Rebirth in Boston

Apr 21 2013 Published by under [Science in Society]

Keep calm and talk science

Saturday afternoon the healing in Boston began unofficially with the crowd at Fenway cheering David Ortiz's R-rated comments and blasting out the "ba-ba-ba" as Neil Diamond led them in Sweet Caroline. Across the town, Experimental Biology was reborn for 2013. The American Physiological Society (APS, my FASEB org) kicked off its annual get-together with the Water B. Cannon Award Lecture. 

This year's talk held special relevancy for me. No, it was not nephro-centric; instead, it was delivered by Michael Joyner, MD, an anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic who addressed the question, "Is Physiology Redundant?" He pointed out first that redundant has two meanings: the first revolves around being unnecessary. Twenty years ago, many thought that genomics and cellular biology would make physiology research unnecessary. Like gross anatomy, it would become something to teach to medical students, but would not require a department because there was nothing left to learn. I was entering my career about that time, and I remember the grant reviewers who could not understand why I wanted to explore something in humans or animal models instead of cultured cells. Despite my assertions that I could not study the interactions of puberty and diabetes across multiple organ systems in a dish, it took several years of preliminary data before I convinced anyone to show me the money.

The second meaning of redundant deals with back-up or failsafe systems. As someone who studies a fibrotic process, I remember how surprised many scientists were that the transforming growth factor beta knock-out mouse shows no detectable phenotype at birth. Of course, this led to the discovery of a number of other TGF-betas, any of which may fill in for the others in some situations. Joyner discussed the fact that one gene may be messed up in a given physiological system, but its dysfunction can be compensated for by other gene products. Of course, When we see most diseases in our patients, some combination of perturbations has occurred. From patient to patient, the exact combination of elements will differ, even though the clinical endpoint appears the same. 

Even with diseases that we know are due to a single gene defect, things like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and polycystic kidney disease, the clinical manifestations and outcomes will be influenced by other genes and the exact nature of the mutation. Throw in epigenetics and protein processing to increase the complexity, and you will soon realize that we need physiology more than ever to integrate all the "omic" fields. 

Dr. Joyner studies exercise physiology, and he showed a number of examples of the need for whole animal and clinical-translational studies, all of which are physiology. We simply cannot solve the way the body works and responds to pathology without this discipline!

I like this message because I have been screaming the same message for two decades as well. Perhaps if we all scream together, along with the APS, our voices will be heard and we may win this battle.

Now we just have to get the NIH to fund the science. That's the war.

The Cannon Award lectureship, established in 1982, is the highest award of the APS. The award goes to an individual selected by the President-Elect, with approval of the Council, to lecture on "Physiology in Perspective."

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