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The Next Big Ideas
Editor's Note: The symposium will be held Sept. 25-26 at the Searle Center and the Schiciano Auditorium in the Fitzpatrick CIEMAS. Click here for the website. Registration is free and can be done on the website or by calling Jenny Jones at 919-667-2517 by Sept. 22.
Durham, N.C. - The Big Bang. DNA's double helix. Natural selection. The past century has seen breakthroughs in multiple fields of science that have transformed our view of the world. Faced with such a richness of achievements, people within the scientific community and beyond may wonder if all the Big Scientific Questions have been answered. But, as a conference at Duke this month will explore, past discoveries have only created more questions for future generations.
Where might the next major discoveries come from? On Sept. 25-26, 13 of the country's top scientists, including three Nobel Prize winners, will attend Duke Medicine's 75th Anniversary Science Symposium to share their thoughts on emerging great ideas in science and how today's discoveries might change medicine.
"I think science's next great idea will come from a youngster who stumbles upon it by asking interesting questions," says Thomas Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, who will speak at the symposium. Steitz believes the greatest advances in medicine come from basic scientific discoveries, which often have unexpected applications. In his own case, a desire to understand at the basic level how the information in a gene is used to create proteins led him to decipher the structure of the ribosome, a breakthrough that helped make this cellular protein factory a major target for researchers developing new antibiotics.
Thinking about possibilities at Duke
Thinking about big ideas is a major goal of Duke Medicine's strategic plan -- enhancing the ability of the faculty and students to think about these Big Questions in a way that can result in notable discoveries in biomedical science, says symposium organizer Dr. R. Sanders Williams, dean of the School of Medicine. The plan seeks to attract top scientists to join the ranks at Duke, and to invest resources to accelerate the progress of the excellent investigators already here.
"Duke's 75th Anniversary Science Symposium is both a fitting postscript to our remarkable history of high achievement in biomedical science, and a kickoff to a new era of unprecedented progress in this arena at Duke," Williams says.
One of today's hottest medical discoveries, Steitz says, is RNA interference, or RNAi. Scientists believe that RNAi evolved millions of years ago as nature's way of preventing harmful viruses from replicating inside cells.
RNA, the âchemical cousin' of DNA, functions like scratch paper inside cells, providing temporary sets of chemical instructions for making specific proteins. In RNAi, a tiny molecule attaches itself to a strand of RNA and tricks special enzymes in the cell into recognizing the RNA as a foreign invader. Those enzymes chop up the RNA, shredding the chemical instructions for making the protein.
Today scientists are taking advantage of the RNAi phenomenon by designing tiny molecules that attach to an RNA of the scientist's choice, thereby impairing the cell's ability to make a specific protein. Researchers are using the technique to study the functions of genes and proteins and to develop new therapies.
An impressive lineup of speakers
Paul Nurse, an expert on cancer research and cell biology who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, will give the symposium's keynote lecture on Sept. 25. Linda Buck, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discoveries about the sense of smell, will open the second day with a plenary lecture, which will be followed by five concurrent sessions featuring 10 scientists. Joseph Goldstein, whose 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine honored his studies of cholesterol metabolism, will present the symposium's final plenary lecture, "How to Solve a Scientific Puzzle: Clues from Broadway and Stockholm." The symposium will end with a reception at which these and other scientists will be available for more informal discussion.
Other symposium speakers range from former National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts to Carol Greider, whose groundbreaking research helped show the importance of the tiny telomeres found at the ends of chromosomes. They include Helen Hobbs, Richard Lifton, Steve McKnight, Eric Olson, Solomon Snyder, Thomas Steitz, Bruce Stillman and Christopher T. Walsh.
Steitz predicts the scientists who discovered RNAi will win a Nobel Prize within the next three years. "Almost as soon as RNAi was discovered, scientists were leaping on it to see if this knowledge could be used for practical purposes," he says.
Another speaker, Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, also believes RNAi will revolutionize medicine. "RNAi will be the wave of the future and will change the way we think about treating cancer," he says. Cancer treatment often demands a combination of therapies aimed at thwarting different aspects of the cancer. Stillman thinks RNAi may accelerate cancer treatment by enabling clinicians to simultaneously inhibit many different gene products, such as those that allow cancer cells to grow uncontrollably or spread throughout the body.
Other areas are ripe for discovery, too. "In the next 10 years, some of the great discoveries could come from the results of the Human Genome Project," Stillman says. In one of the monumental scientific accomplishments of our time, researchers sequenced and mapped the approximately 25,000 genes in the genome that comprise the blueprint for human beings. Researchers are now working to translate this achievement into clinical treatments.
"In the long term, I think the project will also give researchers the tools to begin understanding basic questions about human physiology and behavior, and eventually about the underlying basis of brain disorders," Stillman says.
Symposium speakers stress the need for young scientists to keep their minds open to all possibilities. "What the history of science teaches us, in terms of the next big ideas, is to expect the unexpected," says the symposium's plenary speaker, Joseph Goldstein, professor and chairman of the department of molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, who won the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on cholesterol metabolism.
The trick is to be ready for the unexpected, says symposium speaker Eric Olson, professor and chairman of the department of molecular biology at UT Southwestern. "You know the adages: âThe harder you work, the luckier you get.' âChance favors the prepared mind.' These adages definitely apply to science," Olson says. "In my own case, there have been moments of discovery when I was able to recognize the importance and meaning of a discovery before others because I had spent so much time thinking about the possibilities."
Olson adds that his own field of developmental biology is another potential area for big ideas. "Many of the genes that serve as the building blocks of development have been identified, so now we just need to understand how to put them together," Olson says. By studying the fundamentals of development, such as how organs are fashioned in the embryo, scientists may begin to determine how to manipulate stem cells to adopt specific fates, such as to turn into neurons or heart cells, Olson says.
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