By Bob Hackett, Science Journalism Intern at Janssen R&D
I read in the theme of this year’s Dr. Paul Janssen Award—The Power of Science to Change the World—an unwritten corollary; how apparently small things can disproportionately impact the large. Science brims with underdogs. And science progresses through the dust clouds they leave in their wake.
So it was with this year’s winners. Dr. Victor Ambros and Dr. Gary Ruvkun co-discovered micro-RNAs, a class of miniature molecules, essential to life (human included), by looking inside unwitting, minuscule roundworms known as Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans for short), a nematode. Micro-RNAs are, as their name suggests, tiny. Typically only twenty-one nucleotides long. (Coincidentally, as many letters as are in “Caenorhabditis elegans”.) Yet scientists believe micro-RNAs to be central regulators of gene expression and development—essential to our every breath, movement, sight, sleep, digestion, cognition. Without them life is jeopardized and abnormalities abound. So small yet so vital.
My love for science stems from such underdogs. The micro-molecules, the mini-worms, the first few researchers who devote themselves to poking around inside…
If you wonder why a company like Janssen would be interested in such arcane science, it is because Dr. Paul, the Award’s namesake, taught us the matchless value of basic scientific research. As Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, recounted at the Award ceremony in a personal experience with Dr. Paul, even molecular structures scribbled on a paper napkin have the potential to ten years later save the lives of millions of patients.
That idea is built into the Dr. Paul Janssen Award trophy itself. On one side, a point pierces the endless frontier of knowledge and mounting, snowballs on the other into a bulbous paradigm. That’s what scientific revolution and disruptive innovation are all about. Suddenly, something clicks. Synapses ignite. Neurons rewire. An idea is born. As evidence accumulates an idea gains adherents and more neurons shift, lock, the idea grows, new notions bud off in miscellaneous directions and the earlier flash of inspiration, that now mythologized EUREKA! moment becomes a substantial scientific practice, an innovation. I am endlessly amazed.
That such transformational insights can ultimately result in benefits in the form of a tiny pill we might take for a headache or diarrhea, or in treatments for other more serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and schizophrenia, is astounding. Though it may take 10 years and a billion dollars, the lives saved certainly outweigh the exigencies of time and price.
At Janssen R&D we value and encourage the flicker of curiosity it takes to kindle the trailblazer’s torch. Drs. Ambros and Ruvkun are scientists who are, as Dr. Paul was, humbled by a sense of The Mystery. (Of life, that is.) And are exemplars of the power of science to probe it. I never met Dr. Paul, but I conjure the enduring image of him peering upward into the purple agar of a Petri dish. A pioneer, equal parts intrepid and inquisitive. Each of these scientists—Dr. Ambros, Dr. Ruvkun and Dr. Paul—is, in a sense, like C. elegans, a “model organism”. A role model. They continue to light the way.
Read more about this year’s winners, including biographies and full announcement, here.