Do you ever the feeling that you’re being watched? Judged? Isn’t that what we scientists do most of the time? We selfishly study areas that intrigue us, searching for new problems and explanations so that we feel that we reach understanding. We take a living thing, like a plant or a cute rodent, and destroy it; break cells open so that we can study what’s inside. We play with reason and rationale to justify our methods, and for what? To write a paper that may or may not be published? To build libraries of information which are never reviewed?
As scientists we must find the right balance between the usable degree of invasive techniques and the data that can be collected. In research that depends greatly on animal models, the stringency of experimental freedom placed on by other scientists or the self-proclaimed ethics committee hinders research, by a combination of time and resources spent to gain approval for a study, finding the proper personnel with just the right training, and sorting out licences and permits. However, it’s a scientific decree laid down by scientists, to maintain a level of scientific discipline, but also respect for the tools, in this case animal models, used in biological research. Surprisingly, it’s a sliding scale. We make it seem incomprehensible to use human models in research. Even the mention of this has colleagues shifting in their seats as I play devil’s advocate on the subject. Scientifically speaking, is it proper to divide our mentality on the use of humans and non-humans (i.e. mice) in research? Or are we bound to be more sensitive towards the former because we personalise with it?
Unfortunately, history is not on the side of the future of science. Countless examples of people being used in experimental testing hamper the progress of speeding up human evolution, in terms of what we as scientists can deliver to combat viruses and improve the quality of life. We probably have all come across one notable example of this, one which could have been forgotten. When we think human testing, we immediately picture devastating things being done to non-consenting people, either making them chronically ill or killing them, but what about scientists or people with some sort of scientific power stealing our information without consent? In this day and age, technology keeps us connected wherever we go, wherever we have been. If you use Wi-Fi on your mobile devices or computers, any connection that you see available on wireless options can connect with your device and communicate with it. And we’re somehow okay with that, which perhaps has to do with a lack of seeing it as invasion of our information. Long before the rise of technology, sometime in the early 20th century, a young woman from a poor background consulted a clinic, complaining of severe lower abdomen pains. Over repeated visits her health deteriorated and after a referral to a specialist, she was diagnosed with in inoperable form of cancer of the cervix. Like any professional, the doctor that treated her had taken a biopsy of the cervix. The patient was released with the knowledge of her health and the evidence was stored away in some freezer. Around the same time, a research group was investigating the propagation of cells to be used in biomedical research, but were unable keep cells alive in the lab for long periods. As scientists do, we search across labs for materials that may help out of our research. Not always thinking where the material comes from or under what circumstances they are provided. That information can be investigated afterwards, just if something of interest in found on those samples. The patient that had come to the clinic died of cancer on the 4th of October 1951, and within the 65 years after her death, science advanced exponentially, with the honour, respect and acknowledgement not properly given. During the 65 years after the death of Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant, the cells taken during a biopsy collected from her cervix travelled from lab to lab, tested and grown in millions. Methods were perfected and the so-called HeLa cells advanced science in numerous ways, helping in the treatment of diseases, like the polio virus, for which a vaccine was successfully developed. Only after the HeLa cells grew in popularity did people ask where they had come from, which shows exactly what human nature does.
The problem here is very clear: while scientists were very good realising and selling the potential of these newly discovered immortal cells, they could not think beyond their self-driven motivation for the advances of science and perhaps thought everyone would see it as a gift to science. They also undermined the power the media and the published articles weren’t quite the voxpopuli, often overemphasising or paraphrasing the researchers’ statements, creating bias and causing tension around the mention of the research. We are not here to debate the history of the HeLa cells, but rather to warn of the selfishness of scientists. Most of the time we would consider scientists to be more disciplined, more educated and in general terms, more knowledgeable. I am not condemning all that practice science. Science will advance as it always has, but not at the same pace that the population will advance in knowing how and why the research has been done. And with more and more pressure by those that look down to scientists for answers, we will see more and more cases were the methods and tactics lose that vital aspect of scientific responsibility and discipline, for which in the long run, will delay future advances in science. We are in time to make sure that young scientists are properly educated and that are given sight of the real reasons why the research is being done. We either communicate with everyone or with no one; science will never advance at a steady rate if we only communicate to a chosen few.
It’s hard sometimes to judge how much we should interfere with our samples in order to collect the information that we are after. If we take invasive approaches we may face extra challenges, but that is not to say that we are spared these challenges when using non-invasive methods. For one part, we can get more understanding using the latter because we limit our interference with the study. But even so, as scientists we will never get all the answers that we search. Sometimes we get answers for questions we don’t ask, and if we’re not careful, we may consider them as bad data. We are bound to see only what we search to see, even though we know that the answer we are looking for is a few observations away. I was writing at my desk one day when I heard a buzzing sound. I looked over by the window and saw a wasp flying towards the window glass. It then stood on the glass and climbed up, moved left, moved right, moved back down. I watched from afar, seeing how the small creature sensed with its front legs, touching the glass surface, wanting to escape into the garden that it saw. Confronted with an invisible barrier it continued to search for vulnerabilities, for the part of the window glass that would let it pass. The window is in two parts, the bottom pane and the top pane which has a hinge that allows the window to open. There is a divider between the two sheets of glass, of no more than 5 cm across. To me, looking towards the window, I would see a glass which overlooks a garden, with a thick white frame around it. A breeze flowed into the room and a wasp surveyed its escape. I imagined what the wasp was seeing and related that to what it was not. The wasp would see a garden, a garden that it perhaps knows, a garden which it has sensed before. It saw it, so most understandably it tried to reach it following the information it had. However, it could not find a way through the invisible surface, which stopped it from being outside. The white frame on the glass, which to me watching from a zoomed out view, seemed thick, would have been seen as a mountainous obstacle to the wasp, appearing like an impossible feat. And so it remained in that position. It flew higher, reached the upper frame and did not continue to examine that part of the window because from the information it had, the ‘outside’ was not visible when it stepped on the white, plastic frame. From its point of view, it was obsessed with finding its way out, following the route that gave it the most information that the garden reachable. In fact, if it had treated the area in which it was stuck equally, without being objected to search for the escape on the clear glass surface, it could have found itself walking on the plastic, which was 5 cm between its dismay and its freedom.
To me it was entertaining, until I released how much I identified with the wasp. How many times I had encountered a problem as I saw it too focused that I avoided all other explanations. The question we have to ask ourselves for every problem is how would it look taking one step back and increase our field of view? And perhaps we too are being watched and judged as we struggle to find our freedom in knowledge.