Why does biomedical research matter?

By August 23, 2019


Summer break is coming to a close and the thought of fall quickly approaching hangs heavy in the air. The mornings are cool and pleasant, perfect for sleeping. And, here I am, sipping coffee at 5:30AM. Why is it that on mornings like this, when most of the world is asleep, so many biomedical researchers are up and going?

What is so important about our goal of understanding biology and disease that thousands of us will endure the cold of winter or heat of summer and the early mornings and late nights to be sure our jobs get done? In short, why does biomedical research so matter?

Biology is massively complex. Humans have around 20,000 protein-encoding genes (1). Those translate into 20,000 to 100,000+ proteins, depending on whose metrics you use (2). Metabolite counts run upwards of 110,000 with a host of bioactive isomers and isoforms (3). And those are just the biological components. Then there are the interactions. Interactions between genes; interactions between proteins; interactions between metabolites; interactions between proteins and genes; between proteins and metabolites; between metabolites and genes. In fact, the “interactome” is so complicated that few have tried to quantify it. Let’s not forget the thermodynamics. The distribution rates of cells, reaction rates and equilibria, entropy. There are local cellular interactions impacted by distant signaling. Bewildering complexity.

And all that biological complexity is embedded in a physical environment of equal complexity. Our systems are abuzz with measuring, monitoring, assimilating, and eliminating all sorts of chemical and energetic stimuli that relentlessly bombard them. From viruses to noxious fumes, to sushi and chocolate bars, our systems have, over the course of experience, learned what to keep, what to fight, and what to pass along. And, perhaps most remarkably, how to fix or repair itself once a battle is done.

Yet, for all this extraordinary complexity, the system is an incredibly self-automated assemblage. Babies are born and learn to roll over and sit up. Toddlers learn to walk and talk and become students who consume vast amounts of information (and, as in the case of my teenage son, food) and craft a path for continued personal and professional growth. And within it all, our extraordinarily complex biological systems, maintaining a homeostatic state distant from equilibrium with their surroundings, hum along to create and do amazing things.

Usually.

As these incredible systems age, and sometimes long before that, they begin to wobble around their homeostasis point. Perhaps it is the relentless perturbation from the outside. Or maybe it’s that the tolerance ranges of the replication machinery widen just a little too much (our bodies reproduce and dispose of cells at dizzying rates; 100 million red blood cells per minute (4), for example). Most likely it is the combination of both. It appears that certain perturbations can knock a system into an entirely different homeostatic state; one that we call “disease”. Usually this doesn’t happen all at once, but in a gradual shift where the system is pulled into a new attractor, a state in which the fundamental operations of the system break down.

So why does all of this matter? For those of us in the field of biomedical research, we have the awesome job of trying to understand how all this complexity works. What are the seemingly magical conductors of the biochemical orchestra that we call an organism? How can we understand the normal ebbs and flows of biomolecules that underwrite a baby’s first step or a graduate’s walk across the stage or a grandmother lifting up her grandchild? But it is more than an exercise in curiosity or an intellectual endeavor. It is so that we can help when systems, like my father’s, wobble into cancer. Or, so that we know what to do when a system is born severely prematurely, like my daughter’s. It matters because it is personal. It matters because it is human. It matters because, like our amazing bodies, we are responsible for caring and nurturing the whole of our humanity.

So we get up early when the alarm goes off and we stay up late to finish an analysis. We bear the heat of the day and the cram of traffic because we are part of a network of researchers that brings unique knowledge, skills, and expertise together to help solve some of most complex, and fundamental, problems.

Better get going.

Through this blog series, “Why It Matters”, I hope to share insights into the world of biology and how our efforts at Waters are helping the greater biomedical research community to better understand, study, investigate, and inform the complexities of disease.

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References:

  1. NIH Human Genome Project.
  2. The Size of the Human Proteome: The Width and Depth. Ponomarkenko, EA et al (2016). Int J Anal Chem. May 19. 7436849.
  3. HMDB 4.0: The Human Metabolome Database for 2018. Wishart DS et al (2018). Nucleic Acids Res. 2018 Jan 4; 46 (Database issue): D608-D617.
  4. Biological Membranes Architecture and Function, Handbook of Biological Physics. Sackmann, E. (1995). Elsevier.