Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Dear Sirs,

I know an omen when I see one, and it needn’t even involve a two-headed goat. As a scientist with a background in cancer research, the revelation I’m referring to is a bit of homework I did on the average yearly amount of money spent on programming by your television networks (about $1.5 billion). A number which strangely mirrors the average amount of money given last year to each of the 18 institutes within the National Institutes of Health, an organization that is the U.S.’s backbone of publicly driven medical research. Clearly, this is a call to merge the two enterprises together. So in the interest of public health, and given the pervasiveness of reality TV, I wish to expound to you four possible examples that demonstrate the feasibility of this union.

i. Real Science, Real People:
In the early 90s, studies were conducted whereby a single male mouse was presented with a plethora of different female mice. What was discovered was that the most desirable females had immune system genes that were most distinct from the male suitor. In other words, the female picked had a particular genetic background. Such a mechanism of mate selection would please Darwin since the offspring produced would inadvertently benefit from the most diverse, or most advantageous, immune system. More pressing, however, is the question of whether this decidedly unromantic notion pertains to mate choice in humans? Fortunately, we can now answer this question by asking the participants of programs like The Bachelor or The Bachelorette to provide a blood sample along with their video profile. This way, research can finally circumvent the sticky ethics of conducting such experiments on humans. On the plus side, this research opportunity should also generate its own built-in funding infrastructure as it can be easily applied to beat Vegas odds.

ii. Save Money:
Currently, every drug used for medicinal purposes in the United States needs to navigate through the strict and often precarious guidelines imposed by the Food and Drug Administration. This is an extremely long and expensive process, averaging 15 years and upward of $300 million in financing from discovery to product. Inevitably, most of this arduous process is due to the proper design and delivery of human clinical trials that examine drug efficacy and safety. Why not incorporate these trials into television shows like Fear Factor or Survivor? If contestants are willing to drink the seminal fluids of cattle or eat squirming maggots the size of your thumb, wouldn’t these same individuals revel in an opportunity to eat untested drugs? We could even have a “totally untested” and a safer “well, the mice survived” version of the same contest! In any event, millions of dollars would be saved.

iii. Promote Technology Development:
Medical research is largely driven these days by the ingenious design of equipment that can do new things or do old things better, faster, bigger, cheaper, safer. This to me is an invitation to incorporate medical technology development into reality TV. Why can’t Junkyard Wars showcase a competition to build the fastest DNA sequencer. Or viewers watch an episode of BattleBots that pits equipment used for insulin production. If Extreme Home Makeover can build a whole new environment in seven days, then why can’t you “fix that genetic mutation” in the same seven days. It’s no surprise that ingenuity often percolates under tough situations, and I can think of no tougher than a scenario where contestants only have 48 hours and a $1000 budget to meet their objective.

iv. Fostering Interest in Science Careers:
If we can have programming that features Donald Trump searching for a skilled apprentice, why can’t we use the same template to attract top graduate students. It should be simple enough to invite a feisty Nobel Laureate with an ego big enough to oversee the process. Just think of the entertainment value generated by having a team of young researchers told “Your project is to work together and come up with a cure for cancer in three days. And don’t forget—if you fail, you will meet me in the seminar room where somebody will be fired!” I mean, really—this stuff sells itself!

To conclude, I hope these four simple examples illustrate the opportunity at stake. It would be a great shame to not utilize these two great charges for the benefit of all. Now if we can only get the Food Network on board—maybe an episode of The Iron Chef with two-headed goats as the special ingredient?

Dr. David Ng

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