Science aficionados should have appreciated yesterday’s Science Times in The New York Times. The section always does a good job with special issues focusing on single subjects, which have, in the past, included evolution, space exploration, and healthcare.
Yesterday’s package, about genomics, was no exception. As we reported here last May, while the field of epigenetics has been gaining ever more attention since the human genome was decoded nearly ten years ago, it’s still an intensely mysterious field. Traditionally, scientists believed that heritable genes, or short pieces of DNA, governed our individual physical and psychological characteristics. It has become evident, however, that a number of external molecular factors affect those genes in poorly understood ways. When we published our column in May, the news was mostly about “gene expression,” and the idea that certain genes could be turned “on and off.” The Science Times ratcheted up this genomic rethinking even further with a handful of articles that report how scientists are fundamentally rethinking the definition of a gene:
In this jungle of invading viruses, undead pseudogenes, shuffled exons and epigenetic marks, can the classical concept of the gene survive? … These new concepts are moving the gene away from a physical snippet of DNA and back to a more abstract definition.
In the same piece, a scientist tells the Times’s Carl Zimmer that “I think it’s a paradigm shift in how we think the genome is organized.” Other articles discuss the nitty-gritty of RNA and a novel theory of the genome’s relationship to mental disorders. There are also excellent graphics and an glossary of genetics terms, which seems particularly appropriate given that evolving definitions seem to be the point of the section (Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a full round-up here). At any rate, the Science Times’s work is a great example of journalism staying current with science and finding a way to a tell story with no obvious news peg (save for the fact that it’s been almost 100 years since Danish geneticist Wilhelm Johanssen coined the term “gene,” which, thankfully, is not overemphasized).
The genomic package was so good, in fact, that it may have caused some readers to overlook the other notable science article in yesterday’s paper, which appeared on the cover of another (Thanksgiving-inspired) special section called Giving. It’s an unexpected place for science, perhaps, but it provides a hook to another seemingly pegless but imminently important story. This one is about the private medical research foundations, each geared toward curing a specific disease, that are bridging the gap between government-funded basic research and applied therapies.
The Times’s account, by business writer Joe Nocera, focuses on the eponymous foundation created by actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease. In its attempts to find the cause of and cure for that neurological disorder, Nocera writes, the Fox Foundation, “has joined a small but growing group of what might be called activist disease foundations — foundations that operate with speed and urgency and a business model completely unlike the traditional foundation model, or the National Institutes of Health, for that matter.”
Essentially, what sets the Fox Foundation apart is its business-oriented, rather than philanthropy-oriented, approach. Instead of growing its grant-making endowment, Fox is concerned with getting money to researchers that need it, and actively monitoring the return on that investment. The kind of return the organization expects, however, is also different.
There are generally two paths that biomedical research can follow: basic (which is usually publically funded) and applied (which is usually privately funded). The problem is that discoveries produced by the former can take an astoundingly long time to evolved into the medicines and therapies produced by the latter. The Fox Foundation wants to improve upon that system by focusing on “translational” research—“meaning the applied biology research it paid for was intended to eventually translate into a treatment or a drug.”