Untimely passing of professor Maryam Mirzakhani and the anguish of inadequacy of the translational biomedical research

Prof Maryam Mirzakhani, the prominent Iranian-American mathematician and the only woman Fields Medal winner, died of breast cancer on 14 July 2017, at the age of 40. She was a few years my senior at Farzanehgan High School, National Organization for Development of Extraordinary Talents.

Despite the vast increase in our understanding of biomedical sciences in recent decades, the success stories of the translational research are not satisfactory especially in cancer therapeutics. This is in part due to obstacles in multi-disciplinary team interactions, data reproducibility, and model systems as well as funding pressures resulting in changing the scientific landscape towards increase of short-term thinking and alarming decline of “creativity, risk-taking, and original thinking”. The biomedical science is largely experimental, overly relying on statistical significance, and with zero or minimal theoretical input. In fact there is a strong aversion to theoretical approaches in the biomedical science community. As such, observations are made in specific populations and experiments are conducted under specific sets of conditions hindering generalizability of the results.

Furthermore, the efforts are mainly directed towards descriptive and effectiveness studies while clarification studies are required to understand the mechanism(s) of effectiveness. The evidence-based approach, which is currently the gold standard in clinical research, is mostly relying on effectiveness studies i.e. clinical trials. With the availability of multi-omics platforms, synthetic biology, advanced statistical methods, and conceptualization of the “precision” approach to medicine, it is imperative that the current data-driven approach be supplanted/supplemented with theoretical reasoning. It is worth remembering that one of the recent breakthroughs in life sciences, i.e. the deciphering of the double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by Watson and Crick, are based on theoretical work in the absence of sufficient supporting empirical evidence.

Principles of human physiology and pathology is similar across different genders, ethnicities, geographic locations, and lifestyles while acknowledging the modification and/or confounding effect of all the above-mentioned factors as well as genetics on the pathogenesis process. Prof Maryam Mirzakhani’s untimely death of breast cancer is just one unfortunate example reminding us of the grave urgency to change our collective thinking process. Her brilliant mind, tackling unsolved mathematical problems, should remind us all of the importance of incorporating theory-driven approaches into the biomedical research. It is time for the field to collectively reflect on its tenants and practices, to identify the obstacles, and to propose solutions in order to increase translational applications from bench to bedside.

Shirin Moossavi
Shirin Moossavi
Postdoctoral Fellow