Ask a ScienceBlogger: What era of science?

You may have noticed that I opted out of the last two or three weeks worth of Ask a ScienceBlogger questions. The last couple of weeks it was because the questions simply didn’t interest me, and the week before that it was because i just plain forgot.

This week, however, our overlords at SEED Magazine demand:

If you could have practiced science in any time and any place throughout history, which would it be, and why?

That’s a pretty easy one. I’m with Stein in that I answer: Now.

Think about it. I’m a physician, and my interest is in studying cancer. I started graduate school in 1990. Since then, in a mere 16 years, the tools that have become available to study human physiology, genetics, and disease are astounding. We have sequenced the human genome and are now busily analyzing the data. For the first time ever, we can now measure the expression of every gene cells or tissues on a single chip, analyze the results, and identify signaling pathways that change based on changes in clusters of genes in response to stimuli or drugs. This new science (known as genomics or genomic medicine) is something that was unimaginable a mere 15 years ago. Now, because RNA expression doesn’t always correlate with expression of the functional protein, we are now moving towards proteomics, where we measure the proteins expressed by cells.

It’s all simply amazing to me. I have tools I never would have dreamed of even in graduate school, and these tools have come into existence in an incredibly short period of time. What new tools will be developed in the next fifteen years?

In terms of treating cancer patients, the advances have come almost as fast. Alties will condemn conventional oncologists for “poisoning,” “burning,” and “cutting” tissue. (As a surgeon, I guess I represent the “cutting” part.) However, less appreciated is that the major focus of cancer research has shifted to looking for less toxic therapies that do the job as well with far fewer side effects as the old chemotherapeutic regimens of the past, with the targeting of tumor angiogenesis (one of my areas of interest) being one such promising strategy. The same is true in surgery. Take breast cancer, for instance. In just the time since I graduated from medical school, we have gone from a high percentage of women getting mastectomies to being able to save the breast in 2/3 to 3/4 of women. We have gone from removing nearly all the lymph nodes under the arm on the side of the breast cancer, with all the attendant complications of lymphedema, arm pain and numbness, and decreased range of motion, to sampling only one to three lymph nodes and getting the staging information we need, reserving complete lymph node dissections only for women who have positive lymph nodes. We are tailoring our therapy to molecular targets, for example the Her-2/neu oncogene, with the promise of more targeted therapies to come.

What other time period could offer so much promise?