Why we do research

A blog post is long overdue, and so I thought I would kick off 2019 with a blog about why we (we ranging anywhere from undergraduate research assistants to grad students to PI’s (or principle investigators - aka the big boss)) do research in the first place, in addition to why research is necessary. It’s usually easy for us as scientists to think about our “Why” (with the exception of the occasional existential crisis that leaves us wondering why we do anything). It’s not so easy, though, for people outside of the research bubble to understand why we spend hours upon hours in lab and can talk so passionately about things like ion channels. This became apparent to me over the holidays when I was actually at a wedding reception for my husband and me when one of the guests asked, “So then what are you curing? Why do you do this?” And the question can be difficult to answer, especially for those of us who do basic science and we don’t have an hour to sit and explain why the intricate movements of an ion channel voltage sensor is important for modern medicine or is worth anyone caring about.

So here I want talk about why we do research, especially in some of the research areas that are a little more obscure to friends or family or really anyone outside of our niche.

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Diseases are complicated. It seems like every day there are 10 different genes or proteins that are involved in any given disease pathology. In the lab I’m in, we study ion channels that, when they’re mutated, can lead to fatal cardiac arrhythmia. The name of the particular disorder we study is called Long QT Syndrome, which takes several different forms depending on what kind of ion channel is mutated. The form of Long QT Syndrome we study is caused my a mutation in a voltage-gated potassium channel which ultimately leads to less potassium current during the end phase of the cardiac action potential. An action potential is an electrical signal that is sent between cardiomyocytes that ultimately leads to the contraction of the ventricles of the heart and this contraction is what lets blood get pumped through the rest of our body. In Long QT Syndrome, the action potential is too long makes the heart susceptible to arrhythmia.

The potassium channel we study offers a potential target for new therapies or new medications to restore the normal timing of the cardiac action potential. If we want to try and find new ways to target this ion channel to treat Long QT Syndrome then the best place to start is to work to understand how this ion channel works. If we can figure out how the ion channel responds to changes in membrane potential (which would trigger an action potential) and how the ion channel opens then we could potentially find ways to directly modify the activity of the channel. In our case, we try to find compounds that would increase potassium current so we want to do something that would activate the ion channel. We would have trouble finding where to start when trying to design a new drug or therapy if we didn’t understand the atomic structure of the channel and the functional consequences of that structure. This only scratches the surface of the importance of doing basic biomedical research in a very specific example (that is still even more complicated in reality).

Our fundamental research informs our medical advances. The more we understand about the way things work the more avenues are available for us to find treatments for diseases that affect us all. This is why we do research.

Bree Watkins