The Royal Society: 350 Years of Scientific Publishing

 

By John McLaughlin

 

Professional scientific journals are commonplace and widely distributed today, but their origin dates to over three centuries ago. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the oldest continuously published scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first appearing in 1665. This is the flagship journal of Britain’s Royal Society, founded in 1660 London by a fellowship of physicians and philosophers. It remains Britain’s most prestigious scientific academy, and serves as the main scientific advisor to the UK government.

 

The Royal Society’s founding occurred during a very important historical period, arguably at the beginning of Europe’s scientific revolution. Its guiding principles were inspired largely by the work of Francis Bacon, a British politician and philosopher who died a few decades before its creation. His most important work, The New Organon, set out a vision for a new and more rigorous scientific methodology, based on empirical observation and testing theory by experiment. Bacon lamented the past centuries’ slow pace of progress in the sciences, and emphasized the need to place them on a firmer foundation in order to accurately study natural phenomena. He also cautioned against the various idols, or biases, which affect our proper understanding of the natural world, such as those determined by one’s personal history, culture, or deference to authority. He would have been pleased to see that the Royal Society’s founders took these ideas to heart; this is well captured in the Society’s motto, Nullius in verba: Take nobody’s word for it.

 

Philosophical Transactions introduced, in a more primitive form, several of the modern hallmarks of scientific research: most articles were reviewed and edited by Society members, systematically curated, and widely distributed. Interestingly, the journal operated at a financial loss for most of its history, only recently becoming profitable. It also made achievements in social equality; a 1787 article by Caroline Herschel, describing several new comets, became the journal’s first paper authored by a woman, and the Royal Society’s first female fellows were elected in 1945. As scientific disciplines proliferated and accumulated knowledge over the generations, the 19th century saw the journal split into two series, Philosophical Transactions A and B, dedicated to the physical and life sciences respectively. Today, both journals publish invited articles, with each issue centered on a specific theme.

 

In its capacity as a grant awarding agency, the Royal Society funds about 1,500 researchers around the United Kingdom, and provides fellowships for international scientists who wish to conduct research in or partner with UK universities. As part of its mission in promoting and recognizing excellence in science, it hosts frequent scientific meetings and lectures on a variety of topics, many of which are open to the public. To be elected a fellow of the Royal Society is a high honor, first requiring recommendations from two current fellows; the 8,000 fellows inducted in its long history have included scientific giants such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, and Stephen Hawking.

 

Scientific publishing had humble beginnings; in the 21st century, the spread of electronic journals has given us easy access to a number of high-quality papers that past generations of scientists could not have imagined. The sciences have changed dramatically over the years, but the institutions of publication and peer review will remain centrally important.


When Women Reach for the Stars

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

 

In the second grade, I wrote a report for class about Jane Goodall. Bright, bold, independent, and inquisitive, she became my instant personal hero. I looked up to her, wanted to be just like her. (Who doesn’t want to run away to the jungle and befriend wild animals? Some days this still sounds like a good idea.) And so, a scientist was born. But throughout the rest of my education, there was a distinct lack of female heroes and role models. Of course we touched upon the greats: Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou. But where were the great female scientists? The history of the natural sciences, like the natural sciences themselves until recently, was heavily male dominated. Whom could budding young female scientists look to for inspiration?

 

Encouraging girls and young women to pursue their interests in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is currently a topic at the forefront of our collective societal mind. The invention of toys like GoldieBlox and Lego’s release of a line of female scientist characters exemplify responses to the demand to find ways to teach gender equality in education and careers at an early age. Aside from toys, how else can we encourage girls to delve into STEM fields? Can we find role models whose stories inspire their dreams?

 

In June, we can celebrate two very important women: Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to journey to space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Their inaugural trips took place almost exactly 20 years apart, Valentina’s in June of 1963, and Sally’s in June of 1983. Their enthusiasm, bravery, and willingness to take risks provide inspiration for women of all ages (and men too!).

 

Valentina Tereshkova was born in 1937 in Maslennikovo, Russia. Although she had to drop out of school at the age of 16 to begin working in a factory, she continued her education through correspondence courses. Around the age of 22, she became an enthusiastic skydiver and an accomplished parachutist. In the early 1960s, in the midst of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet space program was looking to collect data on the effects of space flight on the female body. When Valentina volunteered to serve as the female astronaut, the Soviet space program took notice of her parachuting skills. She had no pilot experience, but as the flight was to be run by automatic navigation, such experience largely unnecessary. Of more importance was the ability to handle the ejection at 20,000 feet required upon re-entry into earth’s atmosphere, for which Valentina was well-prepared, thanks to her skydiving activities. Thus, Valentina was accepted into training in 1962.

 

On June 16, 1963, the Vostok 6 launched with Valentina aboard, making her the first woman to enter space. She completed 48 orbits of the earth in 71 hours, more time than all of the U.S. astronauts combined had spent in space at that point, and returned to earth on June 19, landing near Karaganda, Kazakhstan. In recognition of her bravery and accomplishment, she was awarded both the Order of Lenin and the Hero of the Soviet Union awards. While she would never return to space, Valentina went on to become a member of the USSR’s national parliament, and served as the Soviet representative to numerous international women’s organizations.

 

It would take the U.S. 20 years to catch up in regard to sending a woman into space, but when they were ready, Sally Ride was up for the job. Sally was born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles California. She studied both English and Physics at Stanford University, and went on to earn her Master’s and Ph.D. in physics. In 1978, Sally responded to an advertisement in the Stanford student newspaper, seeking applicants for the NASA astronaut program. Out of thousands of applicants, 35 were selected, with only 6 being women, but among them was Sally Ride. Prior to her space flight, she completed rigorous training, served as part of the ground crew for two space shuttle flights, and contributed to the development of a robotic arm used by the space shuttle.

 

On June 18, 1983 Sally became the first American woman in space as part of a 5 person crew aboard the Challenger. She would return as part of another Challenger mission the following year, for a total of 343 hours in space. Although she was scheduled to take a third trip, the flight was cancelled following the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986. Sally was appointed as part of the commission to investigate the accident.

 

Following her time at NASA, Sally became the director of the California Space Institute and a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She received numerous awards for her contributions in the field of space exploration, including the NASA Space Flight Medal and induction into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. In addition, Sally was passionate about encouraging girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math, and technology. She founded Sally Ride Science, a company that creates educational science programs and publications for elementary and middle school students, and wrote several books for children about space exploration and the solar system.

 

Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride challenged the status quo and bravely pursued their passion, unafraid to face skepticism and step into a male-dominated field. They both went on to use their experiences and the status they gained to help other women follow their own dreams. Both Valentina and Sally literally reached for the stars. Their stories serve as examples to show our daughters, nieces, sisters – all women – that they can do the same.


The Discovery of HIV: A Tale of Two Scientists

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD

In the early 1980s, scientists were struggling to find the cause of a new, rapidly spreading disease called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. At the time, few thought that a virus could cause this devastating disease. But the work of two labs, that of Robert Gallo at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and that of Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in France, would lead to the discovery of the novel human retrovirus HIV in May of 1983 and later establish this virus as the cause of AIDS. They could not, however, predict the drama that would unfold from their discoveries.

 

Both labs originally sought to identify a retrovirus associated with cancer in humans. At the time, they were considered “old fashioned” in this pursuit. Starting in the late 1970s, the general attitude was that microbes no longer posed a major health threat in industrialized countries. In addition, research had yet to uncover a retrovirus that infected humans, much less one that caused cancer.

 

Gallo’s research led to the discovery of interleukin-2, a factor that stimulates T cell growth, allowing T cells to be grown in culture. This method laid the groundwork for Montagnier’s team to recover reverse transcriptase, a retroviral enzyme, from T cells of human cancer patients, providing the long-sought evidence that retroviruses do infect humans and might be associated with cancer. Perseverance paid off when Gallo’s group isolated the first human retrovirus from a patient with T cell leukemia, which they named human T cell leukemia virus, or HTLV.

 

Nevertheless, agents such as fungi, chemicals, and autoimmunity were considered more likely causes of AIDS. But Gallo and Montagnier saw several clues that a virus was to blame. The hallmark of AIDS was a decrease in the levels of T cells carrying the surface antigen CD4, suggesting the causative agent might specifically target CD4+ T cells. In addition, epidemiology studies indicated AIDS was transmitted through blood, sexual activity, and from mother to infant. HTLV exhibited these same characteristics, so they believed HTLV was a likely candidate.

 

Montagnier’s lab began searching for retroviruses from patients with AIDS. While they were able to recover retroviruses from the cells of these patients, the viruses did not react with antibodies against HTLV. Upon comparing electron micrograph pictures of the new virus to HTLV, it was clear to Montagnier that the virus from AIDS patients was different. Montagnier’s group termed this virus LAV. Meanwhile, Gallo’s lab was conducting its own search, and isolated two forms of HTLV from patients with AIDS. One exhibited unusual characteristics, which they called an “aberrant” form. They would later realize that these patients were actually doubly infected with HTLV and HIV.

 

The two research teams had collaborated extensively, so Gallo and Montagnier agreed to publish their findings together in the May 20, 1983 volume of Science. But whether HTLV or LAV actually caused AIDS was still unclear. In 1984, Gallo’s group announced the isolation of a virus related to but distinct from HTLV, termed HTLV-IIIB, from a pooled collection of samples from AIDS patients. This virus could be continuously cultured, allowing thorough study, a problem Montagnier had not been able to overcome with LAV. Gallo also provided convincing evidence HTLV-III viruses in fact caused AIDS, and the HTLV-IIIB isolate was used to develop a blood test to ensure purity of blood bank supplies were uncontaminated and test patients for the presence of the virus.

 

HTLV-IIIB, however, was strikingly similar to an isolate Montagnier’s group was studying, LAI, that also grew robustly in culture, identified before HTLV-III. Such similarity between different isolates would be unusual, as these viruses were found to be highly variable. When it turned out these viruses were essentially the same, an argument ensued. The two labs had exchanged multiple isolates. Had Gallo inappropriately used the Pasteur Institute isolate for the development of the blood test? Who should get credit for the discovery of this new virus? Should the French group have rights to the blood test patent?

 

Finally, President François Metterrand of France and U.S. President Ronald Reagan met to resolve the issues between their scientists and governments. In 1987, it was agreed that the scientists would share the prestige of the discovery and the patent profits of the blood test equally. The names LAI and HTLV-III were exchanged for human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Motagnier was credited with its discovery, as he was the first to isolate a pure culture of the virus. Gallo was credited for demonstrating conclusively that HIV causes AIDS. In 1993, scientists at Roche analyzed archived samples of viruses from both labs and discovered that a sample of LAV given to the Gallo’s group by Montagnier, had been contaminated with LAI, identifying the cause of the confusion and officially clearing Gallo of any misconduct. Tempers cooled, and in 2002 Montagnier and Gallo published three papers, one co-authored by both scientists, reviewing the history of HIV/AIDS research and acknowledging the contributions each had made.

 

Unfortunately, the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine did not reflect this compromise. The prize was awarded to Luc Montagnier and co-researcher François Barré-Sinoussi for the discovery of HIV, and was shared with Harald zur Hausen, who established the link between HPV and cervical cancer. As the Nobel Prize can be split among maximally three people, this meant Robert Gallo was left out. Had the selection committee chosen to focus only on HIV, Gallo almost certainly would have been included. This decision was met with some surprise; Montagnier himself stated the third recipient should have been Gallo.

 

Both scientists are quick to point out the astounding rapidity of HIV research. It took only 2 ½ years from its first identification to establish it as the causative agent of AIDS, and another 2 years to develop a commercially available blood test. In 1987,the first anti-HIV drug, AZT was introduced, soon followed by protease inhibitors and eventually the triple drug therapy used today that has saved countless lives. Despite some tumultuous times, the story of Gallo, Montagnier, and HIV serves as important demonstration of the power and necessity of scientific cooperation.