Fruit Flies  and Frog Skin - How obscure discoveries lead to scientific advances

Hans Ussing probably never imagined that his work would have a major impact on understanding human disease.

Back in the 1950s, the Danish scientist was studying ion transport across frog skin. In layman’s terms: He was looking at how frogs absorb salt from pond water.

Big deal, right?

Turns out, it was.

Twenty-some years later, researchers looked at his data and methodology, and applied it to their work with cystic fibrosis.

“Using his techniques and theories, we and others learned that cystic fibrosis involves a defect in the movement of the salt chloride across the bronchial lining. That finding was important to understanding the disease, and set the field on a path to discovery,” says Michael J. Welsh, a professor of internal medicine and molecular physiology and biophysics at The University of Iowa since the 1980s. “Now we know the gene that causes this disruption—it was discovered by researchers in Toronto and Michigan. But Ussing’s research was the first insight into what was going on.”

The lesson: Basic science is important—and not nearly as esoteric as it sounds. Those studies—about yeast cells or bacteria or fruit flies or frog skin—build a knowledge base that can propel science forward. The findings, methodology, and analysis techniques gained from that research can be—and often are—applied to studies that tackle more complex problems, like developing a cure for a specific disease.

Building Blocks of Discovery

“Sometimes it’s hard for people who haven’t been in a lab for an extended time to understand the process of discovery,” says Welsh, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and the Carver Biomedical Chair in Internal Medicine. “I think there’s an idea of a scientist working alone, discovering things all by him- or herself. It rarely works that way. It would be very, very difficult to just jump right into understanding and developing a cure for cystic fibrosis or any other disease. Most of the methods we use have been invented or developed by people facing completely unrelated problems.”

Findings are shared through journals, lectures, and even just talking with colleagues in other departments.

“When you discuss a problem or data, new approaches and novel ideas come out,” Welsh says. “The strategies and ideas that emerge are incredibly powerful for pursuing a problem.”

From Bench to Bedside

While some research is undertaken simply to add to the foundation of scientific knowledge without ever knowing how it might be applied to practical problems like treating or curing a disease, it’s increasingly common for those seemingly obscure or random studies to be conducted with a larger end goal already in mind.

“These days, the trend is that to get grant funding for research, you have to show how your work is potentially translatable to a clinical setting,” says Michael Hildebrand, a postdoctoral researcher in otolaryngology at the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. “It doesn’t necessarily have to happen straight away, but you have to show how this information is going to lead to a treatment for a particular disease, or alleviate the symptoms of a particular condition.”

Of course, not every theory pans out. But that’s useful, too. Negative findings—that is, learning that there is no relationship between X and Y—are also shared.

“Then the next researcher who comes along won’t waste time or money researching that avenue, and can focus on something else,” Hildebrand explains.

And sometimes a project takes on a completely new dimension when unexpected data pops up.

For example, when searching data on candidates for a study about genetic causes of deafness, Hildebrand and his colleagues happened upon a pattern of infertility in two Iranian families. They investigated further and discovered a gene mutation that interferes with normal sperm movement.

The finding, which could be a small, early step in developing male contraception or treatment for male infertility, gained national attention, with numerous mentions in the popular press.

“It’s a common thing in research that your best projects end up being complete sidetrack projects,” Hildebrand says. “People tend to think that we’re focused on one particular area of medicine, but what we’re really interested in is genetic diseases, and we can apply the same basic genetic principals to any type of disease.”

Anne Kapler

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Funding Findings

These financially trying times make an academic scientist’s responsibility for obtaining funding all the more challenging. Despite increasingly stiff competition for grants, UI researchers continue to draw dollars needed to pay salaries, fund experiments, purchase equipment, etc.

In July, the Office of the Vice President for Research announced that total external funding (the money awarded for successful grant applications) grew last year by 10.3 percent, for a total of $429.5 million.

Private donors also benefit research. In September 2008, the Fraternal Order of Eagles pledged $25 million to create an institute dedicated to diabetes research. The University’s planned Institute for Biomedical Discovery will be home to the institute: the Eagles’ funding will support endowed chairs and fellowships for diabetes researchers, grants for innovative research ideas, and recruitment of leading scientists. In July 2009, Beth L. Tross (who attended Iowa from 1978 to 1983), and Nathan R. Tross (BA, ’83), of Highland Park, Ill., pledged $1 million to establish the Beth L. Tross Epilepsy Research Fund in the Department of Neurosurgery, to accelerate efforts to discover new treatments for epilepsy.

© The University of Iowa 2009