Sunday, September 8, 2019


By Lily Hikam*)

Like any other child born and raised in the 90s and early 2000s, I was obsessed with the Harry Potter book series. The idea that there existed a fantastical and magical world just beyond the train station was fascinating to me. The more I delved into the story and learn about how the magical world operated the more excited I became. There was a side plot where Harry got injured in a quidditch match. He broke a bone in his forearm, or something to that effect, and as a remedy the Hogwarts School’s Nurse, Madam Pomfrey, gave him a potion called Skellegro, which enabled Harry’s body to regrow the bone overnight. The next day he was as good as new.

Skellegro is the silver bullet everyone in the field of regenerative medicine (yours truly included) is working to create. Imagine if any ailments in this world can be cured just by drinking a pill that can replace old, dying cells causing the diseases in your body. Pretty magical, right? This way we can eradicate any and all diseases in the world, improve life expectancy and alleviate human suffering.

If you have been following my writing, then you’d know that I’m a stem cell biologist. I have written extensively in the past about what stem cells are, what they can be used for and the potential of using stem cells in the field of medicine in the future. I primarily work with stem cells, utilizing its ability to differentiate into almost any cell type in the body to understand the molecular mechanism of inherited heart diseases. In the real world, stem cells is our Skellegro and more. In theory, it can be used to regrow any organ the human body has. Its potential is limitless.

Sounds amazing, right?

Except science is more complicated than it looks on TV and movies. I’ve been doing research for the last seven years, and more often my experiments fail rather than work. What results we do gain are what we call ‘preliminary results’ that still needed to be verified and tested for reproducibility. Groundbreaking results do not happen overnight, which makes research and science a very time consuming process with a very high rate of return on investment, something capitalists and businessmen will balk at funding. This is where the government and the taxpayers usually step in to fund basic scientific research projects, but I digress.

Basic research, also known as the preclinical phase, includes understanding the biology of the disease, identifying key pathways or molecular mechanisms governing a process so we can pinpoint what went wrong with it. Basic research projects are usually conducted in cell lines or animal models of diseases. The results of basic research, if promising will then be used in the next step which is clinical trials to assess a therapy’s safety and efficacy.

There are four phases of clinical trials a researcher or drug company has to pass before their drug can make it to the market. Phase I is conducted to ensure the therapy is safe for use; Phase II is conducted to ensure that the drug has any effect on the disease and with low to minimal side effects on a patient; Phase III is conducted to test whether the drug/therapy is effective, safe and better than the current therapy; Phase IV is conducted to assess the long term effect of a drug/therapy. Usually called “postmarketing surveillance”, this is conducted to monitor whether there is any adverse effect of prolonged use of the drug/therapy.

A drug/therapy has to pass all three phases, then and only then will it be approved and safe for public use. This whole thing will take at least ten years, and most projects usually fail at the phase 1 of clinical trials due to various reasons, from inability to recruit enough patients, poor study design, lack of funding or even inability to replicate data shown in the preclinical phase. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a long and arduous process that has to be followed before anyone can make a claim “this drug can cure X disease”.

But of course, who wants to listen or read something like this? Be honest, how many of you just got bored reading the previous paragraph and just skipped right over here?

Talking about the long and arduous process to make drugs is boring and discouraging to the layperson. They don’t want to hear about how long it takes to make one type of drug. That’s not sensational news. Nobody’s gonna click on an article telling the reader that most new proposed therapies fail at Phase I. What is sensational, however, is reading about how stem cell injections can cure myocardial infarction (gagal jantung), or that there’s a new plant that can cure cancer despite no publications supporting such claims. Now those headlines people will definitely click and share, increasing ad revenues for these online newspapers. Whether the contents of the stories are true or not is not something that readers (and writers, unfortunately) need to be concerned about.

It is quite a disservice to the public when the mass media care more about sensationalizing science instead of giving them the truth, no matter how much of a letdown it might be. Science in Indonesia is still something unattainable and out of reach from much of the citizenry. We have plenty of research institutes in Indonesia, but who can really tell me the last time the results of their research actually got applied on a grand scale on the population? There is still something mystical about science, especially biological sciences, partly because most of the citizenry never experience any benefits from all the research projects going on and partly because people just don’t know enough about how it works.

It doesn’t help when the media’s approach to any science-related news is to just simplify, or even skip, the science and emphasize and blow the results of a study out of proportion, completely neglecting to mention how the study was designed or whether there any caveats to the results of a study. Recently I was forwarded an article by my father which literally had a line in it saying that “rupanya, protein PRP tersebut punya khasiat 'magis' mampu memperbaiki stem cell yang rusak karena diabetes”. Ironic to say the least, since the whole purpose of a scientific study is to uncover and understand those so-called mystical properties. If I get Rp.10,000 any time I debunk a forwarded article about a new “cure” to an incurable disease, I will be able to retire comfortably at the old age of 29 years.

I’m not a journalist or a reporter, so I don’t have any solution to the apparent misinformation plaguing the Indonesian public. Perhaps Indonesian scientists need to broaden the scope of their reach to the masses, update the taxpayers on what they’re actually doing with the taxpayers’ money. I have said this once and I will say it again: if it’s too good to be true, chances are it’s not true. With how easy it is to exchange information, it’s really up to us to determine what is sensationalism and what is actual news. I understand that not everyone has a scientist on speed dial like my parents do, but that is when having curiosity, a healthy dose of skepticism and doing a little research will help.

*) PhD candidate, Dept. of Biological Chemistry, School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA.


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