Out of order: For the better

Science is elusive and ever shifting, refusing to come into focus, and that is both its curse and its blessing

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Have you ever accidentally stared into a bright light, only to have it leave a temporary impression in your eyes? You know, that ring of light that changes its location every time you try to focus on it? OK, maybe that is just a bizarre hobby of mine.
As I write this, we are a couple of days away from Christmas and a week from New Year’s Eve, an annual period of reflection and introspection made all the more significant because this year is another decadal transition. Adding to that significance, we are also moving into 2020, which according to cliché, should bring clarity to all past events.
For the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on the past year and on almost two decades of writing science news, and the metaphor of that elusive bright ring of light keeps cropping up.
It can be difficult to see it when we are deep in the weeds, but science too is elusive, ever shifting, refusing to come into focus. For me, that is both its curse and its endless attraction.
As the DDNews features editor, I am tasked with developing the special reports for the magazine—such as the one on gene therapy in this issue, which starts on page 14. And every time I set off to write one of these stories, I must accept that I cannot bring you much more than a snapshot of any given topic.
At some point, I have to stop doing research. At some point, I have to stop doing interviews. At some point, I have to write the article.
(Note to the chief editor, Jeffrey Bouley: Thanks always for your patience for and tolerance of my deadline-hugging ways.)
Each of those cut-off points means that I can never bring our readers the definitive take on any given subject. The science moves too quickly, expands too dramatically for anyone to accomplish this.
In this month’s conversations with the team at Omega Therapeutics, for example, there were changes happening in the background that prevented company CEO Mahesh Karande and CSO Tom McCauley from fully explaining aspects of their discovery platform and prospective pipeline.
Publications and announcements were coming, they told me, but not in time for the Gene Therapy Special Report to be published. They provided me with what information they could, but we will just have to settle for “more to come” in other aspects of their story.
On the flip side, even as I thought I had completed my research on base-editing platforms—a variant of CRISPR gene editing—I was presented with an evolutionary step in base editing called PRIME editing.
And for fear that PRIME-editing has already begat another genome-editing platform as I type this commentary, I have turned off my web browser.
Change is the nature of our chosen beast, whether it’s our expanding understanding of our therapeutic categories or our molecular mechanisms, or unveiled in the results of our latest experiments. Each of us pursues our elusive ring of light, knowing that we will never glean any more than a snapshot of what is happening, illuminate no more than a fragment of the truth.
For some, that impermanence, that perfect imperfection, is depressing. Those people leave science (often to discover that no field is free of change).
For the rest of us, however, the uncertainty and potential of tomorrow is exactly why we stay. Knowing that there is always more to know, knowing that every corner and crevice represents opportunity is what gets us up in the morning.
I see it in the myriad press releases and PubMed entries. I hear it in the passionate discussions I have with scientists and executives I interview. Serious though the conversations may be, we are all ultimately still kids in a limitless toy store.
I left the biochemistry bench roughly as we transitioned into a new millennium, not because I couldn’t handle change, but because I wanted to explore an even wider array of change. I wanted to peer into a greater variety of dark corners than I ever could with the next chromatograph or deuterated bacterial culture.
Twenty years on, my passion for change has not wavered in the slightest (despite my periodic rumblings when my grocery store runs out of my preferred brands). And that passion is rewarded every time I take to social media, open PubMed, wander a conference exhibit hall or start up a conversation.
All this to say, change is not only inevitable, it is something to be embraced. And it is something that happens whether the date is December 31, February 29 or September 12.
I, for one, love that.

On a personal side note, I thank my friends Bruce Poorman and Laurence Doyle, DDNews’ publishers, for affording me these opportunities. I would still do this without you, but I wouldn’t want to.

Randall C Willis can be reached at willis@ddn-news.com

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