Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Curious Science. (Science, Technology & Environment)

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Curious Science. (Science, Technology & Environment)

Article excerpt

"Fighting Chance" by Siddhartha Mukherjee, in The New Republic (Jan. 21, 2002), 1220 19th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Last fall, in the wake of the anthrax attacks on several news organizations and Capitol Hill offices, Harvard University biologist John Collier suddenly found himself thrust into the national spotlight. Just a few months before, Collier and his colleagues had discovered a means of blocking the toxic effects of anthrax, pointing the way toward an eventual antidote. The Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services set aside nearly $2 billion for antiterror research, and Senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.) called for a Manhattan Project-style assault on weapons of bioterror. Mukherjee, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital who teaches at Harvard Medical School, believes such targeted research will likely waste money and yield few results. "Scientific discoveries often happen when they are least expected," he points out.

Collier's case is instructive. He began studying anthrax in 1987, intrigued by the manner in which the bacterium attacks human cells. He did not set out to find an antidote but rather to delve "deeper and deeper into the basic biology of anthrax toxin." (U.S. Army researchers at Fort Detrick, Md., began working on anthrax in the 1960s but made no comparable contribution.) Collier's approach unlocked a critical method in the microbe's attack, leading to the discovery of the drugs that could interrupt the process.

Almost the opposite approach was tried with HIV research. …

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