Sunday, July 14, 2019

Robin Wolfe Scheffler's "A Contagious Cause"

Robin Wolfe Scheffler is the Leo Marx Career Development Chair in the History and Culture of Science and Technology at the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine, and reported the following:
Opening a copy of A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine to page 99 places a reader in the middle of an important episode at the beginning of chapter five, “Managing the Future at the Special Virus Leukemia Program.” On page 99, I discuss the clash of philosophies regarding the pace and urgency of cancer research as they stood at the beginning of the 1960s, just as interest in developing a human cancer vaccine started to peak. In 1958, Congress awarded an immense sum of money—one million dollars—to support the National Cancer Institute’s research into cancer vaccination. However, the leadership of the National Cancer Institute was not yet willing to let public enthusiasm for a cancer cure reshape how it pursued research. One of its administrators approvingly quoted a line from the novelist HG Wells, who wrote in 1929 that “The motive to conquer cancer will not be pity or horror, it will be curiosity to know how and why….Desire for service never made a discovery.” Against this view was the advocacy of anticancer advocates such as Mary Lasker, who had exercised political influence to increase the budget of the National Cancer Institute on the expectation that it would aggressively seek to cure—rather than understand—cancer. A confrontation was thus brewing between the respect for scientific autonomy written into the National Cancer Institute’s practices and the demands for a big science project to rapidly confront cancer.

Applying the page 99 test to A Contagious Cause works surprisingly well. One of the central political and historical questions which attended the rise of molecular medicine is how the study of disease relates to the cure of disease. As the challenges faced by the National Cancer Institute in the 1950s demonstrate, many of the researchers who were supported by the federal government on the expectation that their work would produce a cure for cancer did not embrace this as the goal of their research. Programs such as the Special Virus Leukemia Program and it successors sought to close the gap between biological research and medical advances by managing scientific research using models drawn from the defense industry to accelerate and direct these biomedical researchers. The critique of peer-reviewed research at the National Cancer Institute represented by these programs carried over into the demands for a “moonshot” to cure cancer during the War on Cancer of the 1970s. This created notable battles between molecular biologists, such as James Watson, and the federal government regarding the obligations and rights of scientists supported by public funds.

However, what a reader will miss from page 99 is a sense of why these debates mattered not only as a matter of politics but as a matter of how we have come to understand life at a molecular level. Although efforts to plan and direct biological research met with widespread opposition from biologists of many stripes, the resources funneled into fields such as cancer virus studies—over six billion dollars in contemporary terms—had a transformative effect on the kinds of work that molecular biology could do in the 1970s and 1980s. The infrastructure of these programs was not an incidental but an integral part of important discoveries in the migration of molecular biology from simple to complex organisms, and in the expansion of molecular biology from a niche discipline to a foundational part of the biological sciences as a whole. These are developments I cover in later chapters, but they were not envisioned consequences of the first discussions regarding the organization and accountability of research.

Placing these two stories together—the political and the experimental—is the most important contribution I think A Contagious Cause can make to our understanding of the history of cancer—enabling us to understand how our framing of cancer makes new research possible and in turn how that research presents new ways of understanding cancer possible—but not always in the ways we anticipate.
Learn more about A Contagious Cause at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue