Should the government in response to urgings from AIDS activists allocate yet more money specifically to AIDS research? I say no, but not because I am against conquering AIDS; it is a scourge I deeply wish to see eradicated. Rather I say no because, as a biomedical researcher, I think our chances of beating AIDS are better if we allocate the money otherwise.
I contend that the money now targeted at AIDS research is reasonable (almost $800 million, 10 percent of the National Institutes of Health budget). In contrast, funding of untargeted basic biomedical research is inadequate. I argue here the seemingly paradoxical point that more support should go into basic research because it is there that major contributions to the ultimate solutions to AIDS, and other afflictions of humankind, will be found. AIDS ranks 13th, well behind cardiovascular disease and cancer, as a global cause of death, according to a 1990 World Health Organization report. Dollars spent on basic research can legitimately be considered part of the fight against AIDS.
Targeted (or applied) research, for example to develop a vaccine against HIV or to sequence the human genome, properly starts with the premise that we have the essential information we need to reach a particular goal; working within accepted paradigms, scientists seek to apply what is already known to the solution of the problem. Basic research, in contrast, starts with the premise that our knowledge base is insufficient for a direct attack and that a better understanding of fundamental life processes is essential for us to make truly significant progress. And, importantly, we cannot predict where or how that information is going to be found. So basic research must proceed on a broad front.
The effects of HIV infection on many physiological processes (brain function and resistance to the development of certain cancers, for example) remain mysterious, and we do not have a complete picture of how HIV kills. Because we do not understand the complexities of its interaction with our body, we cannot predict where the knowledge necessary to prevent it from killing us will originate. Few experienced scientists will dispute the assertion that important information, which will eventually allow us to solve this problem, will derive from research that may at first appear irrelevant to the disease process.
As one example of the importance of basic research, consider what molecular biologists call ''restriction enzymes.'' These enzymes cut DNA molecules at specific points in the DNA sequence, and in the past 20 years they have made possible many of the major advances in our understanding of living systems. Yet they were first discovered as the consequence of studies on an esoteric phenomenon in bacteria known as host cell restriction. No one at that time could have predicted the enormous impact this research would have on biomedical research, and it certainly would not have been supported by any program targeting AIDS or any other disease. However, without these enzymes our knowledge of human biology and HIV would be very much less than it is.
Let me describe two examples of basic research that until recently many would have considered irrelevant to the AIDS problem.
One is the mechanism of action of molecules called proteinases, which have been the subject of intensive scientific study for the past 50 years. Proteinases, of which there are numerous kinds, are enzymes that break down proteins, integral components of all cells and viruses. Research on HIV has revealed that a specific proteinase is essential for the virus to reproduce. Timely information gained from investigation of another proteinase (renin, which is important in blood pressure regulation) has been very useful in elucidating how the HIV proteinase works. Biochemists must study many proteinases (not just the HIV proteinase) in exquisite detail, because it is from the aggregate of these studies that a new generation of potential anti-HIV drugs, the proteinase inhibitors, will emerge.
My second example of basic research relevant to an AIDS patient concerns the way calcium is used in the brain. Calcium is critical to many functions in the body, including the transmission of signals in the nervous system. Because our knowledge of precisely how calcium acts is incomplete, neurophysiologists have for many years carried out basic research on its actions. Now that it is clear that neurological deficiencies are one of the most tragic manifestations of full-blown AIDS, further basic research in this area has become even more important.
The conclusion to be drawn not only from these two examples but also from almost all other aspects of AIDS research is that fundamental studies into all sorts of biological processes must be supported. Applied research, whatever the target disease, is nourished by the fruits of basic research, and the greater the available knowledge base, the more effectively (and sooner) the problem at hand will be solved. We do not know where the information crucial to solving the AIDS problem will be found, and I believe we have reached the point of diminishing returns as far as targeted AIDS research is concerned. The seeming paradox is that a full understanding of AIDS will depend very much upon research that is not directed at the AIDS problem.
AIDS has only recently surfaced as a problem. Given what we know about life on this planet, it is a safe bet that there will be occurrences of other as-yet-unrecognized diseases, perhaps to be caused by organisms that have not yet evolved. To deal with these impending threats, future generations of well-educated scientists will be required; we need to be able to understand and deal with things that we cannot now anticipate. Ways must be found to improve American education and to motivate our children to consider choosing the incredibly satisfying career that can be found in research and teaching. If the present downward trend in the support of basic research in the United States is allowed to continue, there will be an increasing scarcity of researchers trained to work effectively on problems such as AIDS.
The writer is chairman of the department of biological sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.