Analogies in Science

How do you carry out your scientific research? And are you doing it the right way? The typical process of scientific inquiry is to come up with a hypothesis, do experiments to prove or disprove it, replicate the results through a number of different techniques and in more than one system, and voila, publish it! The process is simple but there are a multitude of factors that influence decision-making at every step.

One of the most well-used but probably least recognized technique that influences the way we do science is the use of analogy, or the concept of finding similarities between different things. Analogies can ingrain themselves into our psyche often time subconsciously and affect they way we think about science. Laura Otis, American historian in science and Professor in English at Emory, writes in her book “Membranes” about biologist Ramon Cajal who discovered that the brain was composed of individual cellular units. She noted that the method he used to prove this (the Golgi stain) had been invented years before yet no one had used it to define borders between cells. The brain had always been thought of as a big pile of mush, no one would have imagined it was made up of discrete units. She postulates that it was only during the late 18th century, where the idea of colonialism was well-instilled and the philosophy of individual perception was gaining popularity, that people may have been inspired to conceive life in terms of independent living units.

In modern times, analogies are also persistently being used by scientists without them necessarily being aware of it. Kevin Dunbar, a current Professor in Psychology at the University of Maryland, followed four biochemistry labs in Stanford University during the 1990s to discover how scientists think. He came away with the impression that science is an extremely frustrating endeavor (and didn’t we know that already). Of all experiments conducted, 40-60% of them fail. Or to be more accurate, yielded unexpected results. Unexpected results often garner a lot of attention, and are the topic of most lab discussions.

Dunbar found that analogies were frequently used in these lab meetings. 99 analogies at 16 meetings to be exact. He found that analogies could be grouped into classes depending on the goal. Closer analogies, or analogies within the same organism (HIV to HIV) were used to “fix“ failed experiments, analogies between different organisms (HIV to Ebola) were used to formulate new  hypothesis, and analogies between very distant domains such as HIV to a pearl necklace was used when explaining scientific results to a general audience. He also found graduate students made fewer analogies as compared to post-docs or professors, likely due to their limited experience and hence “collection” of analogies.

Dunbar further raised the importance of group reasoning which he termed distributed reasoning. Discussing ideas amongst a group was necessary to learn different viewpoints and thus create analogies. However he said it was ineffective if the group had members of very similar backgrounds (hence only a singular perspective) and also ineffective if backgrounds were too diverse with very different or competing goals. One of the labs that Dunbar followed was composed of the former, a group of E. coli experts. They failed to analogize outside their domain and instead took the approach of modulating different conditions one at a time till the experiment “succeeded”. This however took a far longer time compared to another lab composed of chemists, biologists and medical students which provided more analogies and rapidly came up with a possible explanation and solution.

Interestingly when Dunbar confronted scientists on how they solved the problem, few recognized that they even used analogies! They had little memory of it and instead thought it was the result of their own reasoning that led to the solution. This is probably also why when famous scientists are asked what factors led to their success, many said it was pure luck. It is not pure luck people, it is the use of analogies. Dunbar leaves us with four pieces of advice: 1) Follow up on surprising results, but pay attention to your controls; 2) Use analogies to formulate hypothesis, use distant analogies when explaining things; 3) Go to lab meetings and take part in distributive reasoning; 4) Pay attention to your goals, avoid “confirmation bias” by ensuring your goal is not blinding you to alternate hypothesis.


Oslo Research park, GSK-Novartis deal, and Viagra now for women

Summer holidays accosted me from updating this blog for the past few weeks but rest assured there will hopefully be more regular updates from now. Three interesting news items currently in press:

  1. The Oslo Cancer Cluster Innovation Park will be opened tomorrow by Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg and represents a big step taken by the Norwegian government to boost research activity in the region. Costing about 1.3 billion Euro to build and covering a 36 000 sqm area, the park will contain the Oslo university hospital, the Norwegian Radium Hospital Research Foundation, a cancer genetics research institute and registry, a biotech incubator, a high school, and various global pharma and Norwegian biotech companies. Two-thirds of the funding for building of the research cluster was derived from private investors while the rest was covered by the state. Many of the companies are focussed on immuno-oncology, including Polaris, a joint venture between Targovax and Oncos Therapeutics as well as local Norwegian upstarts, Nordic Nanovector, Ultimovacs and PCI Biotech.

  2. GSK recently sold off its rights to a mid-stage multiple sclerosis treatment, Ofatumumab, to Novartis for up to $1 billion USD. Ofatumumab is a CD20-targeting monoclonal antibody that is also being used in cancer treatment. The purchase reflects a growing strategic trend for big pharmas to swap assets in an effort to focus on their key strengths. For Novartis, it had already spent $16 billion last year to acquire much of GSK’s cancer business. GSK in turn bought over Novartis’ vaccine businesses for up to $7.1 billion. Furthermore, both companies have teamed up to start a joint consumer health division for over-the-counter drugs. Eli Lilly is also following suit, purchasing Novartis’ struggling animal health division for $5.4 billion.

  3. Finally, the FDA has approved the first treatment for hyposexual desire disorder for premenopausal women. Marketed as a pink pill, it was made by Sprout Pharmaceuticals and is called Addyi, with the chemical name of flibanserin. However the approval is marked by controversy as it was made only after two former rejections and comes with strict regulations on its use due to dangerous side-effects such as low blood pressure and fainting. Unlike Viagra which works by increasing bloodflow to the essential organ, flibanserin functions to regulate serotonin and dopaminergic effects in the brain, binding to several 5-HT (serotonergic) receptors and dopaminergic receptors with varying affinities and activities. Although the exact mechanism on how it might stimulate female libido is not clear, high levels of serotonin in the brain is known to inhibit sexual libido. And in rats, flibanserin preferentially increased dopamine and norepinephrine levels while decreasing serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex. Clinical studies however suggest the effects may be mild, with women on average reporting an increase of one sexual encounter per month, though the producers claim the effects were greater in some women. Following the approval, Sprout Pharmaceuticals was  acquired by Valeant for 1 billion USD and CEO Cindy Whitehead will continue in her current role while reporting to Valeant CEO Anne Whitaker.