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At AACR, Brenner Calls for 'Bedside to Bench' Approach

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At the American Association for Cancer Research meeting this April, Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner challenged conventional wisdom in a speech that proposed a "bedside to bench" approach to research and medicine.

Brenner made the remarks after receiving the AACR-Irving Weinstein Foundation Distinguished Lectureship award. He received a standing ovation for the speech, in which he questioned the view of translational research as a way to apply basic research to clinical practice.

"What I'm advocating is: go the other way," Brenner said. "Let's go from bedside to bench." Instead of compartmentalizing research and medicine, he said, the two should be integrated so that physicians, who are most familiar with human phenotypes, can inform the other arms of science.

Brenner made his name in the field for his pioneering work using C. elegans as a model organism, opening the door for new insights into developmental biology, aging, and programmed cell death. But these days he's pushing a new model organism: humans. "We don't have to look for a model organism anymore," Brenner said. "Because we are the model organisms."

Even so, completely analyzing the genetics of tens of thousands of humans remains technically impractical — and prohibitively expensive. "What we need, actually, is a view of all this that tests hypotheses all the time," Brenner said. This includes studying "human mutants" — something that may not be as difficult as it sounds given that "we're all mutants, basically. It's hard to find a wild type."

He also argued that dealing with disease should not just involve patching biological problems, but also understanding biological-environmental interactions and using them to predict and prevent disease whenever possible. "It is the responsibility of us to see that if there's a way of preventing something — of not allowing it to happen — I think that we should follow that path," Brenner said.

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