Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen suspects that there may be a virus we haven’t discovered yet that causes cancer, in beef.
Dr. zur Hausen, in case you hadn’t known previously, is the fellow who won his Nobel for the discovery that HPV causes cervical cancer in women. This discovery has the potential to save almost a million lives every year, once HPV is brought under control.
This story is particularly interesting to me – in the same way that watching Stanley Prusiner’s early announcement of prions as the cause of mad-cow disease and CJ syndrome was fascinating. You’re seeing the very start of a potential scientific discovery in process. Zur Hausen is floating an idea that’s playing around in his head – in this case, one very closely related to a discovery already made (by himself), so it isn’t quite such a long trajectory as, say, the discovery of quantum mechanics or relativity. But right now this idea is in its nascent stages.
Over time, there will be 5-10 years of study of cows and beef products, and very likely a huge attempt to shut down his research by the beef industry, either by de-funding him through political channels or by funding a massive PR campaign to discredit him and his research. If Zur Hausen is correct, and he locates a virus responsible in cow meat, it spells a major problem for our meat industry. At the very least it’ll start with new cooking regulations from the FDA, and rare steaks in restaurants may become a thing of the past.
Which, while regrettable, does have a certain level of benefit to the environment behind it.
The next step, in this case, would be a major effort to establish a vaccine and get people immunized against such a bug. That’d enable people to go back to eating beef without worry aside from coronary issues for having too much fatty food.
But the interesting part of this story will be the science. Right now, it’s only an idea – it’s going to turn into extensive research, dogged pursuit of his idea. He might be right, he might be wrong. But he’s staking a sizeable chunk of his reputation on the chase, as well as significant investment in its pursuit. And he’s not doing it to win a nobel, he’s doing it because he thinks he’s right and if he is, he stands to help a LOT of people. Who knows how this will turn out? He’s human, after all – perhaps he’ll grow so attached to the idea that even after conclusive proof is given against his theory, he’ll persist in his belief that it’s right. That’s happened in the past – Lysenko and his idea of inherited traits, climate and evolution denial, people cling to their beliefs through a lot of conclusive proof to the contrary. On the other hand, he may very well bow his head, shrug his shoulders, and say “I was wrong.”
THAT is science, folks. There’s drama there, and it is the kind of long-term, generation-spanning epic story of discovery that has made human history so interesting. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how this turns out.
Even if only to be able to look at my grill and the lovely steaks it cooks for me as a source of comfort.