Basic research seeks to increase the understanding of a fundamental scientific principle, often without commercial benefit. Applied research uses scientific theories for a specific, often commercial, purpose. And as you might guess, applied research gets money first because scientific administrators get paid to deliver immediate results.
Public policy guru Donald Stokes, in his 1997 book, “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” postulated that the most meaningful discoveries bridge the gap between applied and basic research.
Stokes claimed that you can go beyond Vannevar Bush’s thinking and sort research further, into three distinct classes: pure basic research; pure applied research; and use-inspired basic research, or “Pasteur’s Quadrant.”
For example, science that advances our understanding of a fundamental principle, such as Niels Bohr’s work with quantum mechanics and atomic structure, falls into the pure basic research quadrant.
The pure applied research quadrant houses technological breakthroughs that have societal benefits and commercial viability but don’t advance fundamental science, such as Thomas Edison’s phonograph or light bulb.
If you can develop something that advances fundamental science AND has incredible societal and commercial benefit, you’ve hit a home run. You’re in the use-inspired basic research quadrant or Pasteur’s quadrant.
It’s called Pasteur’s quadrant because the work of Louis Pasteur is thought to epitomize this theory. His research not only advanced basic science but produced societal benefits, such as pasteurization to prevent illness, the rabies vaccine and the germ theory of disease.
Of course, it’s also possible to create a commercially viable product that is neither a technological nor a basic science breakthrough. My favorites here are Ron Popiel’s Veg-O-Matic or the Pocket Fisherman. Put them in the Ronco quadrant. Or as Ron would say, “Set it and forget it!”
Dr. Jonas Salk’s 1955 introduction of the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh would fall into Pasteur’s quadrant. Three years earlier, the worst polio outbreak involved 58,000 cases. More than 3,000 patients died and 20,000 were left with paralysis. When Salk started his research, his sole objective was to determine the number of types of polio. He later saw that he could extend the project and develop a vaccine. As a result, polio has been virtually eradicated. When asked who owned the patent for the vaccine, Salk famously replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
From a research perspective, the scientists of UPMC/University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine seek to live in Pasteur’s quadrant. Their work is a cross between The Six Million Dollar Man and Frankenstein — “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”
Dr. Alan Russell, the animated British expatriate from Manchester who runs McGowan, likes to explain the Pittsburgh institution by discussing Prometheus, the ill-fated Titan from ancient Greek mythology, whom Zeus chained to a rock so a great bird would eat his liver.
“Prometheus’ liver was eaten by the vulture every day and every night it grew back,“ Dr. Russell said. “That’s regenerative medicine. Imagine if you could accomplish that with your heart, your kidneys, and your liver.”
In fact, scientists at the McGowan Institute are working on artificial livers, hearts, lungs and eyes.
From a research standpoint, the Institute’s more than 250 different projects can be broadly grouped into four major areas: tissue engineering and biomaterials; cellular therapies; medical devices and artificial organs; and clinical translation.
While the institute has only been in business for eight years, it has produced some exciting advancements, which Dr. Russell characterizes as exciting, but not as major medical game changers like the Salk vaccine.
“People have been hitting singles for a long time,” Dr. Russell said. “A few doubles and the odd triple, and they are amazingly exciting. I’d say we’re still waiting for the home run.” In essence, he’s trying to get his researchers to constantly aim for Pasteur’s Quadrant.
A few examples include the new Hemolung artificial lung system being developed with local start-up ALung; the BrainPort Vision Device, which functions like an artificial eye; a diabetes-suppressive cell vaccine; an acid-reflux treatment device as well as a minimally invasive surgical technique for esophageal cancer; successful single and double hand transplants; injection of a patient’s own bone-marrow stem cells into the heart during bypass surgery; an extracellular matrix for tissue regeneration; and the Leksell Gamma Knife Perfexion.
A particularly special case involves Dr. Stephen Badylak’s work in tissue re-engineering and his discoveries related to the extracellular matrix. Dr. Badylak was using tissue from an intestine to re-create an aorta for a dog’s heart. Months later, he discovered that the dog’s system didn’t create scar tissue on the heart but had morphed itself into tissue that looked like the heart. This led Dr. Badylak’s research team to discover ways to help tissue regenerate without leaving super-tough scar tissue.
Pittsburgh-based life sciences company Precision Therapeutics seems to be one of the local companies that’s closest to hanging out with Pasteur.
Because cancer patients don’t respond the same way to chemotherapy, treatments must be individualized. Precision Therapeutics was founded in 1995 by a bunch of scientists with, according to the company, “the sole aim of developing and delivering technology that could help a physician select the appropriate chemotherapy for an individual patient — giving them an edge in the fight against cancer.”
The result is ChemoFx, which is a test that seeks to predict a cancer patient’s tumor response to various chemotherapy treatments. Basically, it helps the oncologist develop the most effective chemo cocktail so the patient has the best chance of beating cancer.
The local investment community stands to reap substantial benefits if Precision succeeds. However, the world should want the company to win for another reason. If it succeeds, it will save or extend lives.
Because it’s private, sales figures aren’t available, but in September the company made Inc. magazine’s list of Fastest Growing Companies and CEO Sean McDonald won Smart Business’s Pacesetter Award.
One thing is probably correct. If Louis Pasteur were alive, he’d like what continues to go on in the life sciences in Pittsburgh.