Basic science: The espresso of the modern medicine mocha

Rachel Burge
March 02, 2022
Graphic representation of components utilized to make a peppermint mocha cappuccino.
Graphical representation of components utilized to make a peppermint mocha cappaccino.

Editor’s note: The following series of stories highlights the contributions of basic science research to modern medicine. This is part one. Read part two here. Read part three here.

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. And like many of us, I only start work in the morning if my coffee starts working first. I prefer to drink flavored ‘fancy’ coffee, especially around the holidays. My go to is pumpkin spice for fall, and my favorite, peppermint mocha, during the Christmas season. These flavored drinks all start with a similar base of concentrated coffee called espresso. That triple espresso shot in my peppermint mocha gives me the lift of caffeine, with the aroma of goodness, that I need to kick-start my morning.

What does espresso have to do with basic science, other than being the lifeblood of most scientists? Unexpectedly, there are several similarities. First and foremost, just like espresso is the foundation – the base – of a peppermint mocha, basic science is the foundation upon which we build our models for how the world works. Basic science lets us understand how molecules, drugs, proteins and cells interact with each other to form life as we know it. With this fundamental knowledge, we can begin to add different layers of knowledge – like the milk, chocolate and peppermint – to better understand how diseases arise and how we can treat them.

So, what exactly is basic science? Where does basic science fit into the grand scheme of medicine? Why should we care?

"The exciting part of basic science is that every small piece of new knowledge slowly adds to a growing picture of how life works that may lead to the next breakthrough not just in the clinic, but in our everyday lives."

-- Rachel Burge

What is Basic Science?
At its core, basic science is the quest for knowledge regardless of its potential future use. Basic scientists are by nature quite curious. Passionate scientists are motivated by answering fundamental questions like: Why is this happening? How did we get from point A to point B? What is the reason we are seeing this phenomenon? Basic scientists ultimately want to understand the mechanisms and laws that govern the living systems and life processes that surround us.

The exciting part of basic science is that every small piece of new knowledge slowly adds to a growing picture of how life works that may lead to the next breakthrough not just in the clinic, but in our everyday lives. We will delve a little deeper into the mechanics of basic science and examples of the discoveries that led to medicines or items that are indispensable for modern living in a more in-depth post.

Where does Basic Science Fit?
The discoveries made in basic science are the base of our modern medicine mocha. Following these basic discoveries, we can begin to add extra layers to our base espresso – identifying new treatments or applying a new methodology. These extra layers refer to translational science and shift the focus of the research to more in-depth patient studies that ultimately results in more effective patient care. Knowledge gained from basic science is “translated” into new drugs, therapies and treatments for diseases by updating and refining the new process or drug, and lastly ensuring the basic science research results in increased benefit to the community.

Unfortunately, the progression from basic science to translational science is sometimes overshadowed by the novelty of new drug regimens. Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves what basic science IS and how it lays the foundation for breakthroughs in the clinic.

Why Should I Care?
Some people might see basic science as less useful than translatable science, but history has shown us time and time again that basic knowledge results in applications of huge value to society. If scientists are only focused on solving problems right in front of them, they may narrow their focus and miss the chance to offer solutions to problems that have yet to unfold.

I love the sentiment behind the saying “yesterday’s discoveries lead to tomorrow’s breakthroughs.” I love the idea that the work I do in the lab today could be used in the near future to improve people’s health.

However, I would like to update this saying: “yesterday’s basic science research becomes tomorrow’s breakthroughs.” The journey of advancing society begins with basic science research, and not always the research that has a clinically relevant endpoint. Innovation has stood on the shoulders of basic research – research that plays a vital role in breakthroughs in natural sciences.

We must be careful to recognize the importance that understanding and seeking knowledge for its own sake has. Like any perfect mocha or latte, at the base of that drink is an espresso - without it, we would be left disappointed, holding a cup of hot milk.

Want to learn more about basic science? Check out episode #25 of the ScienceNever Sleeps podcast with guest basic science researcher, Dr. Lori McMahon.