Sometimes I wonder where the breakdown in communication between scientists and journalists lies. In this article about a recent study on a DNA damage checkpoint enzyme, the Beeb describes the study as such:
Research into how the human body repairs damaged DNA has been described as a “major breakthrough”.
The way that cells protect themselves from diseases like cancer has been the focus of a study by scientists at Dundee and Leeds Universities.
The enzyme studied1 indeed has a crucial role in DNA damage repair, a mechanism that prevents the DNA in cells from getting more and more mangled with every replication cycle. But to conflate a study on structural analysis of a bacteriophage2 enzyme with cancer in humans annoys me a little. It’s sexing up the topic beyond its current reach3.
Some of the responsibility for conflation of basic science with translational/clinical applications lies with scientists. We have to justify what we do: to the funding agencies, to our peers, to the editors of journals, and to the public that ultimately funds our research by taxation. So everything we do has to somehow, however tenuously, be tied in to some disease or some way to make human life better4. So every time we publish our findings, we make that link, however thin, to some major health concern: cancer, heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, cancer, auto-immune diseases, cancer, blah blah blah. And the journalists, with their need to write an interesting article, take a lot of our fatuous crap on faith. Don’t ask for solutions. I have none. I am guilty of the same damn crime.
1 Sorry, it’s not open access. You’re unlikely to be able to read the full thing outside of a first world university/college. It’s a bugger isn’t it? Incidentally, does anyone else get annoyed that they don’t link to the studies in PubMed or even list the first author? Then again, if they had, I wouldn’t have seen via PubMed that one of the authors, David Lilley, has published in both Nature AND Science in the space of a week. That’s rare.
2 Bacteriophages are a type of virus that “infect” bacteria. Yep. Even bacteria get viral infections. Isn’t nature amazing?
3 Don’t get me wrong. I think this structural analysis of the protein is a great step forward in understanding how DNA damage repair works. The next step may happen yet. I just don’t think the next immediate step is preventing cancer.
4 Caveat: I refer here to research funded by the Medical Research Council in the UK or the various National Institutes of Health etc in the US. My world is very narrow.