Why I Am (Still) a Physiologist #expbio

Apr 04 2016 Published by under EB2016

A few years ago when my spouse took his current position, I decided to “gracefully” close down my laboratory. I enjoyed studying and writing about puberty, sex, and the kidney for twenty years, but lack of funding finally brought me down. I was lucky; being an MD, I had other skills to keep my faculty position.

I no longer play with new scientific gizmos in the lab. I do miss exploring questions of the how and why the kidneys do what they do. I still have some clinical studies going, but my days mostly consist of caring for children with kidney disease.

So why do I still belong to the American Physiological Society? Why do I work on their committees? And why do I attend Experimental Biology?

Because medicine is physiology.

Let’s take a common healthcare example. You go to your doctor because of seasonal allergies. Your symptoms of runny, itchy nose make you crazy, interfering with your sleep and work. Whatever your allergen, it triggers the release of histamine which induces itching and swelling in the nasal passage. These physiological changes can be ameliorated by blocking the histamine. Such drugs (Benadryl; Claritin; Zyrtec) form the first-line therapy. If they do not get the job done, other physiological systems of nasal inflammation can be blocked. Glucocorticoids (Flonase; Nasocort), the anti-inflammatory steroids, can be given as nasal sprays. Montelukast (Singular) blocks leukotriene receptors and prevents the allergic inflammatory response through another pathway. Now some individuals would say this example was immunology or pharmacology, but I would argue that understanding how the body responds to an allergen falls under the umbrella of physiology. We also have to know this physiology before we can design the pharmacology.

Perhaps my example has not convinced you. Who am I, after all? Just a random pediatric nephrologist who likes to write online. You want an opinion from recognized authority, damn it!

Remember, the Nobel Prize is for Physiology or Medicine. If the Nobel committee considers these fields so closely bonded, then who are we to question it?

That is why I am in San Diego, blogging a very basic science meeting. It’s not just for fun; it will make me a better physician.

3 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Well, also, just chatting with you and getting a feel for the landscape of real world clinical problems can be a nice reality check on the PhDs with ideas for therapies. I've always been sympathetic to the academic types who are devout ivory tower fanatics and love "elegant basic biology", but kind of like the old saying "it's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man" I have generally found it as easy to be fascinated by medically relevant scientific problems as ones with no (current/anticipated) medical relevance. Though I am certainly not opposed to sub-fields where both approaches are key.

    • whizbang says:

      Another point I like to make is that we never know what is going to ultimately be relevant to human health. Stuff we have learned in fruit flies and snakes has helped lead to medical advances, even though the original scientist was not thinking about that at all.
      Some folks at this meeting are presenting stuff on adaptation to hibernation. I overheard some neuroscience types at lunch discussing hibernation as a model of neuroprotection. Research that looks completely like entertainment now may save a loved one someday. That's why we need to fund it all!

  • ecologist says:

    I agree. As someone whose research cuts across a number of disciplinary lines, I am always bemused/annoyed/frustrated at the tendency to try to define people in and out of a discipline. Can a practicing physician benefit from a "pure" science physiology meeting? Of course!

    And your point about not knowing what will ultimately be relevant is spot on. In Europe (where I work these days), there is a tendency to demand up-front justification for the medical/social/economic rewards of basic research. The people in office just don't understand the way that benefits come out of research that started with no apparent relevance at all.

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