A lot of scientific and non-scientific discoveries are known to have been done by chance or even accident. We all know the story of how Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when one of his staph bacteria cultures got infected by a fungus. Another example that might not be as well-known is sildenafil, also known as Viagra. Originally developed to treat high blood pressure and angina (chest pains), this drug was quickly discovered to have other more “exciting” uses. Teflon, microwave ovens and LSD are other examples of common-day (well, for some anyway) appliances that were discovered by accident.
Science by chance happens all the time. Researchers looking for answers to one question find themselves answering another. Last week, I went to a seminar entitled “The role of actin cytoskeleton in glucose metabolism and the accumulation of fat” by Professor Peter Gunning from the University of New South Wales in Australia. He is the head of the Oncology Research Unit at the School of Medical Sciences and an expert on the protein tropomyosin (list of publications). Alongside the proteins actin and myosin, these are responsible for the contractile activity of muscle cells. But they also have functions in virtually all other cells in regulating cell structure, motility, division, adhesion and even signaling.
In searching for proteins that could be targeted in cancer treatment, they happened to discover that when mice were genetically engineered to overexpress a specific protein they had visibly increased fat mass in certain areas of the body. Similarly, when the same gene was knocked out (eliminated), the same areas of fat were smaller. Interestingly, and also rather counter-intuitively, the same overexpressing mice showed an increased glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity – parameters that are usually impaired in association with type 2 diabetes. Thus while the mice had more fat and therefore supposed to be more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, these mice showed quite the opposite. So, while looking for cancer target genes, they accidentally came across some very interesting findings that might prove important in a completely different area of research!
I wonder how often such discoveries are made – and do researchers always take the time to share findings that aren’t necessary relevant to their own work? I certainly hope so!