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February 13, 2019 at 1:05 pm  | 

Decades of digital reporting arm today's scientists with an overwhelming amount of information before an experiment even begins, but it still is not enough...

Picture a scientist. What images come to mind?
White coats and gloved hands shuffling glass tubes between buzzing machines? Someone intently observing, maybe taking notes on a clipboard?

This may be how we think about people "doing science", but in reality researchers only spend a fraction of their time performing experiments. More often than not, you'll find researchers at a desk reading papers and sifting through stacks of data. Guided by the scientific method, good experiments try to predict the surrounding variables that will influence results. With all the information at hand this is  big, but necessary, task.

The Scientific Method
Observe/Question - Identify the problem
Research - What's already known?
Hypothesize - What questions remain?
Experiment - How can we answer those questions?
Analyze - What do the results say?
Evaluate - Is the hypothesis correct?

And more information doesn't make the job any easier! Consider for example a clinical trial testing a promising new cholesterol drug. As the researcher designs the trial, they will have to predict variables that will confuse the results. Some variables are obvious - if a person is allergic to the drug they will have a negative reaction, but not because the drug was ineffective. There are "surrounding variables" (allergy) explaining the negative results. To include a person with an allergy would be unethical and provide no meaningful data to the study. The resesarcher must know which people are likely allergic and exclude them. This means that research must be conducted about each component of the new drug and any known history of allergic reactions. More often than not, this research phase yields contradictory and incomplete results.

The impact of genes is hard to predict

As we learn more about the relationship between genes and health, "genetics" is becoming a variable that is hard to ignore. Success in many fields of medicine has leveraged genetics to aid in diagnosis and therapy design. In diseases such as Down Syndrome there is a clear genetic link: people with Down Syndrome have 3 copies of chromosome 21 while other people only have 2. Three copies of chrosome 21 means three copies of all the genes it contains, and this alters processes of growth and development.

Down Syndrome is caused by 3 copies of chromosome 21 (pictured above). Chromosomes 1-22 usually exist in pairs. Image adapted from Scitable from Nature Education.

For most aspects of health, however, the link is not so clear. Whether it is height, weight, cancer risk, mental health, heart disease, allergies, digestion......the fact is that many genes are at play. And many of our daily habits play a role, too.

A recent group went as far as to question 'What if every gene affected...every gene?'.
We ask that question too. Sometimes, the only way to know is to look, and we're developing new ways of mapping this complex network with our app for personalized health tracking, experiMe.

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