As a budding biologist growing up in the northwest corner of the United States, I never imagined that I would be standing at a podium in central London in the middle of a debate about biological research.
The Biology Week debate pitted speakers against each other to convince the audience that their area of biological research will change the world. I was speaking on behalf of biomedicine, specifically my research on personalised medicine and targeted cancer therapy.
At the debate my heart was racing. We had just heard from my ‘opponents’ Professor John Lucas of Rothamsted Research, on the need for crop protection research to feed the world, and Dr Michele Stanley of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, on the importance of biofuels to meet the world’s growing demand for energy. Speaking after me was Dr Aldo Faisal of Imperial College London, on bioengineering and empowering sufferers of neurological disorders.
As I walked up to the podium I took a deep breath. I only had 10 minutes to impress upon the audience the importance of my research. I focused on how we are trying to reduce the number of deaths associated with cancer using personalised medicine. Personalised medicine is the ability to understand, on a molecular level, each individual patient’s tumour and to then apply targeted treatment.
We are using this method to develop targeted therapies for patients with high-risk neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that mostly affects young children. In 2008, a common mutation in the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene was identified in neuroblastoma. To study this mutation we genetically engineered it in a mouse’s developing nervous system and sure enough saw repeated development of neuroblastoma. This model is now an essential part of our preclinical drug development programme – trying to inhibit the ALK gene mutation as a targeted therapy against this kind of neuroblastoma.
Our ultimate goal is to bring novel therapies to the clinic that will result in saving the lives of those struck with cancer.
As I spoke about what we do, how we do it, and importantly why we do it – my enthusiasm about this era of biomedical research couldn’t be contained. All I had to do was speak from the heart, explain clearly why we do what we do, and convey the immense impact of our research.
Apparently, this resonated with the crowd because after the votes were counted, it was announced that biomedical science and personalised medicine are most likely to change the world!
For me, participating in this event wasn’t about winning, it was about inspiring the audience with my story and if I’m honest, it was also about motivating myself. The questions and feedback from the crowd, the young scientists I engaged with after the event, and the votes of affirmation from people who believe in what we do – I found very inspiring.
These events allow researchers to revisit the big picture, to take a step back from the minutia of a particular experiment, and refocus on the meaning of it all. I encourage all researchers to seek outreach opportunities. I believe that we can make a greater impact, by not only being at the bench, but through inspiring younger generations or encouraging donations to our cause. With all this momentum going our way, it will not be a question of if biomedical research will change the world, but by how much?
See how the debate unfolded via social media on our Storify summary.