During an 1854 lecture at the University of Lille, French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”
The history of science is characterized by an intriguing interplay between scientific acumen and serendipity that leads to innovative insights such as the discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen as well as the observation that microwaves could melt a candybar. I was reminded of Pasteur’s quote when I spoke with Dr. Warren Leonard, chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology and director of the Immunology Center at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
When Dr. Leonard and his team began studying the basic aspects of the interleukin-2 receptor, their research into IL-2 led them to the realization that mutations of the gamma chain of the receptor resulted in X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency in humans, aka, the Bubble Boy Disease. It was a connection they unexpectedly discovered a couple of years ahead of people who were working on that issue in a directed fashion. That work also led to the prediction that inhibited JAK-3 (janus kinase 3) would be immunosuppressive, a fact that has been proven and has led to the FDA approval of JAK inhibitors to treat a number of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. And others are taking his basic research into JAKs and STATs (signal transducers and activators of transcription) to the next stage of development, including potential new treatments for cancer and other diseases.
Dr. Leonard’s research reinforces the importance of pursuing fundamental discovery science in biologically important areas, as this research often plays a pivotal role in leading researchers down new pathways of discovery that result in innovative treatments and therapeutics.
Pursuing a Scientific Path
Dr. Leonard is among an elite cadre of approximately 1,200 intramural researchers at NIH. He’s also in the exclusive class of researchers who can claim membership in the Institute of Medicine (IOM), having been inducted into that prestigious organization earlier this year. When we spoke, he talked about his appreciation for the wealth of the NIH scientific community and his concerns for the next generation when it comes to funding and job availability, concerns that many here at NIH and in the larger scientific community share.
Dr. Leonard is a great example of a scientist who embraces the surprising discoveries and makes the most of every unexpected observation in his lab. He’s also an example of an exemplary career scientist whose basic research work has already had – and will continue to have – significant implications in the public health space. We’re excited to see where his next line of inquiry takes him.