One of the reasons that excited me in joining CENtral Science was that ACS has a long history of community and K-12 outreach. Among most scientists, we’re lucky in chemistry and pharmacology because it’s pretty easy to explain to the public why our work is important in their lives.
Scientists supported by federal grants are increasingly pushed to justify their funding to the taxpaying public – with a bit of grumbling in some quarters. But those of you reading here are likely to be old hats at presenting your work to the public, in museums, at science cafes, and in open houses at your universities. We always talk about “outreach” in our professional academic evaluations but as far back as I can remember, chemists have been the kings and queens of real, substantive community outreach.
This is one of the reasons that I always make time when a journalist calls for commentary on a topic that fits my area of expertise – or, if it doesn’t, to direct them to someone who is an expert. So, I was delighted to be contacted a couple of weeks ago by writer and a book author, Maia Szalavitz (HuffPo bio, Twitter), who was writing a piece on the strange world of drug origins for TIME Healthland and MSN Health & Fitness.
Yours truly has a quote in there about the source of hyaluronic acid, now sold in injectable form for alleviating arthritis (Hyalan®, SynviscOne®, Supartz®) and in oral supplements of dubious effectiveness (I also learned after the interview that my new contact lens solution also contains hyaluronic acid!).
This isn’t entirely shameless self-promotion. (In fact, I needed to correct my statement about the discovery of Adriamycin on the last page of the photogallery – the microbial source came from the nearby soil and not the side of the castle depicted above; the castle is also not on an island but rather near the Adriatic coast of Apulia. Streptomyces also resemble filamentous fungi morphologically but are in fact bacteria.)
What was more important to me was that Szalavitz speak with one of my mentors, Dr. Manuskh Wani, co-discoverer of Taxol and camptothecin whose laboratory was designated an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2003. He has forgotten more about natural products than I have ever learned.
Among public audiences, Szalavitz is getting the most mileage out of the story of nuns’ urine as a source of a the prescription fertility treatments, the FSH/LH products Menopur and Pergonal.
She covers a great deal of historical ground in the MSN photogallery, from Gila monster venom (exenatide, Byetta®) to Brazilian pit vipers (the forerunner to captopril) as drug sources or leads.
A couple of great lessons come from these examples for us scientists. Most of these discoveries came from the collaboration of biomedical researchers and chemists, both in and out of the medical field. Many of the natural products isolated in these cases required optimization by synthetic medicinal chemists or protein chemists. Perhaps the most important message implied by Szalavitz’s stories is that some of these discoveries came from very esoteric corners of biology – those that might not be funded today, or questioned by attention-seeking politicians, because of the push for direct medical relevance of a project.
It bears repeating, and is beautifully illustrated by these TIME and MSN features of Maia Szalavitz, that the broad funding of solid biological research regardless of area can pay medical dividends above and beyond building our foundation of knowledge. I strongly recommend that educators make use of these photographs and descriptions in their outreach activities to demonstrate why we need to study seemingly far-fetched ideas and organisms.
One last word: Outreach activities are an essential part of our responsibilities as professionals and ambassadors for our discipline. But, dare I say, outreach can also be fun.
Thank you, Maia Szalavitz, for bringing our world to the masses with such an elegant and visual approach.
Readers: What’s your favorite story of the origin of a drug?
Leave a Reply