“Why should we be wasting our money researching that when we could be using the money to cure cancer?”
How often have you heard that argument? Maybe you’ve even said it yourself the last time you heard about some big, multibillion dollar science project like a super collider or a space telescope. With the economy the way it is and the deficit rising, it’s hard not to make that argument about basic research when people are suffering, but then I think about my Dad. He was diagnosed a few months ago with prostate cancer.
He’s going down to Florida for something called proton therapy. I was familiar with the use of radiation to treat cancer, but I didn’t know much about proton therapy, so I did a little research. Instead of the X-rays used in most radiation therapy, the cancerous tissue is bombarded with a beam of large subatomic particles called protons. Protons, because of their much higher mass, don’t penetrate human tissue as well as X-ray, but in this case, that’s a good thing. It means that the beam can be targeted more precisely at the tumor and it does less damage to the healthy tissues surrounding it. It turns out that it has lower side effects than traditional radiation therapy, and we have big science to thank for it.
Specifically, we can thank Robert R. Wilson, the scientists most often credited as the Father of Proton Therapy. He was a brilliant physicist who got his start doing research on particle accelerators at the University of California Berkley, and went on to be one of the group leaders on the Manhattan Project, the Mother of All Big Science.
After World War II, Wilson continued his research. While working on the design of the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory, he published a paper in 1946 titled “Radiological Use of Fast Protons.” It was a radical idea, to take a particle accelerator, like the ones he and others had been using to explore subatomic matter and produce nuclear weapons, and instead use it to create a beam of protons that could be used to save people from the ravages of cancer.
The first treatments of patients took place not in a hospital, but at the Berkley Radiation Laboratory in 1954. They used particle accelerators originally built for basic physics research to generate the proton beam. The treatment showed promise, and within a few years the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory that Wilson had helped design entered into a partnership with the Massachusetts General Hospital to offer the treatments there. Proton Therapy received formal approval from the FDA in 1988, and the first proton therapy center based at an actual hospital opened to patients in 1990 at the Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Today, there are proton therapy centers in the North America, Europe and Asia. To date approximately 70,000 patients have received the benefits of the treatment, including lower side effects, better quality of life and reduced incidence of secondary tumors. But no one could have envisioned all that in the 1930’s when Wilson began his work on subatomic particles. That’s the nature of basic research. It’s not a linear process that starts with a practical goal in mind. It is a process of asking questions and pursuing answers. Along the way, more questions are asked and new discoveries, some practical others not, are opened. The reason we need to invest in big and small science is in order carry out that process, to explore those questions. There’s no way to predict the practical benefits and spin off technologies, but we can safely predict that none of them will be made unless we take a chance and make the investments.