research!America and The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, we invested in the workshop “Connecting the Dots,” which brought together a diverse group of science communicators, including six Rita Allen Foundation Scholars.

At its core, all science is drama. Each episode ends with a tantalizing cliffhanger. “No piece of science ever completely finishes the story,” said workshop instructor Keith Yamamoto, a research leader at the University of California, San Francisco.

As we welcome our new class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars, we look forward to celebrating their discoveries, and to sharing more profiles of our Scholars’ progress as we prepare to mark the 40th anniversary of the program. The critical knowledge they contribute will continue to open new avenues of inquiry and enable new strategies to improve human health and well-being.