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Prospects For Curing The Serious Diseases Of The 21st Century

by Francie Grace

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

What does science need to move forward toward unlocking the unknown about HIV, cancer, autoimmune disorders, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, cellular and genetic diseases, and more?

Nobel prize-winning biologist Dr. David Baltimore (left, with NPR's Robert Siegel) says scientists just beginning to dig into what could be a decades-long investigation of an issue need to know early on: Will the financial support be there for me to continue my research? Can I make a stable career of this?

Dr. David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize 35 years ago for his research in virology and has had a profound influence on national science policy on such issues as HIV-AIDS and recombinant DNA research, is wary of predictions about exactly how long it will take to develop vaccines and new therapies. "We've always said, about an HIV vaccine, that we're at least 10 years off - and we've always been right," said Dr. Baltimore, at the Maxwell School/Public Agenda Policy Breakfast in New York today.

Dr. Baltimore was, however, quite clear on what he thinks it takes to give science the fuel it needs to get to those breakthrough moments: strong, steady commitments in policy and funding, allowing researchers the freedom to follow whichever trails are the most promising - and not necessarily the ones that looked that way at the time a project was initially funded.

One thing that slowed early research into AIDS, says Dr. Baltimore, was a lack of commitment by the scientific establishment to investigating HIV. He reacted by calling on his colleagues to get involved, and, getting involved himself. "Today, we understand the virus very well," he said, adding that while the search for a vaccine continues, there are also people looking at alternative approaches to the problem.

There are many challenges in research, from cancer - characterized by Dr. Baltimore as "very slippery," with a great ability to adapt and defeat a therapy - to stem cells, a field with funding especially but not uniquely vulnerable to political change. No matter what the area of research, however, scientists diving into what could be many years of study on a problem need to know: Will the financial support be there for me to continue my research? Can I make a stable career of this?

Dr. Baltimore, president emeritus and a biology professor at CalTech, as well as past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is also a longtime member of the board of directors of the biotech giant Amgen, experiences which provide him with multiple perspectives on funding and other issues in research.

One of the major challenges in medical science is the gap between basic research and applying it in clinical practice: the "valley of death," as Dr. Baltimore dryly called it, and a difficult one to cross. Federal funders don't see that as their job, while pharmaceutical companies will do it only when they're sure it'll work. Venture capital has played an important role here, but more is needed. Academics, he suggests, "need to bring in sources of capital - maybe a consortium, like they did in the semiconductor industry."

In some cases, particularly with neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, science still hasn't found the cause, so it can't offer the answer, Dr. Baltimore said. He compared it to understanding the connection between smoking and lung cancer. "Medicine has to get to finding the underlying causes and then devising a lifestyle that avoids the causes," he said.

For more of Dr. Baltimore's observations, click here to watch the video of the entire event.


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