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Akhilesh Pandey of Biological Chemistry and the Institute of Genetic Medicine on discoveries, databases and the sociology of science:
A major focus of your work is to find biomarkers for cancers – molecules in the bloodstream that allow for early detection. What’s the best way to go about this daunting task?
PANDEY: The field is still not settled about what is the best way to find biomarkers. The issue is, do we need to find more markers or can we benefit from the already-published reports out there that no one is paying attention to? In my lab, we are experimentalists and also do bioinformatics. Our attitude is that these two paths are not mutually exclusive: that of discovering new markers and re-exploring old ones that haven’t yet been sorted out as good or bad.
What motivated you to devote limited resources to a collective 7000-hour slog through tens of thousands of articles mining dusty data and prioritizing it for others?
PANDEY: We are trying to be the road warriors in a sense. Trying to set a trend. As a proof-of-principle study, we tackled pancreatic cancer. The biomarker for pancreatic cancer might already be known, but we won’t know we know it without further testing and validation.
But who’s responsible for the further testing and validation of these 2,516 candidate markers – as well as all those yet to be discovered?
PANDEY: I think we need a divide-and-conquer strategy. We need to shake this list out; shorten it. If a hundred labs each buckled down and used brute force to test one or two of the 200 best candidates, we’d make progress. There’s a lot of effort on discovery, and we want to give equal importance to scientific compilation-- the non-gratifying part of research, the part in academic medicine where there’s little fame or glory. I’m saying, let’s take an integrated view.
You’re saying, let’s address the sociology of science?
PANDEY: Yes. We set the stage to systematically avoid many of the things that are the most relevant and important for us in order to progress as a community. It’s shocking. As a society, we are spending billions on research and people are discovering things and many of them, as far as I can tell, are potentially being wasted. There needs to be a Google-of-sorts for scientists and clinicians to access research on biomarkers for all cancers. Even though these are important activities – as important as discovery -- there’s little incentive to compile and prioritize such lists, or to further test candidate biomarkers, many of which may not pan out. Despite lots of talk about systems biology, also known as personalized medicine, we don’t even have the most basic building blocks in place for this dream. But we’re getting the foundation ready for doing systems biology in the context of pancreatic cancer.