The two great memes of the 21st century—genetic remedies for almost everything and software remedies for everything else—finally have met up in the pages of the high-end scientific journal, Nature Cell Biology.
Or so it would seem if one canters along the Internet and stumbles across a headline like “Mayo Clinic team finds ‘software’ for turning off cell mutations” or “Cancer cells reprogrammed back to normal by US scientists”.
When reading such news, it is difficult not to become rather excited—switches and cancer and reprogramming and software. Why, we must be an inch away from ending cancer and living forever!
But then one reads into the actual article, titled a bit less snappily “Distinct E-cadherin-based complexes regulate cell behaviour through miRNA processing or Src and p120 catenin activity”—and the truth sets in. The article is, in fact, an excellent piece of scientific exploration that reveals yet again how flexible, crafty, and alive our living cells actually are. But it’s not quite a software solution to human disease.
The investigators used tumor cell lines in test tubes and flasks, as well as super-fancy techniques, to analyze just how cells interact. They measured tiny amounts of chemicals present in the cellular matrix to determine why, sometimes, the exact same product can be a good cop or a bad cop, depending on the context. They determined that the Jeckyl-Hyde chemicals of interest behave this way or that depending on where in the cell they are stationed, and thereby provide a small but real piece in the puzzle of how a cell and a community of cells go about their business.
The notion promoted by the e-blast of headlines, though, declaring that the new research places us closer to the conquest of cancer, is just plain silly. This sort of headline-ization of science is similar to a claim that an experiment showing how a radish extracts a mineral from the soil places the end of global hunger within our reach. Maybe. Maybe not. But ask me in a decade (or two or three).
The delicate relationship between researchers and publicity has always been uneasy. Researchers are people too, more or less, and in need of a little attention—maybe even a lot of attention. And research centers are in the business of remaining in business, which means they must draw attention and funds from as many places as they can. Plus the media—that nebulous collective of fatigued writers, wincing, shrugging editors and some un-bored reading public out there somewhere—could always use a good jolt of something faintly true. Why not E-cadherin curing cancer? Might grab a small buzz this week.
But as with all pumped up enthusiasms, there is a danger in the generation of kind-of-news stories that seek to translate highly technical science into digestible material for the casual chat. When the researchers come out of the dark puzzlement of intellectual inquiry and try to step into the light usually occupied by Beyoncé and Jennifer Aniston—or at least by Dr. Oz—they are at risk of being blinded, their goals distorted. The plot to get onto CNN or into the news in Australia or elsewhere on the basis of a newly elucidated stupid cell trick creates a new line of inquiry that is focused only on the splash and not the substance.
We see the time-lapsed version of this all the time when an oddball natural disaster strikes and a veteran academician is dusted off from somewhere and placed before the lights camera and action. Blinking and grimacing and looking the wrong way, in a tweed sport coat he last wore to his brother-in-law’s wedding, he articulates why jellyfish are massing around small boats with black hulls in the nearby harbor and why or why not it will become a public health hazard.
Then the story picks up a little steam—a person dies perhaps—and the same academic has a run, a three- or four-day dance on this TV station and that. And his clothes sharpen, his chin raises, he steadies his gaze and starts to talk clearly and succinctly but no longer so honestly. His brain is wired to seek out the witty line, the tasty morsel; plodding truth no longer attracts. He quickly becomes someone else: an aspirant, another show-biz-bit nerd trying to touch the sky.
Not much harm is done for the jellyfish specialist, perhaps, but the researcher who feels the public gaze too intensely is likely to spend the next decade trying to duplicate his feat. Rather than listen to the lonely clop clop clop of monotonous personal thoughts and ideas, he pictures the big time. And with the shift, the pursuit of scientific truth takes a back seat as decisions are rendered to make noise, not make sense.