During times of crisis, it is common for science to be expected to deliver a reply to the calamity without much, if any, consideration for the scientific process itself. This has long been a challenge with any topic that impacts human health. Whether you reflect on the development of the first antibiotic or vaccine, clinical use of insulin for the first time, or even design and implantation of the first artificial heart—though the latter has never come to be used as a permanent solution—the time and investment required to make these first strides was tremendous, and the loss of human life beforehand, significant. In earlier eras, ailments were simply untreatable, and patients were sure to meet certain death. Today, most human mortality remains driven by medical causes, with heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, stroke and cerebrovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s making the top 10. These battles have been at the forefront of medical science for decades, and each of them arise from interactions within and between highly complex cellular and physiologic systems, often where there is simply not a single magic bullet as corrector. Discoveries and advancements alike have most definitely been made, with length and quality of life having been extended for those afflicted, but these diseases are so commonplace in our world and vernacular, it isn’t a stretch for non-scientists to merely respect the complexity and steepness of tackling these challenges. Investments that encompass medical and clinical science and the broader realm of biotechnology must continue, and it is important to underscore the need to continue these investments to our citizens and public officials.
In a recent The Hill article, House Representatives Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) underscore why federal investment in science and technology is so critical, particularly to develop brand new and advance nascent biological technologies. A more recent player in the development of biological technologies is setting out to do exactly that: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or “DARPA”. While you may think of military technologies or the internet when you hear “DARPA”, the Agency has made extensive strides over the past several years in accelerating biotechnology development. In addition to bringing new products to our women and men in uniform, and sparking the growth of innovation and new business in the biotechnology realm, today DARPA has contributed immensely in response to the current COVID-19 crisis, including investments in a fast-detection point-of-care diagnostic, a more cost-effective ventilator, and novel and rapid vaccine deployment technologies.
In a 2019 hearing, Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) asked the now former DARPA Director, Dr. Steven Walker, “What keeps you up at night.” Dr. Walker replied without pause: “Biology.” It is now more than ever that the American public needs to see continuing pro-active investment in the research and development enterprise, so they can have a better appreciation of, and patience for the cost and time required for the scientific process to come to fruition. Discoveries are made, not won, and big rewards in science and technology require taking big risks.