The middle of the summer is already here and hopefully most activities related to academics have quieted down for you to some extent. The tsunami of meetings during Spring has likely generated many good ideas for all of us to ponder, plan, and activate with all the renewed zeal that naturally comes after vacation is over, as we prepare for our teaching courses, write our grants and plan new experiments. The grid of information generated from the ASIP 2016 Annual Meeting at EB in the Spring and the new ideas that came after we presented our research will undoubtedly become foci for nucleation of new ideas as we move to the new academic year.
This gives me the opportunity to remind all members that as we plan for the activities of the Fall, the PISA meeting sponsored by ASIP In Houston from October 20 -22, is also going to have a very rich program touching on most topics of modern tissue biology and pathobiology, with distinguished speakers in multiple areas of expertise and likely to provide panoramic snapshots of the status of rapidly evolving areas of study, giving us assurance that we do know and understand all things that we should know for writing our new grant or paper, and living up to the typical career-advancing expectations of the Fall.
ASIP is a most interesting society (even though I am biased...) ASIP is in the scientific grid that links many other societies that are more dedicated to diseases of specific organs or systems. In fact, many ASIP members also belong to other societies with a specific focus along organ-specific lines. The uniqueness of ASIP, however, is in its integrative function, in creating an environment of thought and discussion where organ specific discoveries are examined against the spectrum of all other tissues, and parallel paradigms highlight the generality of the findings. I cannot think of another Society with such a broad integrative mission.
Tissue biology and pathobiology are at the core of research interests of ASIP members. And in that domain there is plenty to rejoice. The decipherment of the human genome initially made everybody wonder at the size and the complexity of the code. Soon thereafter, however, the opportunities for deeper understanding of cell and tissue functions became apparent, and ever since that time there has been a rapid growth of new discoveries, affecting all diseases. Cancer, a scary disease as it may be, is the low hanging fruit from a methodologic perspective. The differences between the normal genome and that of the cancer cells define the cause of the abnormal growth behavior and the lethality (or not) of the specific cancer types. However, current technologies are limiting, covering at best the exome portion of the genome (less than 5% of the total DNA). All current technologies are transient until the scan of the entire genome becomes a manageable event that can be quickly analyzed to provide information relevant to disease.
All of the above, however, lead me to the next topic: Given the complexity of understanding what lies ahead, how many lives and careers of scientists would be required to accomplish a functional comprehension of disease pathogenesis? Assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that 75% of “total understanding” is sufficient, at the current rate of progress it could easily take 50 to 100 years before we reach that milestone. After the original cascade of publications related to genome mile markers, the rate of growth has slowed down. Partly due to technology limitations and restrictions in funds available, it is hard to see today that the rate of new discoveries can accelerate beyond the current; it will hopefully hold on to current status, unless some major technology breakthrough comes on the horizon.
Of more concern is the rising tenor of voices arguing that too many scientists are being trained and that somehow academia and industry are saturated. From a current career “topology,” and if the goal of training scientists is merely to fill the existing slots in the US, perhaps the mathematics support the gloomy concerns. This would change, however, if the full exploitation of the wealth of possibilities arising from the human genome decipherment were to be viewed as a national (and perhaps an international..a G7? or a G20 group?) imperative. The opportunities that emerge from genomics are boundless. The genomes of parasites can be exploited for new methods of eradication of disease as the human genome can and will be used to improve “the human condition.” Should we be thinking of curtailing the training of new scientists only because the current number of slots available is becoming saturated? The current research dynamic is still dominated by rubrics of the mid-twentieth century; more discoveries generate new opportunities for scientific economy of growth and more employment opportunities. Personally, I believe that we need more scientists, not fewer, with a government approach in which not only grants will be given, but also funding for developing new research enterprises (the SBIR program comes close, but not enough). As the obvious climate changes and the need to take measures to alleviate it have taken roots in the minds of most people, so should the belief that science is the way to go in order to convert the “globalization” (a term much used lately) of markets into a worldwide network of health and welfare. I do submit that in that environment, if and when it occurs, fundamental understanding of human activities that need to be restrained to preserve the health of our planet will occur first in societies whose citizens are physically healthier.
A logical tangential deviation of this discourse is that anything we do to expand discoveries and improve health is, most of times, directed at some specific tissue. Tissue biology and pathobiology, the heart and soul of ASIP, is the “central avenue” of research leading to all the futuristic targets in biology that await us in the twenty-first century. This may sound maximalistic and grandiose, but it does cast a light against our Society’s profile that reveals what ASIP and its members look towards, not just in the next space of this year, but also beyond today’s horizon. More is yet to come.
George Michalopoulos, MD, PhD
Maude Menten Pathology Professor and Chair
Univ. of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC.