05/02/2006 11:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Weird Science

For many of us, science is uncharted territory - stem cells, molecules, DNA, the genome, etc., are words and concepts about which the general public possesses a rudimentary knowledge, at best. But for research scientists - those high-functioning individuals engaged in the business of exploring, explaining, and conquering diseases -- science is the next frontier, and they are the tour guides. Aided by investigative tools like the Micron Microscope, researchers have introduced us to the age of weird science -- Nanotechnology, Genomics, Angiogenesis, Proteomics, and boy am I glad.

While nanotechnology may be a relatively new concept for the scientifically challenged, in research laboratories, it is king. The "nano world" is infinitesimally small - so small it is measured in negative power -- try to imagine 10 to the negative 10. Such smallness is nearly unfathomable. But scientists working in this realm seem to be comfortable with quantum dots, nanotubes, and nanoparticules, and they're using them to tease out potential cures and targeted treatments for the plagues of our day, including cancer.

The scientific study of the mechanisms of the "nano" world includes discussions of system biology, cell and tissue engineering, targeted therapies, and pathways -- all heady stuff. But for those who know their way around this "heady" stuff, it's very exciting. Stymied by pernicious, virulent and clever cancers that wreck havoc on the body's normal cells, scientists are focusing on the mind-numbingly small elements that comprise cells - down to the proteins within them - to discover ways to stop cancer cells from growing. Working at the "nano" level - scientists have discovered pathways - and are using them to introduce targeted particles into the body, which will follow the discovered pathways, attach to specific parts of cancer cells and effectively disable them. This is great news for people who are battling for their lives.

The bad news is, NIH funding in the United States is going flat. New, young scientists are having trouble getting grants, and older, seasoned scientists are having trouble sustaining and renewing them. We need to fund scientific exploration. The NIH Roadmap for 2003 stated that "Clinical Research is the most difficult but also the most important challenge for the next decade." Well, here we are in 2006, and this prophetic assessment still stands.

The exact details of systems biology and pathogen pathways may be foggy for most of us, but one thing is crystal clear -- in order for research scientists to chart the roadmap for cures, we need to find, and advocate for the funding pathways to finance them. The investigation of pathways to targeted medicine could be one of the most significant endeavors for clinical research today.