Importance of basic research

By Henri Huttunen 11 May 2016

The increasing pressure to cut public spending in Finland also threatens basic research funding. Similar to other areas dependent on government funding, there is little doubt that universities could function more efficiently. However, it is shortsighted if the funding of basic research is significantly reduced or directed to applied research during tough economic times.

In Finland, we have consistently invested in education and research for decades, also during recession. This has also been noticed elsewhere. A recent ranking placed Finland on the very top of the list of countries with most impact on global innovation (per capita). According to this report, governments that strongly support investments in R&D and education, or provide tax incentives for innovation, can maximize their innovation capacity. Clearly, we have been able to build a fairly effective system. Are we about to ruin a research infrastructure that we have consistently built over generations?

The recent public debate has been characterized by shortsightedness and perhaps lack of understanding of the role of basic research and innovation policy in the big picture of national economy. Admittedly, it can be challenging to recognize the value of basic research investments, due to the long time horizon. If the practical applications of basic research that benefit the public are decades away, why should the government and the taxpayers invest in it today?

In 1963, Finnish researcher Kari Cantell was one of the first scientists to isolate alpha-interferon from human leukocytes. During the 1970s, majority of clinical trials globally used interferon produced in Finland. This made Cantell an international science superstar. Although interferons never became a breakthrough treatment for cancer, they have revolutionized the treatment of multiple sclerosis since the 1990s. Beta-interferon was the first disease-modifying treatment for MS, and today the global sales figures exceed 10 billion euros. Also, interferons play a major role in today’s treatment of chronic hepatitis. Although the profits are mostly collected by multinational pharma giants, without the remarkable basic research work by Cantell and colleagues, tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of patients would never have benefitted from these novel therapies.

And the story of interferons isn’t complete yet. A Finnish company Faron Pharmaceuticals has made great progress in developing a novel beta-interferon-based treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening medical condition with a mortality rate 35-45%. Faron’s drug development programs lean heavily on the internationally recognized basic research in immunology by Finnish academician Sirpa Jalkanen.

Similar stories are not hard to find in Finland. Professor Kari Alitalo’s research in vascular and lymphatic growth factors has lead the field for decades. In the mid-1990s, Alitalo and colleagues discovered the lymphatic growth factor VEGF-C, based on which Herantis Pharma is now developing a first-in-class treatment for secondary lymphedema, a condition often caused by surgical treatment of breast cancer.

Professor Mart Saarma’s ground-breaking research on growth factors of the nervous system formed the basis for the discovery of CDNF. Herantis is now developing therapies for Parkinson’s disease and ALS based on this neurotrophic factor. If successful, both Lymfactin and CDNF could become game changers in their respective therapeutic areas, like interferons in multiple sclerosis twenty years ago.

What do these successful scientists have in common? Long-term focus on the research topic, tenacity, good team, ability to be at the right place at the right time are often mentioned. Maybe a bit of luck, too. Importantly, all the above-mentioned scientists are great examples of how to actively engage in collaboration with the biopharmaceutical industry without losing focus on the basic research.

None of this work, innovations and spin-off companies would have seen the daylight without long-term basic research funding.

Today, research is rarely based on the supertalent or intuition of a single scientist. Research groups and companies collaborate in international networks constantly pushing the frontiers of science forward. When facing global challenges, like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, science should be seen as a joint effort of nations towards better tomorrow. Basic research is the fuel of these efforts, and high quality basic research attracts industrial partners, which can benefit all parties.

And every now and then a basic research discovery results in a transforming product that benefits both the consumers and the industry. Ground-breaking inventions require revolutionary findings, and for those we need strong basic research.