Marching because science saves lives

Timelapse video: Boston’s March for Science in 120 seconds (Credit: Kat J. McAlpine)

One definition of science: “The field of study concerned with discovering and describing the world around us by observing and experimenting.”

Another, simpler definition: “The state of knowing.”

At Saturday’s March for Science in Boston, people brandished signs defending facts, data, even the act of thinking. But with the National Institutes of Health budget under attack — a potential 18 percent cut — the most compelling signs were those that stated: “Science saves lives.”

Longwood rally (Credit: Nancy Fliesler)

That was the theme of the March for Science rally at Harvard Medical School, joined by Longwood area hospitals. And it will continue to be the theme going forward.

“Funding of science is critical for understanding the basis of diseases and developing new treatments for devastating childhood conditions,” says David Williams, MD, chief scientific officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, president of Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and founder of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s gene therapy program. “It is critical that we continue to advocate for federal funding for our future patients.”

Emily with her mother, Amy, and oncologist, Lisa, speaking at the March for Science rally at HMS.
Emily with her mother (left) and Diller (right). (Credit: Steve Lipofsky)

Eleven-year-old Emily Coughlin and her family know that science save lives. Diagnosed with neuroblastoma just before turning 4, she took part in a 2009 clinical trial run by Lisa Diller, MD, at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. It involved two successive stem-cell transplants, a new protocol to help her withstand the high-dose chemotherapy needed to kill neuroblastoma cells. She’s been cancer-free since 2010.

Her treatment was built on decades of scientific research, starting with technologies developed in the 1990s enabling the harvest of circulating blood stem cells rather than bone marrow. This made it possible to get enough cells for a double transplant. Three years out, the benefits were clear: 62 percent of children receiving double stem-cell transplants were alive and cancer-free, versus 49 percent of single-transplant patients. Add in immunotherapy, another product of intense scientific research, and the results were even better: 74 vs. 56 percent.

“That’s research. It’s messy and scary and completely necessary to save the people that we love,” Emily’s mother, Amy McHugh, told the Longwood audience. “Research gave me the gift of a middle-school daughter, when there were many dark days that I didn’t know if I would have one.”

George Daley  (Credit: Rick Groleau)

As George Daley, MD, PhD, dean of Harvard Medical School and a stem-cell researcher at Boston Children’s, told the crowd before it made its way to the March for Science at Boston Common:

If it stands, the proposal to slash nearly one-fifth of the NIH budget will be devastating to American biomedicine… Millions of people, even billions around the world, are alive today because of life-saving, life-sustaining and life-altering treatments that emerged from curiosity-driven research — the very research that will be most severely affected by the proposed cuts… 

What will science give us in the next 100 years? What is our next frontier? If our nation stops investing in science, we will never know.…Imagine never developing insulin. Imagine a world without the polio vaccine — or antibiotics.

More coverage on HMS’s news site.