A conversation with the associate professor at Yale University.
Question: What led you down the path to neurophysiology?
Vincent Pieribone: I was planning to be a physician, I guess, when I was very young. My father was a Chiropractor. He had polio as a kid and so he lost one of his legs and struggled a lot of his life with polio, and then ultimately got multiple sclerosis and passed away when I was very young. And so, I think that, probably the event of him passing away sort of inspired me the most to go into what I thought at the time was medical research and being a physician. But also I had, actually, a very important high school science teacher who really helped me think about thing in a scientific way and helped me be a little bit more. I grew up in a small town in Florida. You know, education wasn’t high on the priority list in our school, so he was like, stood out in helping me in that process and my father got very ill around that time as well, so I guess I was both saddened and disheartened, but I was also angry about how the status of our understanding of these diseases were. And so it kind of inspired me, I guess, to go on.
And then in college, I sort of was going on as a physician just because of ignorance because I thought they were the kind of people who did science and research around biology. And then I guess it was at the end of my undergraduate career here at NYU that I stupidly came to the conclusion that medical doctors don’t really do much of the research in bio medicine, but it’s PhD’s in university settings that do that kind of work, so I started in the lab doing that and that’s history from there.
Question: Why did you have so much interest in the brain?
Vincent Pieribone: The brain started because of my father really because multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system and I was reading a lot. I did a science project in high school about regenerating neurons as my high school science project. And read a lot at the time and thought it was very exciting. And the brain, I think, to me has always remained the most fascinating organ in the body because it’s so unknown and it is the part of us that makes us human in many ways. Most of the rest of our organs are kind of the same in rats. But our brain is really the thing that makes us different and is certainly the most complicated and the least understood part of our body and also the diseases are less treated than most. So, I guess – neurophysiology stems from that because neurophysiology is the study of rapidly occurring events, I think of it as thought processes are things of every day actions. As opposed to molecular biology or genetics, which work on a slower timeframe. It’s most interested in cognition and how we make sense of our world and how we remember and how we think and what makes us human. And neurophysiology kind of flowed from that for me.
Question: Which scientists did you admire when you were younger?
Vincent Pieribone: Well, it’s kind of cliché, but kind of the greats, I guess. For men, Darwin was important because of his ability to leap beyond the current thought, and Einstein because of his ability to come up with ideas that seemed totally off the wall. Relativity was something that I guess was staring everybody in the face for years, and nobody really came up with it, and being able to think beyond that, to me, was just the most creative thing I could think of in a human being was being able to think beyond the world we live in. And Galileo with his conceptualizing the solar system and Copernicus seeing those things and just fighting against this huge trend, or even Mendel going through whole life explaining some aspect of life and absolutely no one believing him and him dying and no one ever believing him and then 50-100 years later everybody looks back and he was really a genius. I guess those are the kind of larger people that I admired in life.
Question: What have we discovered recently about the brain, and what still remains a mystery?
Vincent Pieribone: Well, recent, it’s hard to say. I mean, I don’t want to be cynical or anything, but it’s just that the brain is so incredibly complicated, even in insects it’s actually so complicated in other words. And to study it is so difficult. The difficulty in studying it was partially makes it so complicated without destroying it in some way. So the human brain is totally inaccessible largely to scientists because it’s really just a part of a person’s being and it can’t – tests of the blood you can draw from people, or other organs and tissues you can even take. But the brain, you really can’t ever really study that that closely without damaging it. So, we’ve had to invent very creative ways to look at it, like MRIs and these kinds of things. But they’re still limiting in the way that they’ve helped us understand. And certainly the human brain is always the one that’s the most difficult to understand because it’s really the highest functioning machine on the entire earth, without a doubt because of its size and what it does and the constraints it has on it, it’s absolutely an amazing instrument. But it’s also this incredibly difficult to get in and look at. And that’s where my science – that’s why later in my life, in my career, I went into the direction of technology, trying to develop me ways to study it because I think we’re a little bit – it’s kind of mean to say, but a little bit stagnant right now, I think. Unfortunately we’re really making these great leaps forward that we need. We all want to know these big questions that have been on our minds. So for hundreds of years of our consciousness, about even morality and things all of which emanates from our brain, and we don’t really get close to those, unfortunately because the basic functional elements of the brain and how it does it’s little things still remain a mystery to us.
A lot of work has been done recently in animals to give us an understanding of basic systems, of sensory systems and how things work. But even there, even the rodent whisker system, which is heavily studied for years and years about how they look with their whiskers, how they feel with them. It’s a system which people have access to, but it still remains a mystery, amazingly enough, what it’s able to do and how it does it even though there are thousands of papers published on it actually. We haven’t made those leaps that I think all of us, especially me, from when I was young that I would have hoped that we would be making by now.
I was reading journals when I was in high school 30 years ago, and I imagined, oh it’s going to be these great leaps. And we’ve seen leaps in our society around technology, we’ve seen leaps around thought, maybe even politically you could even say. But in this kind of science, although we’ve done a lot of work in it and we’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge, but it hasn’t answered the big questions yet. And that’s disappointing to me, I have to say. But exciting in the same because it offers the challenge that still it out there is a challenge. So, I always hope that we get better minds to continue to apply to it, I guess.
Question: Why are we slow in making advances in the field?
Vincent Pieribone: The amount of effort that went into building an iPhone has not really gone into an effort to understanding one aspect of the brain. And it would seem to be more important to me. And unfortunately I think in our country, and maybe this is a generalization, but a lot of the best minds in our country don’t go into science, at least academic science like they used to, I think. They tend to find their way into business or into other areas that maybe are more lucrative or more seen as interesting, even medicine than basic science. That’s kind of sad to me. I’m amazed at how difficult it is to find people who are really excited about doing this as it used to be.
And with that change that I’ve noticed, funding is up, I guess. We’re very thankful to Obama for giving us lots of money last year as part of the stimulus money. That was a huge boost. I think it was a huge emotional boost to scientists. I’ll be completely honest with you. When we saw this money come out, we just assumed it was not going to go anywhere near us, and the NIH got an enormous boost and then it was really breathtaking to all of us that the administration, that young of an administration, saw that much compelling interest in studying basic science and that was very exciting I have to say. I think NIH got more grants last year submissions than they have gotten in the past 10 years because people were so excited about this. So, funding is a big deal really. And I’m always saddened by the fact that the technology that we use, unfortunately is somewhat primitive compared to the technology that it took to make Avatar. And the kind of beautiful amazing stuff that our society has to work with sometimes doesn’t trickle down to us, or it trickles a little bit later to use that are trying to study these aspects of the brain. It’s not a complaint, it would be nice to see that happen a little bit faster, I guess.
Question: Is the quality of science education impacting the talent in the field today?
Vincent Pieribone: The whole stem concept that’s in high school now is absolutely the case. And I think people recognize it, but those are the hard things that kids unfortunately have to learn. It’s just math. We need math and we need science and technology. And I think it sounds old fashioned and everything, but that’s the basics to get into the rest of this stuff. What we are at in our understanding the brain and neuroscience is a very high level, the complexity is quite high. In other words, being a neuroscientist is a multi-faceted scientific knowledge and you’ve got to start really young to catch up there. Like any area of technology, you really need to be schooled in it very young. If you want to be a cutting edge programmer, or you want to work at Google, you really should be starting early and learning early. And as long as we can excite students – I spend a lot of my time trying to go around to high schools and going to junior high schools trying to inspire kids in the this area and make it a little less dry and a little bit less perceived to be boring.
Science fiction is huge, but it doesn’t translate into science reality for students. They love to go see science fiction films, but I think science is not nearly as exciting today as the science fiction is. I got a lot of people who show up in the lab and they think every day is going to be like Mr. Spock running around the deck of the Enterprise making huge discoveries and stuff. And it’s a little slow. It’s a lot of pie petting and you know, things don’t work and like any job, it’s really like any job. So, it’s not like we’re out there in the field weathering the storm and doing that kind of fieldwork. As much as people think it is. So, maybe that gets people less enthused. But there are moments in your career, you work very hard on something and suddenly there’s that ah-ha moment which I don’t think you get in any other business. When you’ve discovered something for the first time and you know at that moment that you’re the only person in the entire world that knows that bit of information. You know, you’ve just discovered some workings of the body. And maybe it’s a little bit that will end up in a journal, but you see it for the first time, and for me, I can’t replace that. Even for men now, it’s like a kid, you get that kind of feeling. It’s absolutely overwhelming. I can’t imagine not getting that. I can’t imagine a job where you didn’t have that kind of feeling. So that’s why I think it’s the most exhilarating job I could ever do. I can’t imagine ever doing anything but it because I get a chance to play. I have a lab full of toys. We get to work on projects and we work on projects that have real meaning. You know, People’s lives hang in the balance of things we discover.
I’m exaggerating what I do particularly, but each incremental thing we do shows up in textbooks and you see it repeated later to you, and it’s very exciting to know you had some impact on that, whatever little bit it is. So, I think it’s a thrilling business. And I think if people stick in it long enough, they feel the same way. But maybe it’s just the shock of getting into it and realizing that you have to write grants and you have to teach and there’s tenure and all the business of you know – but it’s really not that bad.
Question: What’s been one of your best “Ah-Ha” moments?
Vincent Pieribone: Let’s see, big ah-ha moments. That’s interesting. One of the projects that I’m most excited about these days is trying to develop new ways of studying the brain and one of the things I’ve been working on is optical methods of observing the brain. In other words, ways of literally visualizing brain function. So, literally seeing when nerve cells are firing in response to something that’s going on in real time. And having computers analyze these kind of images, or movies of the brain and deriving and understanding how the brain is processing the world around us. And the future of this is prosthetics and things like this. And we were developing a probe to try to do this where we were combining something that glowed with something that sensed voltage. Voltage is the big thing that we are concerned about in the brain; like little nerve cells are changing there electrical potentials and we’d like to see that. So, we’re creating these artificial proteins, which combined naturally occurring things, that smell voltage and naturally give off light. And we put them together in various ways and 90 percent of them don’t work at all, and it’s very frustrating.
I plotted out a whole series of experiments for my graduate student that you should insert it here, you should insert these to together there, and of course everything I suggested didn’t work, and in the middle of our discussion he said, “Well, I want to make this kind of combination.” And I said, well, that’s foolhardy because you’re a student and don’t know better. And of course that’s the only one that did work, at the end of the day. So, I was eating crow for a long time. But it was that moment when we had gone through a lot of these and things didn’t look very good and he started looking at me like, “I think he’s crazy, and I think I made a mistake by doing my thesis with him.” And then you put the one in and it happens. And you’re watching it and of course the first impression is, something’s wrong because it’s working. So, we’ve done something wrong. We literally spent a week saying, okay, let’s do it again because there’s something wrong, it looks too good. The worst thing that can happen is you get all excited about something and then you find out it was some idiotic mistake that you’ve left a switch wrong – of course we’ve done that more often than not. And this was that kind of moment for me where, I don’t know when it was during the week when I kind of finally go, this may actually be real. And there was one aspect to the way that we made that was responding that didn’t make sense to me. That’s when I though it wasn’t real. And I showed it to a friend at Yale, and he said, “Oh no, that’s how it should act” because of this that you didn’t know about. And then when I learned that, I said, oh, then it is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And then I got very excited and it all started coming together. And that was a moment for him and for the student, I guess he was also sighing a relief that he was going to finally graduate. But it’s just this idea that – wow, it did work. I can’t believe we did this, and something actually came out of it.
And so then followed to study that and he ultimately got his thesis and graduated and worked for McKinsey, you know. So, there goes that. But he was a good scientist and he finished and he went on back to Japan and then worked at a different job. But it was that moment, and I think he still sees it – he writes me all the time from his job of how he misses that emotional feeling of, you know. And then we went on to make lots of different variations on that, each of which had its own little personality and that’s kind of a moment.
And then recently we had the same experience, this was about two weeks ago in the lab, modifying these things again with something we didn’t think would work, did. And it’s just little things. They’re not things being up on the cover of Time, but there are things that are incrementally moving us forward. We know all the people in our business are going to be really impressed by us, and that’s what makes us sound – We know that when we go to a meeting, somebody is going to go, “wow! That’s cool.” And that’s the gratification that we need because that’s our peer saying, “God, I know how much work that must have been and you must have been really excited.”
Question: How will this research come into play for prosthetics?
Vincent Pieribone: A while back, some five or six years ago, I was struck by a couple of things happened in my life and one of them was, I saw a couple of movies and one was the “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” about his high cervical injury – spinal cord injury patient who ended up writing this whole book by blinking his eyes. It’s really a beautiful story. And the movie I thought was well done, and sad. But this notion that when you get spinal cord damage high up – high cervical meaning high up in the neck, you lose all the ability to use your lower organs. In other words, you lose the ability to move muscular, motor, and sensory. And it’s a kind of a thing they call “Lock in Syndrome,” which is basically, the brain is complete functioning and generally your visual system is generally okay because that enters your brain above the spinal cord. Most of the upper cranial nerves come in so they can usually move their mouths and sometimes they can breathe and things like this. But essentially they have no control of their lower body. And when we were writing this book, we interviewed a kid who was in a graduation, graduating from high school and got into a fight on the night of his graduation and someone cut him in his neck with a knife and he was paralyzed like this when he was like 18. And now he’s 25-30 around that age and he’s just been living in this essential prison. It’s horrible to imagine. The suicide rate is very high in this group and it’s just terrible. There’s almost 100,000 people in America every year that get this from auto injuries and things like this and motorcycle injuries. And in Connecticut where we have not helmet laws we have lots of people like this. But this is just like completely untouched by medical science. There’s nothing that we can do.
And you’re dealing with a problem where the brain has made these connections to the spinal cord, when we were tiny embryos and then as we grew and grew, these connections kind of stretched and stretched until an adult human. And the cells in our brain are like 20 microns, tiny little things. And they send these long fibers that travel all the way down to our spinal cord. And they, of course tell our spinal cord to move and do all the things we do. And then in reverse, all these fibers that come up and carry all this information tactile information about what we’re touching and feeling. And when you cut that, all the nerve cells are still up there in the brain, they’re still doing what they’re doing. They’re still saying move your leg, move your arm. But nobody’s listening. And those fibers cannot regrow. And there’s been a lot, a lot of money spent on trying to get these things to regrow.
But the analogy I always use is, it’s like the size comparison would be, if I was a nerve cell that my arm would be projecting all the way out and touching someone on their shoulder in somewhere in North Carolina, right? That’s the distances in the size relationship. And then somewhere in Delaware, my arm gets cut off. You know? And then I have to blindly find my way, with a new arm, all the way back to that person’s shoulder in that specific town, in that specific, you know. And that happened at a time when that person was right next to me. I essentially made the connection when they were standing next to me. And then as they moved all the way down to North Carolina, my arm just grew. But the chances then later in life that my arm is going to be able to find its way down there with all those clues is essentially zero. So, I’m not really a big fan of a lot of this research in attempting to regrow these things. Unfortunately I wish it was the case, but the idea that I’m going to somehow learn to reach out and find that person when there’s really no map to do that. There’s a map when we’re embryos, there’s all kinds of things going on telling us what to do. There’s also thousands and thousands of connections, or millions of connections that are made that are pruned and removed as we go through, because they are misconnected. So, it’s a kind of process of elimination. So there really isn’t any way to retrain those neurons to find their way down there.
So I saw this and sort of thought to take a different approach to the process, which namely is kind of – since those cells are still in the brain and you’re still able to say, “move our arm,” move your leg,” but there’s no way. It’s, can we bypass the damage and have a computer, through these methods, grab that information in the brain and watch the nerve cells and watch you think, essentially? Where you will say, I want to move my arm and what are the nervous things that happen in your brain? What do the neurons do to instruct your arm to do that, and can we capture that signal and then say, okay, your brain is saying it wants to do this? And feed that information to robotics and to computers and have them do it.
It’s sort of the matrix kind of thing where you could read that information – and I don’t mean it in an all sophisticated way it is portrayed in these films, I mean more things like can you move a wheelchair left, can you move a wheelchair right. Can you open the door, can you answer the phone. Start very simple with a series of commands that could be learned. And they can do that now with EEG and things like this, but we would like to go beyond that where you can maybe write an email. Or you could send an email, or eventually you can move a robotic arm, would be the thing. You’ll never be able to play a piano maybe with the arm. But you don’t really need the arm to play the piano. You may be able to think the notes and have it play that kind of thing.
And so, all that’s feasible really. It’s actually feasible to do that because whatever you’re capable of doing, all those commands have to have been constructed in your brain and what we lack only really is the ability to capture that information and translate it into what the outcome would be. So every time you go to play this C-note on the piano, your brain creates a certain specific pattern of activity. And if we knew that pattern, and computers today are so powerful to deconstruct these, what seem to be rather abstract signals to our mind, computers can abstract those signals and say, take those huge datasets and crunch them and say, okay that’s what this is and that’s what that is.
But I looked at this whole process from capturing the information to processing information to the robotic action and everything is in place to have this ready to go except the capturing of the information. So, except for the ability to read out what the brain was doing, in what I would say a non-invasive way, we don’t have that yet and that’s the limiting technology. So, I refocused my science several years ago to trying to fix that one problem; to try to fix the capturing of that information. Now, the traditional way to do it is you put wire electrodes, unfortunately, and you record individual nerve cells on the tips of these tiny, fine wires that are half the thickness of a human hair. They go in and with luck they hit some of the cells. And people have done this kind of work in animals and have shown amazing things. You can records maybe a hundred neurons from a monkey and as the animal moves his arm around; you can reconstruct his movements exactly within a certain degree of freedom by just the activity of a hundred neurons in his brain.
In these experiments, if the animal moves his arm to sort of follow a cursor on a screen, you can have the computer understand what the animal is attempting to do before he’s actually going to do it, and therefore move the object for the animal, and eventually the animal will stop actually moving his arm at all and using his brain and the computer will move it around on the screen on his own and the animal will then take his arm and do something else with it. So, the animal is scratching his butt while his brain is doing the computer games. You know.
And so, the brain is able to teach the computer how to do these things. And so if you see those experiments, it just makes you think about the possibilities that would exist for humans, these people who are just locked in.
So, this gentleman who they did, there’s only two humans who have ever had these wires put into their brain and a company in Massachusetts did it. And we interviewed this guy for a book and he was really like overwhelmed by it and so excited by the notion of it. And unfortunately, they put these in him and they only worked for a short time and then they stopped giving a signal. But for him it was the most exciting thing in his life because he said, for a moment he had control of something in his world. I mean, this is a guy who has to sit there and have people change him and bathe him and feed him and everything, right? And for a moment, he could do something with his own volition. It was such an empowering feeling I think. So, even simple things to be able to do. So that’s kind of been the goal, really. It’s a long way to go and it’s a struggle, but it’s the goal ultimately is to kind of help get these people out of this prison that – their ability to do anything. That’s the long answer to your question.
The idea would be, every time these nerve cells do their little thing, which is that everything we do as I’m moving my hands as we’re talking and as you’re thinking. All that is just lots of nerve cells firing and those nerve cells firing is what gives us consciousness what let’s us know who we are, what we’re doing, everything about us is basically those cells. And we have to be able to see those cells firing. And their firing, their way of communicating with each other and we have to listen to those conversations. That’s the name of the game. And we have to listen to lots of conversations. There’s just millions and millions of neurons in the brain involved in any one activity. So, we need to record from some subset of those. We need to see what they’re saying. And of course, they’re speaking a language which is very foreign to us, and we need to see what they’re speaking while they’re doing something and train a computer to make that connection that when Vincent is lifting his hand like this, these cells are doing something, when he does that they’re doing something different.
And so, we need to train the computer about all these activities and then in the future, in a person and this person, when they go to do something, it can just read those thought activity and have it do that action. So the first people who were there, they had them sit in a chair and they said, “Imagine yourself picking up this coffee cup.” Or, imagine yourself moving the joystick, or if there’s a TV screen, imagine yourself moving a cursor in this direction or that direction. And then the brain cells will fire, the computer captures that sequence of events and then when that happens in the future, it will move the cursor that way, and when it sees a different sequence, it moves the cursor that way.
And so, our goal is to try to turn those little tiny conversations in brain cells, those electrical conversations into little flashes of light basically so that every time a cell is talking, we can see it rather than having to put a little microphone down next to each one of them like we do now, this way we just look at them and we run a very high speed camera that would say, okay he’s talking, he’s talking, she’s talking that kind of thing and then when this pattern of activity happens that means this, and when that pattern that means that. So, it’s that little step between turning that information that’s buried in the brain into something that captured by the computer and it’s translating it.
And the idea would be with these proteins that we’ve been working with that come from coral, you can potentially image these things through the skull, through a think skull, per se, in a person, but directly through the skull. So you don’t have to have all these horrible wires going through people’s brains. And of course if you’re not really using your brain, in the case of people who are in that situation, and this guy who we interviewed, who was more than glad to volunteer to do this because really, essentially, he’s not using much of his brain any longer. He can’t feel anything for 90% of his body, he can’t execute any function. So, I think the FDA and these bodies are thinking about doing that because these people really have no hope whatsoever anyway, and I think our goal is to kind of give them some kind of a functionality, or return some kind of functionality to them. So, that’s where the research focus is. But it involves these little crazy proteins, which got us of on some sort of tangent to studying these strange proteins that came out of coral that help us do this.
Question: What led you to start working with green fluorescent protein?
Vincent Pieribone: It was discovered a while ago that there was this strange protein, and these guys actually last year got the Nobel Prize for this protein because it’s just so incredible. There’s a really great story because it’s a sort of story about a guy who, back in the ‘60’s, was studying this jellyfish. Probably nobody in the world cared about. And he studied this jellyfish and the jellyfish gives off light and he was interested in why the jellyfish gave off light, and how it gave off light. And so working in this tiny lab up in Washington state, he sort of extracted the chemical that gave out light and then there was this other protein that was just sort of a contaminate that produced green light in the animal. And again, an obscure journal – the entire discovery is a footnote in an article that I think nobody read. For 30 years nobody read the article. I think 10 people read it really.
And then it was discovered that that little protein, you could put the DNA and then the DNA revolution happened during that time. You could take the DNA from that and you could put it in any organism and it makes the organism essentially fluoresce, which is this phenomenon where if you shine one color light, the cells will – if you shine blue light, the cells will glow green. Right? A phenomenon we scientists found it fascinating to use.
So, this obscure discovery studied in the obscure animal has become, first of all a multi-billion dollar industry as well that it’s just an amazing revolution in our field. It’s allowed all fields of science to see the working of cells and see the working of biology, which was normally invisible to us. So, this single protein is now expressed all over the world in all sorts of animals and organism in all sorts of research labs allowing this non-invasive study. And we saw this early on when this paper first came out and thought maybe there are other proteins out there because this one is green, maybe can find other colored proteins and then a paper came out saying you can find them, so we – we are divers, my friend David Gruber, who is a Professor here at Cooney, we decided that we were going to go down to Australia, which is the place to go for coral. And we spent all month there diving and looking around with a permit we had from the Australian government, we collected these tiny little fragments of coral that were just lying around and using these really powerful molecular techniques could clone proteins, florescent proteins from those and we cloned about 30 or 40 proteins from them that were new. Different colors and different characteristics that we’re now applying to these molecules that I was telling you about. These little sensors that were taking these little coral proteins and attaching them to other proteins and making sensors for recording brain activity. And we’re still in the field these days. We’re heading to Israel in a few months to probably clone a few more of these things out of the Red Sea because there is just an unlimited supply of them in the ocean with all sorts of features that we don’t know about yet.
In fact the probe that we’re interested in may already be out there in the ocean. There may be a volted sensitive one that we just haven’t found yet. So much of the ocean and these things remains undiscovered genetically so. It’s been an exciting kind of a pastime to get me out of the lab a little bit, but it’s been exhilarating to learn about how bizarre the world is underwater and how bizarre the biology is of those organisms and how many tools, basically tools that can help us cure diseases and be used for all kinds of things are there just sitting there for people to go in and look for before they all vanish because we are destroying them at an unprecedented rate.
We discovered going down as we’ve seen since we were young that coral reefs are probably like the bell weather of the environments that are being destroyed. Like they’re getting destroyed faster than rain forests, but nobody really knows it because people don’t see them. But I used to dive in the Florida Keys when I was a kid and there’s nothing to dive in the Florida Keys anymore. Basically the entire dive business in Florida is gone because they destroyed all the reefs in Florida and the reefs in Florida; they’re just mounds of dirt now. And there are some reefs in West Palm that’s the only place that’s left because there’s no agriculture in West Palm. But in Florida there’s agriculture, there’s divers that damage it, and it’s a disaster. And it’s a national park. It’s crazy. It’s completely destroyed. And so we have to fly to these exotic places, these sorts of third-world countries that still have beautiful reefs intact. It’s a sad – it’s the only place in America we have reefs, is Florida. It’s the only place with warm enough weather and they’re just devastated by our bad behavior and it’s very sad. So we watch these essentially what we call them libraries of ancient evolutionary information, these sequences that have developed over billions of years just vanishing, like overnight. Like they’re just gone. And those things will take another billion years to come back. You know? And so it’s sad to see these answers and these solutions that are out there that we haven’t reached yet just disappearing before our eyes.
So we’re out there trying to sort of Noah’s Ark them and try to pull them up and rescue their DNA before it’s lost. Because that DNA represents this incremental improvement process that nature does to solve these problems happening in billions of different species, moving along through history, and by wiping them out, these seemingly unimportant little organisms, we just lose that. God forbid that that jellyfish was lost. You know, two years after he finished cloning that thing, it disappeared completely from the bay where he found it. It just disappeared. Overnight. It was there in droves and went away one day and nobody knows why it went away, but you know, it probably has something to do with us. It’s been there for a thousand years of something and now it’s gone. So, if he had missed that opportunity, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation and there would have been no Nobel Prize last year in this if that was gone.
So for us it’s a daily reminder of how sad that story is of conservation is and how people can talk and talk and talk about what’s going on, but we see it every day when you go diving. There is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that global warming increasing all of these things in the ocean and human encroachment and high levels of bacteria and things in the water are just eliminating these treasure-troves of – they’re not just beautiful to look at and dive on, they represent the second most complex bio diverse ecosystems in the world, bar none. And when they’re gone, we’ve lost an enormous treasure that’s matched only by the rainforest, which we are also cutting down. It’s amazing.
So, not to be a downer, but that’s something we’re out there trying to kind of do as much cloning as we can because we’re not going to fool ourselves to thing that humankind is really going to change it’s behavior in the near future. These things probably have – the sad thing is, those reefs will probably be gone in a hundred years and it’s unbelievable to say that. This round of reefs have been on the earth for, I don’t know, 50,000 years, and I’m saying in another 100 years most will be gone? And that’s a very conservative estimate.
Question: What can scientists do to rally together?
Vincent Pieribone: We rally. It’s just a matter of nobody gives a damn what we say. I mean, this ridiculous Copenhagen business. I mean, it’s just this political, politicized crap. Most of us just can’t be bothered to listen to that. You know, I mean, in the last election, they asked all these Republican candidates how many of them believed in evolution, and they all said, no. I mean, it’s ludicrous. We all live and work with evolution every day in the labs. It’s a fact, right. We know the sun’s coming up in the morning. We still find ourselves in a position of arguing with people about something that – we don’t even argue any more. There’s no point in it. But it doesn’t really change our lives. We accept it as a fact. But when the leadership of our country doesn’t even accept that, it’s just amazing to me. I don’t know how getting the concept of global warming out – you have all these scientists diligently working on this and then there’s this notion of some sort of huge conspiracy amongst these guys who get paid nothing. They get nothing to do this. They have no vested interest in it whatsoever, right. I mean, they’re not getting paid off by anything. They’re just doing it and discovering it and have been discovering it, and yet it’s politicized into this agenda like, I don’t know.
I can imagine there might be an agenda on the other side of why we wouldn’t want to stop using petroleum for example, there might be a reason. There might be people with interest in that little material, but it’s just so depressing, I guess, as scientists. I was doing an interview about scientists in film and they asked me to come back and talk about it. And I had a whole notion in my head about scientists are mistreated in film and how they always end up looking like crazy guys with wild hair, making mistakes and always rushing to greet the aliens just before they blow the world up kind of view of the scientists. But then I started reading about it and thinking about it a lot and studying scientists in film, and I realized that it’s actually almost the opposite effect of scientist’s appearance in society. Especially in films is that sometimes they’re viewed as having even more influence in film than they actually do.
You know I always remember I was inspired when I was younger by Mr. Spock because, like I said, he was always on the deck and he’d run into something and he’d turn to the science guy, “Tell us what’s going on here.” Like there was somehow a Mr. Spock in the White House that every time, you know, the President would find something – what about this global warming and he’s turn to the guy. And we used to have this thing in the National Academy of Science, which we still have, which is set up to be exactly that. You know, because the President was a like a farmer, you know, and he’s like, “I don’t’ know anything about science.” Throw that question to the National Academy and the National Academy – a bunch of guys would sit around and think about it and come up with a – you know, it was an independent kind of body and they would give him an answer and he’d kind of take it. Maybe he’d react on it. But today it’s a joke. They don’t listen to anything they say. They constantly put reports out and then they politicize – it’s not like they ask them a question honestly to get their honest answer.
And so I realized when I went back and did the interview, no in fact, it’s the fact that the appearance the scientists some how have some influence on the process of government. And I think in the end, unfortunately, they really don’t. sometimes people listen, sometime people don’t. But they don’t really direct much policy. You can’t see that in any way, shape, or form, and that’s probably the saddest realization I have – not that I want to have any influence, but I just thing that maybe the scientific approach to dealing with some things in the world, like for example, global warming, like energy issues, those are scientific problem. They’re not really political problems. Sometimes we think they are, but they’re scientific facts around those issues that should be addressed out of that and it really don’t help having Pat Robertson question scientific – it just doesn’t make any sense to sort of in the equivalent journalism concept that we’re going to take, Richard Dawkins and we’re going put him up against a guy who just has a religious belief. It would just be ludicrous. It would be like taking a world renowned architect and then putting me – and just saying, well I don’t think that’s correct. I think it should be done this way. I mean, you’d think that was kind of funny, right? For some reason we have to submit to that all the time in this business. These people spent years training and then they put them up against a guy who just has an opinion and then there’s an equivalent weight there in some way. Overwhelming scientific opinion about global warming and then eight guys over here that work for Exxon, and okay it doesn’t even balance. It’s not an even balance.
Diving in the water, I have to see it all the time. We were just down in Bonaire and, of course Bonaire doesn’t have a water treatment plant and so, the more there’s tours in there, they just flush everything out in the ocean, right? So, if you dive in the water and the nitrogen level is gone through the roof. So, they say, oh, it feeds through sandstone, It’s not raw sewage, but it’s nitrogen, right? It’s human waste, it ends up out there and they don’t like that, the coral, so they’re just dying like crazy. The old coral there are just all gone. You can see them; you can see the majestic size these things were. I never saw them because they were gone and I had never been there. But there are just these massive carcasses of coral. You see the babies around, but then you see these massive things that were like the size of this room, just enormous things, gone because of all the things that have happened on the island.
You see it with your eyes and you don’t understand why it’s not easier to translate to people. And the simple solutions, you know. They’re still waiting to get their loan from the European Union to finish building their waste processing plant. And every year they wait. And it’s like a $20 million loan. It’s like ludicrous that kind of money. So, it saddens. It saddens you to see this kind of happening around you and the loss of things that are more than just beautiful. As I say, they’re irreplaceable. They’re irreplaceable human resources that we have. It’s not like it’s things that – once those genes are gone, we can’t get them back. We’ve got to wait a million years. We certainly won’t be here for that.
Question: Is the lack of transparency in scientific research slowing down the progress of advances?
Vincent Pieribone: So I guess I have a sort of corporate side to my life because developing drugs to treat neurological conditions. And so, there’s a huge contingent of scientists I guess that work in corporations that are either drug companies or engineers developing things like that. And they’re secretive in that sense just as all businesses are secretive. I think academic scientists as compared to almost any function I know are more transparent, I think. I think it’s a perfect model in many ways. I mean, there’s always problems with these things, but I think comparing it to just about any other way of functioning, the scientific approach is, in it’s essence, is the way to go. Because what we do is we do an experiment and then we write in detail how we did it, and then we publish the results. And what that does is that allows everyone else to redo it. So, I could lie, okay, I could easily makeup experimental results. That’s easy. But when I have to write how I did it, then a person can come along and redo it.
I would say it’s different from a courtroom where two lawyers get together and they fight over something that happened over the past and nobody can recreate. And whoever creates the better, more plausible, more believable version of the past, even is it’s not real, sort of wins the trial. It’s not the case with us. We have to do something and every thing we do has to be repeatable. So, everybody has to be able to go and repeat my science. So I can lie, but ultimately it has to be repeated. But I think maybe what you’re getting at in that term is that, certainly corporations, and places that do science related to cars and automobiles are not transparent. Certainly are not. I mean, they have a competitive advantage to remain non-transparent.
But that’s where the government kind of has to play a role, I guess. I think that the thing about us is that we’re academic scientists, which means we’re required by the universities to disclose everything we do. What we’re there for is to serve the public good. That’s all we do. We do all this work, we spend all this money, and our output is papers. We don’t make hamburgers, we don’t make cars. We make stuff that people read only. Right? That’s all we do. And we’re required to disclose what we do and we’re required to go through a lot of issues, required to not have conflicts. In other words, I’m not allowed to get money from a drug company, theoretically, and then work on research in that company. I don’t want to publish bad results because I have stock in the company kind of notion. But those are grey areas there’s a lot of discussion around how much we are allowed to do that kind of work because it can make our work a little less transparent. And unfortunately when there’s large amount of money involved, which is what you’d have in the transportation and auto industry, and the pharmaceutical business, it encourages dishonesty. It encourages people to say okay, let’s ignore that because that’s going to hurt the development of this drug in the future. And you see this all the time when drugs come out and you find that they have all these problems with them.
But I think in the basic science, in the academic science, it’s a model in some way. I’m surprised. I think that government funding things in an open fashion helps research move forward and not to have another plug again for government funding, but it’s the only place I think American citizens can see that their dollars are being put to work in the scientific arena in open fashion. We publish everything. And now everything is in the public domain basically. When I write something, I have to publish it. I can’t keep it to myself; I can’t share it only amongst my group. So, it’s a way for the public to get their money’s worth. To get things done and car companies can take those ideas; drug companies take those ideas all the time and turn them into large profits. All discoveries that drug company develop drugs with come out of our laboratories. Come from tax dollars, ultimately. Right?
And I think as soon as it leave us, it moves into the corporate setting, it’s no longer transparent. And so I guess I’m a real proponent of government funding and this horrible idea of big government is bad. Big government isn’t really that bad when it uses the dollars in that direction, I think.
Question: Is there a role for government when it comes to research at scientific corporations?
Vincent Pieribone: You know, I guess I’m a big fan of American capitalism as well. And having it an advantage is important. I think the patent system in this country is a disaster. And so, getting patents approved is like something out of Alice in Wonderland, it’s just unbelievably bizarre. You submit a patent, they reject it outright. Every patent gets outright rejected since examiners seem to make money off of rejection. And so they reject everything and so you spend the next year and $25,000 on lawyer fees working their way back to getting an approved paten, which is what you submitted in the first place. And that’s why paten attorneys are huge business. Right? So, this process is ridiculous, but corporations have to do this because we live in a world where a lot of research gets put into some idea and then it makes it to the market and there are a lot of other people who will come in and just take it. And I’m a big believer in if people do research and come up with a good product, it shouldn’t be stolen. They should be able to make their money back because that encourages future investment.
It’s had to say, to develop a drug these days, it’s an area that I’m most familiar with, it costs hundred of millions of dollars. And if at the end of the day a company makes a drug and it goes to market and somebody can just take it, you know a generic just takes the drug and starts selling it, from a consumer perspective, that seems like a good idea because the drug costs this amount a month, and now the cost goes way down with the generics, but on the other hand, all that R&D that went into the development of that drug, all those people who were paid, all those investors, they all lose their money. And they’re not going to do that in the future, and you’re not going to get the next drug.
So, there has to be a balance between corporations that have to extend, and I don’t want to be on the side of defending a large pharmaceutical company, but they extend huge amounts of money upfront to see these drugs make it to market, as do cars. Cars cost a lot of money to develop and when they hit the door, out the door and they don’t have patent protection because it is difficult to do a patent and someone just steals their ideas, then how do their investors make their money back. And it’s a real world problem. Right now, a lot of these generic companies have huge legal departments that are just there to like, de-patent. So, someone has a great idea, they’ve really worked hard to get this drug to market, through all these obstacles and odds you know, and worked through all the problems and it gets to market after multi-millions of dollars, and a generic company breaks the patents, they can start selling the drug at half the price, or a quarter of the price, they’re not going to make their money back. And it’s not going to encourage future development. I mean, developments are these complicated things, like drugs and cars; it takes a lot of people, a lot of time, and a lot of money. And I think if you don’t help ensure investors that they’re going to see something at the end of all that investment, they’re not going to invest in it any longer.
And so I think that I personally have come across a number of interesting therapeutics that we can’t develop because they don’t have any intellectual property behind them. I mean, not interesting things that work, I mean we have drugs out there that all these guys know that work. They just won’t be developed and put into humans because you can’t protect it. You’re not going to spend $100, $200, $300 million to get a drug to market so that a generic company can start selling it. It’s just – you don’t get your money back. And so they won’t do it. They’ll go off and look for things that are. And there’s a whole space out there full of these things that will never see the light of day because we don’t have – we have rules like the Hatch Waxman Law which says, if you get something to market you get a certain number of years of exclusivity. Well in the U.S., that’s a five- or six-year exclusivity, in Europe it’s much longer. So that patents are not that big of an issue. If I get something on the market, I’m going to be at least given a certain number of years of exclusivity to sell my product.
That doesn’t exist in most of the rest of the world. But I think the Congress recognized that it’s very expensive to develop drugs and so nobody’s going to go out and make those outlays if they can’t see something down stream. So, that’s part of the healthcare debate, in a sense. There was a part of the healthcare bill that includes extending that exclusivity period. It upset some people because, they think, oh it’s longer before we get to the generics and stuff like that, but on the other hand it’s going to encourage a lot more investment into the process of making drugs. I mean America leads the world on making drugs because America leads the world on capital that can be deployed to do these kind of –
So on the issue of transparency, it is a two-way street. It’s only so good if things are – transparency obviously encourages scientific discovery and reduces duplication and I’m not doing the same experiment that you’re doing that kind of thing. But when it gets into the corporate sphere, it’s hard to do that in a way that you just don’t get your lunch eaten, and people will eat your lunch. For sure they will. There are a lot of people out there willing to do that. So, it tends to blunt creativity. And that’s why the patent system was put in place years ago. I meant that’s what a patent was meant to be, it was meant to reward the person and encourage development. If you have a great idea that someone else can’t steal it.
Recorded on January 21, 2010