This is the story of how it takes time and patience to do science. Not only does it take time to do the science, but it also takes time for the science to be adopted by others. Let’s talk therefore about the popularity contest that is science.
A colleague of mine, who was a highly experienced and successful scientist, made a comment to me that on average it takes ten years for a new discovery to be generally adopted by the scientific community. At the time, it seemed inconceivable to me that scientists who are often striving to do groundbreaking work that forms the foundation of the next generation of discoveries will be “accused” of taking ten years to adopt a new technology, but that is what he said and he was not wrong. He went on to say that discoveries need to be tested by others and validated and that process takes time.
Everyone knows that Aspirin would never be approved as a drug today because of all the complications, side effects and “unclear” actions that it has. Consider Fleming who discovered Penicillin in 1928 and it was not until world war II when it was widely used. The first patient who received it was a former police officer (bobby) who was described as waking from the dead after receiving penicillin. The officer eventually died because we needed to learn that antibiotics need a course of the drug to ensure that bacteria are gone. Today it would take 17 years before it would be adopted by the FDA as a drug, if it could ever be approved, because of all the side effects and allergic reactions to it. Think about that for a minute, a drug that spawned an industry of antibiotics would likely be rejected as a therapy today. It should make one ask if there are other equally ground breaking discoveries that go unnoticed.
I used to think that getting noticed by other scientists was a matter of getting the big discovery and waiting for the accolades to come. It appears that as long as you are willing to wait ten years, that plan works. I’ve got two personal stories to relate on that subject.
Story 1. In 2000 I published an article that summarized the discovery of bilirubin oxidation products (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11106420). We called these molecules BOXes because of what they were: Bilirubin OXidation products. There is a double entendre there in that the BOXes were also discovered when I worked in the department of Biochemistry OXford University. So BOXes means bilirubin oxidation products and Biochemistry Oxford.
I worked on and studied BOXes for several years before the first publication and continued studying them since then. To date, I was pretty much the only person who published on them. I’m sure you can do the math and it has been 11 years since they were “discovered” and made public. So has the scientific community “Noticed” BOXes? The answer is yes. There was recently a conference on Heme, heme degradation products that focused on BOXes. This is because bilirubin comes from heme.
I was an invited speaker at the conference and the session chair and conference organizer introduced me as a keynote lecturer and as “the father and founder” of this field. I have to admit I was a little shocked and very humbled by his introduction. But, I’m also proud and yes I’m showing off, but there you are. My discovery of 11 years ago has been adopted, validated and accepted by the broader scientific community. I did like I had said above in that I reported my discovery, continued building on the technology in subsequent years and waited for someone to notice. So that is a nice story. It is all well and good, but what if there is a discovery that needs to be adopted faster because it is really very important? That is the subject for story 2.
Story 2. In this story everything is brand new so the discovery has not been published yet. Remember with BOXes I worked years before the first publication. Now, I have a discovery that is extremely important. Indeed, it is so important that I cannot and should not wait ten years for it to get noticed. The discovery is that I can treat people with a disease. I firmly believe, however, that I will need to play a much more active role in getting the broader scientific community to adopt this technology and this treatment so the patients with the disease can be treated. But how?
I have not been trained in being a self-promoter nor do I have a publicist to get the word out there. I’m not trained in the methods for getting drugs approved by the FDA. With 9 years of college and 20 years of science experience, I need a whole new education. Obviously, I need help doing this, but I have a lot to learn and a lot to do. It is a great opportunity, and as a scientist who went into this field to “help people” (http://www.amazon.com/My-Ambulance-Education-Death-Streets/dp/1554074479/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1308100497&sr=8-1) this could be the most significant contribution to humanity I might ever make. So, I don’t want to screw it up. It is worth repeating: “I really do not want to mess up this opportunity.”
My unanswered question is: How does one accelerate the mind opening experiences of the broader scientific community? Every day delayed is another patient treatment opportunity lost. I can’t waste time. I know I need to publish it and I know I need to advocate for this new treatment, but the plan for the subsequent steps needs to make this go faster than the normal ten year cycle.