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Basically amazing: why basic science matters more than ever

March 30, 2012

By Ignacio Lobos, Hutchinson Center External Communications Editor

It took me several tries before “kinetochore” rolled off my tongue. Nothing is easy about this “cellular machine” that makes a complicated Swiss watch look like a prehistoric toy.

kinetochores allow cells to separate and distribute their chromosomes accurately. In an article about basic science in the current issue of Quest, I described the way it goes about its job as being worthy of a Cirque du Soleil trapeze act—with the kinetochores pulling and releasing chromosomes into the right place at the right time and in the proper order before cells divide.

Why is it so important that kinetochores function flawlessly?

Well, if a single mistake takes place during cell division (known as mitosis), say an extra chromosome is manufactured and passed onto a daughter cell, we may end up with hereditary birth defects, miscarriages or cancer. Down syndrome, for example, occurs when cells produce an extra copy of chromosome 21.

So, when you look at kinetochores, you’re looking at mind-boggling machinery that allows cell division to happen 1 trillion times in a row without, hopefully, a mistake. That’s the number of cells it takes to build a human being—and every single cell needs to have the exact same set of chromosomes so we can function properly.

Dr. Sue Biggins and her Hutchinson Center team were the first to succeed in separating the kinetochores from dividing yeast cells (don’t miss our article on model organisms, which explains why we use yeast, worms and fruit flies to figure out how we function) and studying them in test tubes. This was not merely an academic exercise.

Dr. Sue Biggins

Dr. Sue Biggins

Because they play such an important role in chromosome segregation, knowing how they work turns them into very large therapeutic targets. And it’s quite possible that future research based on Biggins’ work could lead to drugs that disrupt kinetochores from doing their job in unhealthy cells. If these cells are unable to divide and propagate at all, there may be a way to stop a disease such as cancer.

This is basic science at its best—and the thrust of our Quest article:  basic scientific knowledge is essential to medical advances. Nearly every important drug and breakthrough therapy succeeds because it is based on our understanding of basic science.

More than any other area of biomedical research, basic science takes an entrepreneurial leap of faith. It requires a willingness to take risks on research that leads to truly meaningful rewards.

“The possibility that the work we are doing is going to save lives is a huge responsibility, but it’s also a huge privilege,” Dr. Harmit Malik, an evolutionary biologist at the Hutchinson Center, told me during an interview about his work. “Think about cancer. Basic science discoveries have completely changed the way we go about treating not just one type of cancer but every kind of cancer.

“Pretty much every successful cancer intervention strategy is traceable to a singular ‘Eureka!’ moment in a basic science lab,” he said.

Dr. Harmit Malik

Dr. Harmit Malik

We invite you to read more about basic science research at the Hutchinson Center. But I hope you’ll also support our efforts as well. Basic science is enormously expensive and every bit of help, well, helps! Thanks for reading.

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