Frameshifts Logo

On a spring day in 2006, I woke up from surgery to learn that I had an aggressive type of breast cancer that would require chemotherapy.

I had been told I had a relatively benign diagnosis that was supposed to be cured by a mastectomy. It was devastating to realize that the surgery was not the end of it. I was a cancer patient. This was real.

But there was good news, too: a clinical trial had recently demonstrated the effectiveness of a particular drug, Herceptin, for early-stage cancers of this same aggressive subtype. Herceptin was an antibody designed to target the HER2 protein that had gone rogue in my cancer cells. It was perhaps the earliest example of precision medicine: a new vision of healthcare tailored to the genes, environment, and lifestyle of each individual.

After eight sickening weeks of conventional chemotherapy and a year of Herceptin infusions, I was done with treatment. After five cancer-free years, the doctors declared me cured.

I may well owe my life to these drugs. Adding Herceptin treatment to chemotherapy is estimated to improve chances of survival in cases like mine by about a third.

But it was not “science” in the abstract that threw me a lifeline. Scientists did—people working hard, making sacrifices, struggling with funding and broken equipment and the hundreds of other daily challenges of research.

Taxing graduate training

Knowing the kind of dedication such advances take is why it was so disheartening when, the week before Thanksgiving, the House of Representatives approved a tax bill that if it became law would end the career of countless scientists and throttle scientific progress in the process.

Their proposal would artificially inflate the taxable income of grad students, increasing their tax bills by up to 400%. This would make advanced training inaccessible to many promising students, unless they happened to be wealthy.

Thankfully, the Senate did not include the plan to tax tuition waivers in their version of the bill. But in fighting this disastrous proposal, students, faculty and other advocates have been forced to spend a frustrating few weeks defending graduate education.

From the lab to the clinic

We have been asked why the public should care about whether or not grad students get to pursue their research dreams. One answer is that graduate training is vital to science and innovation in this country.

Consider Herceptin, the drug that helped me.

One of the keys to Herceptin’s success as a drug was that the original mouse antibody designed to target HER2 was subsequently made safe for use humans—if physicians had injected me with the mouse version of the antibody, my body’s immune response would have recognized the foreign protein as an invader and mounted an attack.

To get around this, Genentech, the biotech company that developed Herceptin, “humanized” the antibody by replacing 95% of the protein with the human equivalents. They were successful in this innovation in part thanks to the expertise of Paul Carter, fresh from his graduate school training in the laboratory of Greg Winter at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. Winter’s group had been the first to successfully humanize mouse antibodies.

Examples like this are more than commonplace; public investment in research training has long been crucial for the survival of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. After all, scientists first learn how to be scientists in graduate school.

In fact, many such industries were born from academic research. Genentech was the first company to successfully use genetic engineering to create a drug (recombinant human insulin). The company was co-founded by an academic researcher and its early success was built largely on discoveries made in Bay Area university labs in the 1970s. And of course, on discoveries made by graduate students.

For example, in 1971, UCSF graduate student Robert Yoshimori isolated an enzyme from a clinical sample of E. coli bacteria. This new enzyme, named EcoRI, cut DNA only at the site of specific sequences. Another graduate student, Janet Mertz at Stanford, discovered that the cut DNA ends were “sticky”—which meant that they could be easily joined with any other DNA molecule cut by EcoRI. These discoveries revealed a simple and fast method to unite DNA from different sources into one combined molecule—a pivotal moment in the widespread adoption of recombinant DNA methods, and the technology that brought us Herceptin.

You see, grad students make contributions to science as part of their training. It’s one of the criteria for graduating from most PhD programs. If grad students are taxed out of existence, not only is the future scientific workforce weakened, but the many discoveries those students would have made during their training are hindered, or worse, lost.

Not all grad students remain researchers. Even fewer will remain in academia. But grad school training is vital preparation for many careers that make a difference to society. Even once Herceptin was developed, countless PhD-trained scientists were needed to shepherd the drug through the long process of bringing the drug to market. These patent lawyers, clinical trial coordinators, statisticians, FDA evaluators, regulatory writers, and many others may not fit your picture of a cancer scientist, but nevertheless, they were essential to making this drug an option for patients like me.

Potential losses beyond measure

I received my diagnosis just before Herceptin was approved by the FDA for use in early-stage cases. I would have missed out had the development and testing of the drug been slowed by staff shortages. I may have lost my life if this process had been delayed because the best people for the job had never become scientists at all.

As the Dean of a graduate school, I have daily opportunities to witness the creativity and dedication of grad students—and not just in my own field of biomedical science. Tracing their contributions to a particular innovation or product is in many ways an impossible thought experiment, because without PhD training, there are no researchers. If grad students are priced out of this system, the research enterprise will suffer immeasurable losses. Higher education will suffer. Industry will suffer. The economy will suffer. Ultimately, everyone will suffer—including those who will miss out on lifesaving medical treatments.

How you can make a difference now

What can we do to safeguard graduate education? There is still time to call your representatives while they reconcile the House and Senate bills. Ask them to ensure that the final act retains provision 117(d)(5) that makes student tuition waivers non-taxable. Ask them to retain other protections that make college more accessible, including keeping employee tuition benefits as non-taxable and allowing student loan interest to be tax deductible.  Contribute your story to our awareness campaign. Tell your family and friends about the importance of research and graduate training. Tell the grad students you know that you value them and their many contributions. And don’t stop keeping an eye to their future, because it just might impact yours.

Lynn Cooley was 2017 President of the Genetics Society of America. She is Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, C. N. H. Long Professor of Genetics, Professor of Cell Biology and of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University. The views expressed in her "Frameshifts" posts are hers and are not necessarily endorsed by the Society.

View all posts by Lynn Cooley »