[Cytometry] Grand Challenges in Cytometry

Howard Shapiro hms at shapirolab.com
Fri May 20 13:17:53 EDT 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen-

Since I won't be at CYTO 2011 due to a longstanding prior commitment to the 50th Reunion of my Harvard class, I though I might give you something to talk about at the manufacturers' parties in Baltimore.

These days it seems to be de rigeur to issue "Grand Challenges" to galvanize people into action on one issue or another; the Gates Foundation's program for global public health comes to mind, but the National Academy of Engineering, NIH, and other organizations have played a similar game.

Some of the existing Grand Challenges programs, notably those related to cell-based diagnosis of infectious disease, touch on our field of interest and expertise, but it appears that many, if not most, of the people doing the work are more expert about other aspects of the proposed technology than they are about the cells.

Niels Bohr defined an expert as someone who has made most of the mistakes that can be made in a narrow field. That is certainly what characterizes my expertise, and it pains me to see other people make mistakes that I and many of you learned to avoid years and even decades ago, especially given the death rate from HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB, etc.

One can easily divide the world into "haves" and "have nots." We, however, tend at first to think of those classes as representing those who do and do not have access to technologies such as cytometry. I submit that lack of access to information and expertise on cytometry represents as least as significant an obstacle to progress in cell-based infectious disease research and diagnosis as does lack of apparatus. Cytometry is mothers' milk to immunologists; many of them whose interest is primarily in clinical immunology don't show up at ISAC meetings nowadays. Many people who work on hematology analyzers, virtually all of which are flow cytometers, don't even go to the Clinical Cytometry meetings most of the time, since they have an International Society for Laboratory Hematology. There are flow cytometers in SubSaharan Africa and other resource-limited areas, and most of the people who use them for hematology and immunology know where to find the information they need to do their work.

Notwithstanding the fact that there have been sessions on microbiology at ISAC meetings since the SAC days, and triennial meetings on single cell microbiology since 1999, the state of the art of microbial cytometry has remained relatively primitive, and information diffuses relatively slowly, probably because there are many fewer people involved and many fewer publications related to the subject than is the case for clinical immunology.

Literature searches can easily find people who have already published on a subject such as malaria cytometry; they cannot, however, find people just getting started on work in that area, and those are the people most in need of access to information and expertise. The manufacturers and their representatives, however, know who and where the newbies are, as do the people who run core labs. 

It has never been easy to convince manufacturers to donate apparatus, or even to do freebie modifications to instruments already in place, for humanitarian reasons; they need to make money, and I accept that. 

There should not, however, be any reason why we can't find out who is doing what where in the critical areas related to global public health, and post that information in a central, neutral location (I can provide one via the Center for Microbial Cytometry; Paul Robinson might volunteer the Purdue site). And it doesn't cost that much, these days, to network groups of people by video. This would enable optimal use to be made of such resources as are available.  I hereby issue a Grand Challenge to the industry to join me (and other sympathetic parties) in this effort, which, since I have just used the word "parties," I should mention will only take a small fraction of the CYTO 2011 entertainment budgets.

I have thought up some more specific Grand Challenges in Cytometry; they should be posted on http://www.shapirolab.com by some time next week. Stay tuned.

Have a great time in Baltimore! I'll be there in spirit and possibly via mp3.


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