December 3, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Cash-strapped researchers have turned to an unusual source of income to fund their trials ...

As far as namesfamous_funding_main go Ad5[CgA-E1A-miR122] PTD (Ad5 for short) is neither catchy nor all that memorable. But, should someone stump up enough cash, to the tune of £1 million, their name would replace this rather unwieldy mouthful.

And why would anyone want this seemingly pointless honour? Ad5 is an oncolytic adenovirus, manipulated by a Swedish research team to specifically target and kill neuroendocrine tumours, a pancreatic version of which killed Steve Jobs. So far the virus has only undergone pre-clinical trials in mice, though the results are promising. The money would be used to push the virus into Phase 1 clinical trials in humans; an expensive process that the Swedish team can’t afford with their current financial support. Their funding issue reached the ears of English author Alexander Masters, and, with his support, the story of the Ad5 virus went… well, viral.

Several issues are raised by this tale, though one of the most pertinent is scientific funding. Superficially the exchange seems innocent enough. The scientists get their money; the virus enters clinical trials; while a rich person gets named after the modified virus. The whole thing might not even succeed in Phase 1 trials, and the Paris Hilton/David Beckham/Kim Kardashian virus ends up relegated to the footnotes of obscure Scandinavian journals. Big deal.

Scientific funding in the current economic climate is inarguably tight. Money is not a resource that is being freely splashed about, and more and more specialised research groups are fighting over dwindling cash piles. Is it therefore wrong for scientists to stick a price tag on their work and offer those rich enough the opportunity to have their names pinned onto drugs or other cures? Maybe not, but it’s a non-trivial question.

In order to earn funding scientists would have to sensationalise their work to some degree, hyping up the benefits of their research to draw in people with more money than scientific expertise. Already the Ad5 virus suffers from this to some degree, being described using such phrases as “a cancer-eating virus” and even “assassin”. While it is true that even those applying for grant proposals need to put some positive spin on their work, it would require far more to draw in hesitant philanthropes. Enter unscrupulous scientists with wildly overblown claims, and there is the worrying  thought that science’s image would be further distorted in the public’s eyes as a process that sucks in money without providing results. Thus, further dampening support for currently existing, publically funded research grants.

People want results, and if stumping up so much cash, they would inevitably gravitate towards those scientists ‘promising’ cures. It is a tricky issue. Regrettably science tends to suffer during hard times, but funding by individuals seeking some form of recognition ought not to be seized upon, lest a trend is set. The storm, as they say, must be weathered. But who knows. Maybe, several decades down the line I’ll be sitting in a hospital, waiting for my injection of Donald Trump. Perhaps then I’ll change my mind.