“It’s Hard Even on the Good Days”, the second chapter of Richard Harris’ book, Rigor Mortis, continues to deeply analyze the reproducibility and legitimacy of biomedical research. Some of the content found within this chapter answered my questions regarding bias and failure about the last, which helped me to better understand the overall message of the book.
Harris uses telomerase to exemplify how scientific truth can become obscured when separate labs performing the same experiment produce different results. He described it as “A vital enzyme involved in in aging and cancer” (page 33), but I chose to do some deeper research. I found that telomerase is made up of RNA and proteins, and lengthens chromosomes. Though it typically is not used in somatic cells (any non-reproductive cell), when activated, it will cause the cell to continue to reproduce rather than age. This discovery is very exciting because it provides the possibility of cells that never die. On their website, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center writes “Cellular aging, or senescence, is the process by which a cell becomes old and dies. It is due to the shortening of chromosomal telomeres to the point that the chromosome reaches a critical length. Cellular aging is analogous to a wind up clock. If the clock stays wound, a cell becomes immortal and constantly produces new cells. If the clock winds down, the cell stops producing new cells and dies. Our cells are constantly aging. Being able to make the body’s cells live forever certainly creates some exciting possibilities. Telomerase research could therefore yield important discoveries related to the aging process”. While this research is hopeful in that it could provide cures and potentially increase longevity of human life, telomerase is found in cancer cells. They continue to reactivate it, resulting in practically immortal cells. This is obviously dangerous because it means tumors can grow very quickly, and also makes cancer incredibly hard to treat.
When discussing reproducibility, Harris made an example out of Curt Hines and Mina Bissell at Berkeley. Hines was studying breast cancer, and shared the results of his experiment with his colleagues in another state. They got different results performing what they thought were identical tests. It took an entire year to find the very small issue. In a time when solutions and cures are so necessary, it doesn’t seem researchers can afford to make these mistakes, let alone spend years trying to duplicate other’s work. If such small changes can affect an experiment so much, are the results actually useful? If a new drug is being tested and the temperature or vial size are slightly altered and won’t work, how do we know it will work within various human bodies?