TCS Daily

Science's Barry Bonds

By Henry I. Miller - July 2, 2004 12:00 AM

A fresh-faced medical intern greeted his new patient with a breezy, "So what's your problem?" "Oh, just a touch of leukemia," the pallid fellow answered.

But that was in the mid-1950's when there was no such thing as "a touch" of leukemia or any other cancer. We knew almost nothing about the disease -- its cause, or how to prevent, treat or cure it -- except that it was a death sentence and a gruesome end. The incident is burned indelibly in the memory of that intern, who afterwards regretted his cavalier attitude; and it shaped the course of his professional life.

That doctor, now graying at seventy years of age, is Philip Leder, chairman of the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the all-time giants of American science.

I was reminded of all this by an extraordinary recent event: a reunion of the students and postdoctoral fellows who toiled in Phil Leder's labs -- at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and more recently at Harvard Medical School -- over more than 40 years. Almost 200 of us journeyed to Boston from all over the United States and from a dozen foreign countries ranging from Israel to Japan. The roster reads like a Who's Who of medical research; many of the attendees are senior investigators at places like the NIH and the creme de la creme of research universities and institutes around the world.

The one-day event was a rare and poignant experience, but one that is emblematic of the top rank of academic research. There were eighteen talks besides mine, all at the cutting edge of science. The subjects were varied and arcane, but the take-home lesson was unmistakable: Under scientists' relentless molecular probing and dissection, the secrets of cellular regulation, normal and abnormal, are being revealed.

The speakers were truly the best and the brightest: As they were introduced and brief resumes read, it seemed that almost every one had attended an Ivy League school or MIT, and then a first-rank PhD program or medical school before going to Phil Leder's lab. Many of them boast an MD and PhD.

Oh, the things that Phil and his armies of ardent acolytes have accomplished over the years! Signal contributions to an improbably large number of fields that serve as the basis for an amazing spectrum of today's cutting edge medical research: early on, the cracking of the genetic code that directs RNA to synthesize proteins; the arrangement of hemoglobin genes on human chromosomes; and the way that lymphocytes are induced to synthesize antibodies.

But Phil's greatest achievements have come since he left NIH for Harvard in the 1980's; not coincidentally, it is those breakthroughs that pay a debt to his leukemia patient of half a century ago. He and his colleagues have made phenomenal strides in recognizing and characterizing the molecular abnormalities in cancer cells and in identifying possible targets for drug therapy. Many of the newest chemotherapeutic agents are based on their work. In addition, Phil was the inventor of the "Oncomouse," which serves as an important model for human breast cancer, and was the first animal to be patented.

The scientific symposium at the reunion went on for more than ten consecutive hours, with only short breaks for lunch and coffee. Before beginning a scientific presentation, virtually every speaker had a sweet, warm reminiscence about Phil and the time spent in his lab; a few showed slides of old softball games, group photos, or quips that Phil had written in their laboratory books.

At the dinner that followed the marathon scientific session, Dr. Shirley Tilghman, who was in the lab during my years there and who is now president of Princeton University, spoke emotionally about Phil as a person and scientist. She described the ethos that we all embraced, "It's the passion for science that drives us," and how nurturing the atmosphere was, in spite of the grueling pace, often running to sixty- or seventy-hour weeks. Shirley recalled that on her first day in the lab, as she was weighing out reagents to make solutions, she heard for the first time (of many) Phil's rich baritone behind her, "I know a better way to do that." And invariably, he did.

Shirley reminded us that as we toiled, and learned from Phil (who worked equally long hours beside us), we got smarter, discovered how to ask the right scientific questions, and did better and better experiments. In the process, we accumulated new knowledge a little at a time and published our results, inviting others around the world to replicate and build on them.

Shirley added that Phil also taught us, by his example, how to show respect for and get the best from those whom we, ourselves, would supervise in our own careers, in or out of science.

In response to Shirley's remarks, Phil thanked us, emphasizing that it is a privilege, and also a great personal joy, to exploit our powerful scientific tools and ingenuity to elucidate the way that Nature works, in health and disease. He urged us to repay his mentoring by training future generations of scientists. He invoked the memory of his leukemia patient of almost half a century ago.

There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Why these reminiscences from me? First, to make the point that research on the fundamental questions of biology - most of which is funded by the federal government -- is hard, rewarding, and a superlative societal investment. And second, to express admiration for my old lab chief -- a consummate scientist, superlative teacher, valued mentor, and all-around Mensch. May he enjoy many more productive years recruiting new soldiers for the war against disease and death.

Henry Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was a postdoctoral fellow in Philip Leder's lab at the National Institutes of Health from 1977 to 1979.


TCS Daily Archives