In research sometimes we care more about the impact and application of the area which we are studying instead of doing research for the sake of gaining knowledge. How the results we obtain in the laboratory are translating into clinical applications seems to become more important than investigating how a virus causes the disease - in other words, the key question is if the knowledge obtained can result in a new drug or a new treatment.
One victim of this approach are rare diseases and viruses which cause a seemingly benign disease such as the common cold. Pharmaceutical companies make a fortune selling cold remedies, most of them not actually curing the patient at all. Other viruses however are causing more severe diseases but only in a small number of patients.
A case study: Coronaviruses
The etiological agent responsible for most viral induced colds - or infections of the respiratory system to be more accurate- belong to the group of the Coronaviridae within the order of the Nidovirales, a group of positive strand RNA viruses with a genome size of about 27-32 kb in length. Up to 2003 however most research was concerned with Coronaviruses infecting animals important in the agricultural industry such as poultry and pigs. Until then the only known Coronaviruses known at the time, Human Coronavirus (HCoV) isolates 43 (HCoV-OC43) and 229E (HCoV-229E), were regarded as being of lesser importance since the disease caused by them is not lethal within the general population. Things changed however when a new disease emerged in Hongkong, coined SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which was not only lethal but also highly transmissible. A team at the University of Hongkong in a worldwide effort soon identified the causative agent to be a novel member of Coronaviridae. This information helped to identify a potential source of the SARS-CoV and lead to the discovery of various novel Coronaviruses in bats which might have been the source of SARS. Furthermore, around the same time a group in the Netherlands discovered a novel Coronavirus causing serious complications in infants, termed HCoV-NL63, and an additional strain was isolated in Hongkong (HKU-1). In 2013, news from the Arabian Peninsula came that another novel strain emerged, MERS-CoV (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), just as the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca was about to begin. Cases of MERS were reported worldwide but lucky enough the outbreak was less contagious than SARS.
So why mention this? In my opinion, this is a good reason why basic research is so important. When the SARS-CoV was identified by Poon et al. the already existing knowledge about the replication, genome information and interaction with host cells in general helped to explain the pathology of SARS and allowed researchers to determine why the newly discovered Coronavirus caused a more severe disease. Also, the already existing information helped to isolate SARS-CoV from patient samples using genomic tools.
Whilst there is still no commercial vaccine for SARS or MERS, basic research done at a time when the impact on human health was questioned helped to isolate these new viruses when they emerged and helps us to understand the pathology of them. Also as we begin to discover the natural reservoirs of emerging zoonotic viruses we need to collaborate with scientist from other areas of research.
If you have a friend or family member engaged in basic research and fail to understand why their research is important - then think of emerging viruses.
Graham et al. (2013)
A decade after SARS: strategies for controlling emerging Coronaviruses
Nature Reviews in Microbiology 11:836-848