Autumn is my favorite time of the year.  And it’s not just because the stifling heat and humidity of Carolina have given way to cooler, crisper weather, or that the leaves have begun to show off their other flavors of chlorophyll.  No, in addition, autumn is also Nobel season.  The Nobel committee has been announcing the winners of the 2009 Nobel awards over the past week or so and I am, once again, awed by the stunning achievements of the winners.  This year there were 3 awardees for the Nobel award for Physiology and Medicine, the closest equivalent to an award for “Biology”.  The awardees, Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, received the honor for their groundbreaking work on telomeres and telomerase.  As the Nobel committee stated, the three scientists “solved a major problem in biology: how the chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation” 1.  Much of the research was done on Tetrahymena and yeast, but a significant part of the research on cellular senescence was done on primary fibroblasts cells in vitro.  It was that in vitro work that provided insights into the role of telomeres and telomerase in the aging process and their implications in cancer.  It would not be overstating the case to say that in vitro biology played a critical role in this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine.  Which made me wonder – how many of the Nobel award winners have employed tissue culture in their work and, perhaps, have benefited from technological advances in in vitro biology?

So, I decided to look at the list of past winners of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine to see how many had utilized in vitro techiques in their award-winning work.  I didn’t have to look far.  The Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 was awarded to Harald zur Hausen for his work on human papilloma viruses and their role in cervical cancer, and to Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for their discovery of the HIV virus.  Both discoveries were aided by, if not required, the use of cell cultures. In 2007, the Nobel Prize went to research on gene targeting and the use of embryonic stem cells – work that was almost exclusively in vitro.  And so it goes.  Many of the Nobel laureates for Medicine over the past 2 decades have utilized tissue culture in at least part of their research, if not the main focus of it.  A similar situation exists if you look at the National Academy of Sciences awards in medical science or molecular biology.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there is a clear reliance on in vitro biology for ground-breaking medical research.

Of course, this comes as no surprise to us.  Those of us who utilize tissue culture on a daily basis and are intimately involved in developing new in vitro technologies are keenly aware of its contributions and potential applications.  But for many, in vitro biology has simply become one more tool in the toolbox, like microscopy or RNAi for instance: a means to an end.  This is not to say that the technologies are taken for granted; on the contrary I believe most researchers are very grateful and willingly acknowledge the value of relevant cell lines, transformation techniques, or defined growth conditions for instance, that make their research possible.  Rather, I think this highlights the fact that in vitro biology has over the years transitioned into a mature technology that has become well adopted by the larger research community.  This, too, comes as no surprise – many of the classic mammalian cell lines are now nearly 50 years old and tissue culture has been a mainstream part of college curricula for just as long.  As techniques, equipment and standardized tissue culture media improved and became readily available, in vitro biology, in turn, became a ubiquitous component of cell biology research.  Of course, in certain research areas, the focus really is on the in vitro technologies themselves and some of that research is cutting edge and Nobel-worthy, stem cells and tissue engineering are good examples.  In fact, as I write this I am waiting for a plane in the Raleigh-Durham airport and CNN is reporting on a research team that has successfully made heart muscle cells from stem cells.

So why do I bring this up?  Well, when I heard the reports of the recent Nobel Prize winners for Physiology, I began to think about the role of in vitro biology in modern research and, naturally, the role of a society devoted to in vitro biology, our society.  Has the Society for In Vitro Biology, for instance, successfully transitioned into a mature society along with the technology?  Is the Society for In Vitro Biology as relevant and important to the greater scientific community now as it has been in the past?  In some ways, I would answer in the affirmative – yes, SIVB remains a vital and significant organization.  But I don’t think the transition has been complete nor has it been totally successful.  The dwindling membership numbers over the past few years are, I believe, symptomatic.  As in vitro biology techniques have become adopted by researchers in various fields, tissue culture applications and practitioners have become specialized.  The role of an in vitro generalist has diminished.  Researchers are now attracted by societies and meetings catering to the specialties, where they can find greater collegiality, more opportunities for collaboration and a connectedness that does not exist elsewhere.  I am of the opinion that the Society for In Vitro Biology remains, at least in eyes of many, a “generalist” society that does not offer the same benefits that the specialist societies can provide.  And I think in some ways they are right.  We have not done enough to keep up with the times nor have we adapted to the natural specialization of technology by specializing ourselves.  Yes, we offer symposia and workshops on special topics at our meetings, is that really compelling enough?  Our challenge, as a Society, is to re-connect with former members and attract new members by re-defining our role in the years to come.  We need to identify and exploit specific niches that are not adequately being addressed by us currently, or by other competing societies.  Part of that challenge will fall to the Long Range Planning Committee, currently headed by Society President-Elect Dr. Bill Smith.  They are currently formulating a long-term strategy for SIVB and I know they are addressing some of these issues within their committee.  But the re-energizing of the Society does not completely rest of the shoulders of one committee – it is the responsibility of every member of the society.  Once again, I want to challenge you, the SIVB membership, to help identify areas of improvement and relevance for the Society to make us a better, more relevant and beneficial society for today’s researchers.  Any ideas you have can be communicated directly to me, or to the long-range planning committee, or to your section representatives.  I will personally guarantee that every idea gets proper consideration.  Together we can make the Society for In Vitro Biology the obvious choice of a vital, relevant society for all researchers using in vitro technology


Didactically yours,

Todd Jones

1Press Release 2009-10-05, Nobelförsamlingen, The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet

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