Going Against Conventional Wisdom

Throughout history, scientists have often had to fight conventional wisdom in order to advance human knowledge and capabilities. But the rewards of scientific discovery are worth the sacrifices, particularly career-wise, that heresy invites.

CAMBRIDGE – When I finished my graduate studies in 1974, I had the wonderful fortune of doing postdoctoral work with Harvard Medical School’s Judah Folkman. Dr. Folkman had a theory that the progression of tumors could be arrested by cutting off their source of nourishment. He suggested that tumors emit a substance called tumor-angiogenesis factor, which causes surrounding blood vessels to grow toward it, supplying nutrition and removing waste. Folkman hypothesized that this process, angiogenesis, is crucial to the tumor’s survival.

This theory went strongly against conventional wisdom. Scientists who reviewed Folkman’s grants said that the new blood vessels were simply due to inflammation. But Folkman persevered, and eventually he proved that such chemical substances do exist. Today, four decades later, such substances have been used to treat more than 10 million people with neovascular diseases such as macular degeneration and many different forms of cancer.

I had a similar experience when I was working in his lab, trying to isolate the first inhibitors of blood-vessel growth (which were large-molecular-weight substances). This required developing a bioassay that would enable us to observe the inhibition of blood-vessel growth in the presence of tumors.

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