Science and Serendipity: How the Study of Basic Science Leads to Unexpected Results

What’s a cancer scientist doing earning an award for diabetes or cardiovascular research?

The two Dana-Farber scientists who received the prizes in early June say they are great examples of how research that isn’t tied to specific goals can lead to unanticipated discoveries in other areas. They argue that just as their unrestricted pursuit of scientific questions in cancer biology has paid off in two different fields of biomedicine — diabetes and heart disease — research that originally wasn’t related to cancer has shed light on the roots of malignant diseases.

Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, received the Banting Medal, the top research prize of the American Diabetes Association, for “significant contributions to the understanding, prevention, and treatment of diabetes.” He has made a series of critical findings about how the body’s metabolism is regulated, and why metabolic imbalances lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity, for example.

“We didn’t start out to do that,” says Spiegelman, “Although we’re very glad to have an impact in biomedicine where we can. It’s now also appreciated that obesity and diabetes are significant risk factors for cancer — that wasn’t appreciated when I started this line of research.”

William Kaelin, MD, earned Le Grand Prix Scientifique Lefoulon-Delalande for advances in the field of cardiovascular research. Presented in a June 6 ceremony in Paris, the award is presented by the Institut de France, which dates back to 1795 and confers awards for major contributions in the arts and sciences each year.

William Kaelin, MD.

Kaelin shared the prize with two other scientists for finding the answer to a long-standing question — how, exactly, do cells and tissues of the body sense and respond to changes in oxygen availability in health and in disease — for example, when the body adapts to less oxygen at high altitudes.

Kaelin’s research started with the study of a rare form of kidney cancer caused by a mutated gene called VHL. Some of the tumors caused by mutant VHL contained tangles of small blood vessels caused by an abnormal response of cells to normal levels of oxygen, as a result of the VHL mutation.

Kaelin then discovered that the VHL protein and another protein, HIF, make up the long-sought oxygen-sensing mechanism. Now, scientists and biotech companies are using this knowledge to develop potential therapies for heart attacks, strokes, anemia and other diseases by manipulating this mechanism with drugs.

“This prize underscores the value of unfettered research curiosity, as opposed to the short-term, goal-oriented funding models that are increasingly the norm,” Kaelin notes.

The aim of basic research is to discover the fundamental principles of how the world works, and is driven by curiosity. At Dana-Farber, this could mean investigating how cells divide and grow, why the normal controls on growth are lost in cancer, or how DNA mutations can cause tumors. Investigating these issues has often led ultimately to developing new therapies and diagnostic tests for cancer, but at times, as the two prizes illustrate, has opened new avenues to treat other diseases.