Curiosity Podcast Transcript: The Microscopic Chemical Warfare Of Antibiotics

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Research isn't always conducted in a laboratory. Dr. Brian T. Murphy runs a research program that takes him all around the world collecting aquatic microorganisms, en route to the discovery and development of new antibiotics. On this podcast, Dr. Murphy explains how antibiotics work and the importance of discovering new ones, as well as detailing some of the exotic underwater adventures involved in his line of work.

Stream or download this podcast using the player below or on our podcast page, and scroll down to follow along with the full episode transcript. You can also find this episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

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Curiosity Podcast Transcript

Cody Gough:

I'm curious, why is it so important to discover new antibiotics?

Dr. Brian Murphy

People get bacterial infections, and then they take antibiotics to treat these infections, but bacteria evolve way faster than humans do, and so just putting it simply, they can see these drugs and learn how to fight them and learn how to beat them. Then they survive, and so then after one year, five years, ten years, the treatments that we use no longer work, and so we need to find new treatments.

Cody Gough:

Hey, I'm Cody Gough from Curiosity.com. Today, we're going to learn about antibiotics research. Every week we explore what we don't know, because curiosity makes you smarter. This is the Curiosity podcast.

The word research kind of has a stigma around it. You might think of a white, sterile boring laboratory with a bunch of microscopes and Petri dishes. So that's why I wanted to talk to a scientist who goes out on adventures, Indiana Jones style, for his research, and that's exactly what I did. Doctor Brian Murphy will talk about how his research in the field of antibiotics is taken him all across the US and around the world, and why his research is so important. We'll get into some surprising science, plus learn how you can get involved as a citizen researcher.

Doctor Brian Murphy is an associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago in the department of Medical Chemistry and Pharmacognosy. Not pharmacology.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Correct.

Cody Gough:

What is pharmacognosy?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, it's a complicated word that basically means knowledge of drugs. If you break it down as pharma, cog, nosy. So, cognosy, like knowledge, and pharma, drug.

Cody Gough:

Got it. Okay.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, so knowledge of drugs.

Cody Gough:

Well, welcome to the Curiosity podcast.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Thank you.

Cody Gough:

I'm talking to you today because you run a drug discovery research program. You're working on lots of projects, but there are some that seem very pressing, and even more important perhaps than others. What problem right now is the main problem that you're trying to solve and why is it important?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, great question. We're trying to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance. So, people get bacterial infections, and then they take antibiotics to treat these infections, but bacteria evolve way faster than humans do, and so, just putting it simply, they can see these drugs and learn how to fight them and learn how to beat them. Then they survive, and then after one year, five years, ten years, the treatments that we use no longer work, and so we need to find new treatments, and this is where my lab comes in.

The whole point of my lab is to discover new antibiotics from the environment, but specifically from bacteria that we collect in the environment. Now bacteria are everywhere. You can look on your skin, on the table right here. You can go under the water into little sediment samples, or sand. There's bacteria everywhere. Back in the 1929 or '28 or so, Alexander Fleming discovered that there was this fungus that fought off a bacterium by producing a little small molecule, a compound, called penicillin. This was a huge discovery, because it really ushered in what was called the Golden Antibiotic Discovery Era. It ushered in the concept that microorganisms fight each other with little chemical weapons, all right, and so what researchers did at that time, they invested billions of dollars each year to try and collect these chemical weapons that microorganisms use against each other and develop them into drugs, so when I get a bacterial infection, you basically ... Nature has been fighting each other for ... bacteria and nature have fought each other for million of years, and so we're just harnessing that power, right, when we develop drugs from microorganisms.

I kind of go around to different parts of the environment, just particularly under the water. We'll scuba dive for different samples in some weird environments to try to collect strange bacteria. We'll collect the bacteria that live there, and then we make a whole library of these bacteria, and then we try to collect the chemical weapons that they produce, and test their ability to inhibit different diseases. That's kind of what we do. Hopefully, we find chemical weapons that can target these drug resistant bacteria.

Cody Gough:

That is a great overview.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Thank you.

Cody Gough:

Let's kind of go in to each of the parts of what you were talking about. Let's start with in the early 20th century, penicillin's discovered. Why is it so important that you're doing that now? Don't people come out with new antibiotics all the time?

Dr. Brian Murphy

No. They don't. They used to. There's a certain defined reservoir in nature for antibiotics, and throughout the '40s to '60s, 1940s to 1960s, companies were pulling out antibiotics left and right. That's why they called it the Golden Era of Antibiotic Discovery. Most people thought that bacterial infections weren't going to be so much of a problem, but of course, because bacteria become resistant to these drugs, it became everly increasingly difficult to discover new drugs to treat these drug resistant bacteria. So, over the years, the rate of resistance to drugs outpaced the discovery of new drugs, and so there's not an infinite reservoir of drugs from the environment. A major problem in my field right now is rediscovering the same old antibiotics that have existed in nature for a long time.

Ashley Hamer:

Hey, Ashley here. Calling the first half of the 20th century the Golden Age of Antibiotics is no overstatement. Before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, hospitals were full of people with blood poisoning they had contracted from minor cuts and scrapes. You couldn't effectively treat infections like pneumonia or gonorrhea. You just had to wait it out.

From 1942, when the first patient was treated with penicillin, through the 1970s, 270 infection fighting drugs were developed. That's an average of 10 a year of new antibiotics alone, which is a really impressive statistic when you consider that today the FDA approves about 30 drugs a year total.

Cody Gough:

How quickly are these bacteria adapting, and how quickly are these antibiotics becoming obsolete?

Dr. Brian Murphy

It really differs for every strain of bacteria, or pathogenic bacteria. There are some that can become resistant very quickly. I think with some of the first antibiotics on the market they observed resistant strains within a year. Then there were some it was more like 10 years. But it all depends on ... You always hear people talk about the overuse of antibiotics, and this is one of the things that propagates a resistance. When you don't properly use an antibiotic to kill an entire population, and you kind of expose it to the antibiotic, but sublethal concentrations, it can become resistant. It can learn about that antibiotic, and then ... Learn is probably the wrong word to use, but-

Cody Gough:

Adapt.

Dr. Brian Murphy

It can adapt to it.

Cody Gough:

So are antibiotics being over prescribed or just taken in too much in general?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, they're being over prescribed, and doctors are prescribing them when they don't need to prescribe them, and this is a problem. A major problem is their use in agriculture, where just swaths are being used on whole animal populations.

Cody Gough:

Animal populations?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, yeah, like pigs, or cows, or ... so to prevent their crops from getting diseases.

Ashley Hamer:

Pop quiz. What percentage of the antibiotics administered in the US go to animals? Care to take a guess? It's 70%. When you add that to the numbers in other countries, it's pretty clear that animals worldwide are getting way more antibiotics than people are. Sometimes this is necessary. Animals get infections just like people do, and to withhold medication would be bad for a farmer's bottom line, not to mention their conscious. But many farmers dish up regular servings of antibiotics to help animals grow faster, and that can lead to antibiotic resistant infections. Considering that two-thirds of human infectious diseases start in animals, that's a very bad thing. Some countries are working to combat this problem, but change has been pretty slow

Dr. Brian Murphy

... and animal crops.

Cody Gough:

So who isn't using antibiotics?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I don't know.

Cody Gough:

Oh man.

Dr. Brian Murphy

It's a major problem, their use in agriculture. Or overuse in agriculture.

Cody Gough:

Is that why you're going underwater to find them?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah. Well, that's why people went into the water in the first place. Yeah. I mean, the first place is they looked were the land. These were the easiest places to collect. You'd get a soil sample from your backyard, or down the street, or you go on vacation, you bring a tube and collect some soil and isolate bacteria. Then after a decade or two, you start to see the same structures and so you have to innovate. Okay, well let's try some new methods. New methods of growing or new places to collect, and well I guess this leads us right to one of major problems that my lab is trying to solve right now.

In nearly seven to eight decades of biomedical research, in trying to discover new antibiotics, there have been relatively few changes to the philosophy that we use to collect bacteria, and thus their corresponding chemical weapons from the environment. We're kind of still using the same old techniques that we used in the '40s and '50s. You go to a different place, you collect some soil. You put the soil onto Petri dishes, which is basically food for bacteria, and then bacteria grow. Then you look at the plate and you have all these different colors on your nutrient plate, and you say, "Oh, well, here's a purple bacterium, and here's a black bacterium, and here's an orange bacterium. Geez. I guess I'll pick one of each and then I'll ignore the other seven orange bacteria." But really using color and shape is what people still do nowadays, and that tells you nothing about the chemical weapons that they produce, which is obviously the important part.

Cody Gough:

So if there's 40 bacteria on a Petri dish, researchers will literally randomly pick a handful of them?

Dr. Brian Murphy

This is correct.

Cody Gough:

Are you serious?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, that's the best we got. Not to say that we don't have ways to identify the bacteria, but the ways that we have to identify them are time consuming and costly. When you take a sediment sample and put it onto maybe six different nutrient media, okay, that's a manageable number of bacteria. You can have anywhere from 20 to 100 different types of bacteria growing on these plates, but when you start to say, "Okay. Now you have six plates per sample." But then you go on a collection trip, and you collect 60 samples, and now you have 60 times 6, and then that number times a hundred. Now all of a sudden you're starting to be around like 50, 60,000 colonies that you need to pick. I'm running an academic research lab. I don't have a ton of money. It's really difficult to get money here, and so I gotta pay people to do all this, and so you just have to hedge your bets, and just pick some of them, and hope that what you pick produces a new drug. It's been serendipity really. It's collection based on serendipity.

Cody Gough:

During the Golden Era of Antibiotics research and discovery, did they do things differently? Were they able to collect 60,000 and test all of them, or has it been pretty much the same?

Dr. Brian Murphy

It's been pretty much the same. I mean, pharma companies had a bit more money, so they could build bigger teams and slightly bigger libraries, but there were still not a whole lot of documentation about exactly what was tested, okay. Luckily, we have developed a method in our lab now, in collaboration with another assistant professor at UIC, Doctor Laura Sanchez, who's an expert in mass spectrometry. It's basically this tool that we can use to analyze both the type of bacteria and what it produces on a plate. We're able to analyze high numbers of these bacterial colonies very quickly, and get a very brief fingerprint of not only what type of bacteria it is, but what it produces, and we can then make informed decisions about what bacteria we should add to our library. So instead of basing these decisions on color and shape, we can base it on what type of bacteria it is and what it produces, like the weapons it produces.

Cody Gough:

That makes sense.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

Let's leave the lab, just for a minute. We'll come back there, but let's talk about the scuba diving. You are going on adventures. You're like the Indian Jones of microbiology, right? Is it microbiology?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Microbiology, chemistry, yeah.

Cody Gough:

Chemistry. A little bit of both?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Hm-hmm.

Cody Gough:

Your background is more of a chemistry?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I'm a trained chemist. Most of my degrees are in chemistry, but in my postdoctoral training I did two years of heavy chemistry slash microbiology research, and so the microbiology part was really half self-taught and half trained with really talented microbiologists at the Scripts Institute of Oceanography.

Cody Gough:

Okay. There's going to be some overlap, I suppose.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

Depending on the research. So, back to the scuba diving. You're going underwater having these adventures. When I think science, a lot of times people think science or research, it's always you're in a lab with a bunch of beakers somewhere. Everything's white countertops and everything, but you're out and about in the world, and you're traveling and things like that. Where has this project brought you?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah. In the continental US, it has brought me all throughout the Great Lakes, to Massachusetts, to the coast off of Maine, to Florida. Internationally, it's brought me to some amazing places. We've done collection expeditions in Iceland where you have literally below freezing waters, and we've just gotten a five year grant to work and develop an antibiotic discovery program that focuses on tuberculosis in Vietnam, so I'll be going there for the next five years. We've been able to see some amazing things. We're, again, partnering with scientists who work in these countries, because like I said before, this is an international problem that knows no borders.

Cody Gough:

Is this an international effort?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yes, it is. Absolutely.

Cody Gough:

So you're getting help from all over the place.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Oh yeah. In our collaboration with Iceland, we have a partnership with Doctor Sesselja Omarsdottir lab at the University of Iceland, and in Vietnam we're working with Cuong Van Pham in Hanoi at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, and another professor in the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Hanoi.

Cody Gough:

And it's important to gather samples from all around the world because of the variety of bacteria you'll find?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Correct. Yeah, absolutely. We both have the same goal. For example, in Vietnam, they have expertise in TB biology. I have expertise in sample collection and the identification of drugs from bacteria, and so we can combine these different expertise and build a nice training program to train young scientists in this process, and pass some of this knowledge on so they can further innovate the discovery process. That's kind of the grant we have going with Vietnam right now.

Cody Gough:

Well, when you're on these expeditions, are you doing the old school kind of collection? I mean, is it just you drive somewhere, scrap up some soil, and put it in a dish?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I have this amazing picture of ... we got on one of the largest vessels in the Icelandic Coast Guard fleet. It's called the Aegir, and there's this great picture this photojournalist, Jenny Yang of the Toronto Star, took. It's the captain, and this vessel is immense, right. You look at it and you say, "I do not belong here." You have this great picture of me and Sesselja, my collaborator, and the captain rolls this large map of the north Atlantic out in front of us and says, "Hey. You guys have the ship for six days. All right. Where do you want to go?" The picture is perfect because there's just dumbfounded look on my face saying, "Uumm." 'Cause the truth is you don't know where to go. Nobody knows where to go except let's just go somewhere different.

That touches on one of the other projects in my lab about how do you intuitively choose where to collect, because nobody understands how these chemical weapons are distributed in nature, and if you don't understand that, then you don't really know where to collect. The best philosophy that we have is that different organisms produce slightly different chemical weapons, and so just collect different organisms.

Cody Gough:

Now if organisms have been fighting each other here on Earth for thousands and thousands of years, I have to ask, the Curiosity audience loves outer space, our editorial staff loves outer space. Are you working with space agencies to collect from outer space?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Can I tell you, every time I go under the water, I feel like I'm in outer space, especially in Iceland it looks like outer space, so I would tell you that I'm already collecting them, but that's not true.

You know, when you find a microorganism from outer space, that is going to be a big deal, because you've just proven life exists elsewhere. So, no, there's not a huge ... our field is called natural products. There's not a huge natural products contingency focused on space, but I will tell you that not three years ago I told my nephew that when he grows of age, he can be the first guy to go into spaces to start collecting samples to look for new microorganisms to use to fight bacteria.

Cody Gough:

Wow. Very ambitious. I like it.

Dr. Brian Murphy

He really likes the stars. He likes looking into telescopes, so I had to give him a project.

Cody Gough:

Good. I mean, if you got to give somebody a project, I suppose that's a good place to start. If there's no scientific method for locating where to even start digging, can people get involved? Are there citizen scientists that can collect this kind of stuff?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Oh yeah. There's quite a few scientists in my field who have pretty large citizen science efforts that have them mail in samples. It's a bit more complicated, because there's some permitting issues. You can't just do it ... and for good reason, you can't just have these things come in all around the world. Somebody can't like live on a farm in India and send a soil sample in, because the USDA is going to have a major problem with that.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, customs doesn't like that.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Customs does not like when you bring in soil from other farms. You should not do that. I'm not advocating for that. But yeah. It's a lot easier to do local citizen science efforts, and there's even a website. I forgot what the name of it was, but there is a website that can direct citizens towards citizen science projects and it's just a whole database of different researchers who are looking for help.

Ashley Hamer:

For our listeners in the US, one of those citizen scientists sites is called Drugs From Dirt. We'll have a link to that and lots of other great resources in the show notes.

Dr. Brian Murphy

We actually have a citizen science project in our lab. First of all, did you know that there are sponges in the great lakes? Little sponges, these little animals.

Cody Gough:

No.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Of course. Not many people do. I didn't either when I took the job. I thought that sponges only occurred in the ocean, but they occur in lakes. Ha.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Dr. Brian Murphy

And so I thought, and it was even better, a lot of these sponges grow off of wood, which means off of old shipwrecks, and so we had a pretty great citizen science effort of where we put the word out to a bunch of PADI scuba diving centers around the Great Lakes and we sent them sample collection kits. We got all of the appropriate permits to collect from these places. They went out, these citizens. They took videos, they documented the sponges and where they were. They got us the depth, the water temperature, the exact coordinates. They took a little tiny centimeter cubed piece of a sponge. They put it in a tube under the water. They got up, and dropped it in an envelope, and mailed it to us. As a result, we have a project where right now we're working with greater than 50 sponge samples collected from the Great Lakes, not only studying what types of sponges exist in the Great Lakes, but we're studying the types of microbial communities that live in these sponges, how consistence the communities are throughout different sponges, and the different chemistry that occurs within these sponges.

I know people are probably thinking, "Well, who cares?" But you have to care, because if you understand how microbial communities change over the course of geographic location, then you can understand how to more intuitively design a collection trip, so that you're not going to have that picture of me staring dumbfounded at a map on a ship. I might actually have a better answer when that captain asks me, "Where would you like to collect?" So, if we can understand how microbial communities and the chemical weapons they produce are distributed in the environment, we can intuitively design collection trips.

Cody Gough:

That seems like a pretty important thing to do.

Dr. Brian Murphy

It is, and I'll tell ya'. It's not a question that just my lab can answer. It's going to take a concerted effort of many scientists, but there are other labs out there who are kind of working on the same issue. There aren't many, but there are.

Cody Gough:

So, let's say a bunch of citizen scientists send you some samples, and you've collected a bunch of samples, but you already said you don't have the capacity to analyze all of them.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Good question. Nice lead in, too. Nice transition.

Cody Gough:

Thanks.

Dr. Brian Murphy

We do now. In the past year and a half, through two very talented graduate students and one very talented collaborator, Doctor Sanchez, we have designed a method that we can go through these colonies, these microbial colonies in high through put, so in large numbers, and make a quick evaluation of whether or not we are interested in them as sources for drug discovery. Whereas before, there's no way we would've been able to process 10,000 colonies, but now, using a lot less money, fewer personnel, and a more automated system, we can actually process that many colonies and go through that many while reducing the redundancy that usually exists in our libraries, you know, repeats of types of ... If you just say the orange color, you might collect 200 orange colors and you have no idea which of those bacteria are similar, or which produce the same chemical weapons. But now, we will have an idea of where the overlap exists, and we can throwout all the redundancy and only keep the unique microorganisms.

Cody Gough:

So you've solved part of the problem, really?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I hate the word solve, 'cause it suggest that there is an end to it. There's always a way to improve what you're doing. I think we've introduced a nice innovation to the front end of this drug discovery process, which has been severely lacking in innovations.

Cody Gough:

What kinds of conditions are you testing to be able to combat?

Dr. Brian Murphy

You mean to combat drug resistance?

Cody Gough:

What diseases are you fighting?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Oh, okay.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, what are trying to develop these antibiotics for?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah, so we collaborate heavily with the Institute for Tuberculosis Research at UIC, so tuberculosis is a pretty awful disease that affects one in three of the world's population. It's a bacterium called microbacterium tuberculosis, or TB.

Ashley Hamer:

If you're in a developed country, you may be saying, "Wait. Tuberculosis? Isn't that an old fashion disease like scarlet fever or smallpox?" In your part of the world, yes, mostly. Each year in the US, for example, there are only about three cases per 100,000 people, but worldwide, it infects around 10 million people per year, and kills 2 million. The greatest number of TB deaths occur in Africa, mostly because Africa is experiencing a terrible HIV epidemic, and TB is one of main killers of people with HIV. Suffice it to say, finding drugs that can wipe out tuberculosis is super important.

Dr. Brian Murphy

This is one of our major targets, but we will not discriminate. We will fight any pathogenic bacteria that exists out there. Whenever we do an isolate an antibiotic, we will test it against as many different human pathogens as we possibly can. We have other projects, too, where we focus on trying to combat different cancers, and we have a lot of different ... what's called biological assays, that are collaborators do, but I think our major focus is antibiotic discovery.

Cody Gough:

And that's the most urgent, again, because you said that not a lot of new antibiotics have come out in the last several decades.

Ashley Hamer:

Not a lot is putting it mildly. We haven't seen a new class of antibiotics since 1984. Only five of the top 50 pharma companies are even creating antibiotics. A 2002 analysis found that out of more than 500 drugs in development that year, only five were antibiotics. 89 drugs hit the market that year, without an antibiotic among them.

Cody Gough:

And part of that's funding, I guess.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah. Oh, boy, there's a lot of reasons for it. Part of it is funding. There's been a huge divestment of pharmaceutical companies from antibiotic discovery because it's just simply not that profitable. I mean, I hate saying that, but it's absolutely true. It can take billions of dollars to develop a drug, and then you can develop the drug, go through discovery, and you can put it through phase I, phase II, phase III, human clinical trials. You could put it on the market, and then within a very short period, the bacterium can be resistant to it, so what company would invest in that? I think we need a severe change in the way that we invest in discovery, and this is just my personal opinion, at least for antibiotic discovery, there has to be a huge percentage of the for profit motive to be removed, but we need a major restructuring of the system to do that.

There are non-for-profit discovery institutes, especially that focus on more third world diseases, like tuberculosis. These places do exist, but not for every disease.

Cody Gough:

Is there a way people can locate those and donate to those or support those in some way?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Some of the major ones that do more non-for-profit discovery are the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation and the TB Alliance, and then there's several others.

Cody Gough:

We'll post some links in the show notes if people want to get involved.

Well, the research you're doing sounds like it's really useful, and a cool thing to do, and you get to get outside the lab. You're not just sitting hunched over numbers all day and crunching in little microscopes, and doing lots of different things. For our younger listeners, or students that are trying to choose a career path, or are interested in this kind of research, what do you want them to know that you think they might not know?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Well, depends if it's know about our field or know about how to apply to a program like this.

Cody Gough:

Either way.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Okay. Well, to apply to a program like this, you want to have a strong background in things like biology and chemistry, so a lot of people are afraid of organic chemistry. The name is just terrifying to some people, but I promise you if you sit and read the book, and really take your time to study it, it is a very intuitive subject. I was bad at a lot of subjects; I wasn't bad at that. But because I thought it was intuitive. The first three chapters of the book set out rules, and once you learn those rules, everything builds off of those rules, but if you do like what I did in a lot of other classes and accidentally drink through the whole course, you're going to miss the rules, and then of course you're not going to understand chapter four, because you didn't study hard on chapters one to three. It's one of those subjects that if you get lost at the beginning, it's tough to recover, so please study your organic chemistry and study your biology, because I was never an A student. I was never the smartest kid in the class, but I really studied hard when it came to organic chemistry, and it paid off.

Be good in those biological sciences, develop a relationship with your professors, get good recommendation letters, and then when you apply to graduate schools, type in things like "drug discovery natural products" into Google, or "drug discovery synthetic chemistry" into Google, and you'll have a whole slew of grad programs all across the country.

Cody Gough:

What's the coolest thing that you do that people might not know that you do?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I mean, you already touched on it. By far, the coolest thing that I get to do is go explore the underwater environments of places like Iceland and Vietnam. You go to Iceland and there's places where I can literally swim between the fissure or the crack between continents, and there are points where I can put my left hand out and put my right hand out and I can be touching both continental shelves at the same time. You know, that place where the Eurasian Plate meets the North American Plate. I can be underwater in this sub-freezing environment, where it's negative 0.5 Celsius, or 31 Fahrenheit, and you're in this dry suit in totally freezing water, but then you see this hydrothermal chimney that's built up of minerals that's tens of thousands of years old that's just spewing boiling water out of it from glacial melt that enters into the Earth, is heated by the volcanic rock, and then shoots out of these chimneys. They're just such strange places that I have the absolute privilege to see. For that, everything that I do's worth it just to see those.

Cody Gough:

I'm sold on it. Might go check out one of those textbooks.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

And make sure that I pay attention during the first three chapters. Where can people learn more abour your research online?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Oh, www.MurphyLabUIC.com. You can follow us on Twitter also @MurphyLabUIC, and we're always promoting things that we do and talking about other people's science, as well, 'cause it's not just us here, you know. We are a splinter in the rung of an ever growing ladder of drug discovery, and so I really want to highlight our place as significant contributions from very insignificant ... not people, but we're a very small group, and that's kind of how drug discovery works, is you build off of ... you stand on the shoulders of giants. Forgive the common idiom, but you stand on the shoulders of giants, and then you also stand on the shoulders of people who are the exact same stature as you.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Dr. Brian Murphy

It's just a big group international effort, and all of our contributions together aim toward this greater cause of discovering cures to diseases that are going to plague us.

Cody Gough:

And what happens if you and a lab in Thailand and a lab in Iceland cross reference all your research and compare your notes, and end up coming up with some antibiotic, and you just realize, "Oh my gosh. This can fight cancer." Or something like that. What happens then? Do you bring it to market? Does it become released just to everybody? How does that work?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Then it gets really complicated after that, if you find something.

Cody Gough:

Oh yeah?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah. We have these agreements in place where ... usually when we work internationally, we have these like 50/50 type agreements that say, "All right. We will go into this 50/50 benefit sharing."

It's really unfortunate the degree to which profit comes into drug discovery. Unfortunately the way that our discovery system's set up, it's totally, it has to happen, because it costs an incredible amount of money and takes an incredible labor force to put a drug on the market. You can't just discover something and throw it into the human body, and ignore all of the possible consequences that come after that, because there's a lot of toxicity issues with the drugs that you discover. When you put something into a living system, these living systems are incredible complex, and you can't even predict the ways that this thing is going to act in different subpopulations of humans. It takes just a lot of research and a lot of money to develop a drug. Somebody has to do it.

As much as I have had a lot of criticisms of pharma companies over the years, they do amazing work, and they operate, a lot of times, at a loss. I never thought I'd be one day behind a microphone defending pharma companies, because they have their share of offenses. I promise you, but it's not a simple as people usually put it. Like, "Oh, there's a cure out there, but companies are just hiding it 'cause they want to make more money." That is so BS. It is so intellectually hollow, and there's literally no thought put behind that, and no evidence to support that. The fact that some company has this cure to cancer, that ... we can't even keep the simplest of secrets among human beings, so the fact that one company has this cure to cancer that they're not releasing is crazy.

Ashley Hamer:

Yale neurology professor, Steven Novella, has a good argument against this idea. He says, quote, "Often those who claim that they are hiding a cure for cancer have only a vague notion of who they are. They generally have an image of the medical establishment as monolithic, but nothing could be further from the truth. The medical establishment is composed of universities, professional organizations, journals, regulatory agencies, researchers, funding agencies, and countless individuals all with differing incentives and perspectives. The idea that they would all be in on a massive conspiracy to hide perhaps the greatest cure known to mankind is beyond absurd." Unquote.

Cody Gough:

And you're not paid by a pharma companies to say all this?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I am not. I have no conflicts of interest here. I am just a silly little citizen just like everybody else. There's no conflicts of interest. I don't make any money from this stuff, so no.

Cody Gough:

I think you deserves a little more credit than that. You're not just a silly little citizen. You're doing some pretty important stuff.

Dr. Brian Murphy

We're on a ride here. Like the late great comedian Bill Hicks said, "This is all just a ride."

Cody Gough:

Sure is. It's a pretty fast and furious one, too. Well, you taught me so many things and I appreciate that. I would like to maybe teach you something now in our little bit that ... I always say little bit. It's just a bit.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Little bits. Any Rick and Morty fans out there?

Cody Gough:

I'm sure.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Little bits.

Cody Gough:

So many. All right. We're going to do one of our ...

Dr. Brian Murphy

Little bits.

Cody Gough:

Called the Curiosity Challenge. I'm going to ask you a question, and maybe you'll know it, maybe you won't, but I thought this was appropriate given you spend a lot of time underwater, so you spend a lot of time with fish. Here's your question. Why doesn't lightning always kill fish?

Dr. Brian Murphy

I have no idea. That's a great ... If I may preface ... No, no. If I may add something to that, I am a chemist and a microbiologist. People ask me questions about fish all the time, and I have the same answer. I say, "How the hell should I know?" Marine biologists, and we'll be under the water and my students will come up and say, "Hey, Brian, did you see that thing? What was that?" I'm like, "I tell you about molecules. I have no ..." So please enlighten me. This is great.

Cody Gough:

Well, there's really two major reasons. The first one is basically that lightning doesn't strike the ocean that much. It just strikes land a lot more. You were going to say something.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Well, I have a guess, but I just-

Cody Gough:

No, go for the guess.

Dr. Brian Murphy

No I just assumed that when lightning hits the water, water's a poor conductor of electricity. Or your lightning isn't going to spread down and electrify every single being in the ocean, otherwise everybody would be dead.

Cody Gough:

So you're half right. Water's actually a good conductor.

Dr. Brian Murphy

I mean good conductor.

Cody Gough:

Well then you were right. Metal is a good ... Water rather-

Dr. Brian Murphy

And so it spreads.

Cody Gough:

Yes. Like metal, water is a good conductor, so it encourages the electrical current to travel over its surface rather than delve underneath the same way a Faraday cage protects its contents from harmful shocks.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Kids, stay in school.

Cody Gough:

And pay attention to chapters one through three.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Like I said, I drank through most of my biology courses.

Cody Gough:

Oh, there you go. So if a fish surfaces at the wrong moment, like maybe a dolphin or whale or something, then it can definitely get hit and shocked, but luckily most fish spend the majority of their time underwater. People don't, however, that's why you're supposed to get out of the swimming pool when it's about to thunderstorm. You can read more about that on Curiosity.com, or on the Curiosity app, and we'll also have links in the show notes, as always, and now it's your turn to ask me about something, yet something else, that I may not know.

Dr. Brian Murphy

I am a ... I do a lot of political writing and social justice writing, and so I ... ever since I made Chicago my home about seven years ago, I've been absolutely fascinated with its long storied and tragic history, and here is my question. So, what is the major factor that drove this high degree of racial segregation we see in neighborhoods in Chicago following the great migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow in the south?

Cody Gough:

Oh, where did the segregation come from? Where's one of the major factors?

Dr. Brian Murphy

There's a myth out there that people just simply like to live with people that look like them, and this is a major myth that must be destroyed, because this is not the case. So why are our neighborhoods so segregated? What is one of the major factors?

Cody Gough:

I will say one of the primary factors, and this is whenever I talk about politics with my dad, he always just circles around and says, "It's the economy, stupid." So I'm going to say that it has something to do with the money involved. Maybe real estate rates were higher or lower in certain areas.

Dr. Brian Murphy

I will give you the same 50%, I'll say. You hit it when you said real estate.

Cody Gough:

Ah.

Dr. Brian Murphy

And so it was mostly a dual housing market. Obviously, and spoiler alert, driven by racist policies. There was systemic oppression from both government and private sector to prevent African Americans from being home owners over the course of several decades in Chicago, and these policies called like red lining, and preventing blacks to moving into white neighborhoods, and you can look at all huge race riots, a lot of them were centered around housing. You had strict government policies that prevented African Americans from moving into specific neighborhoods, and ended up corralling people into these ghettos. There's a lot of different awesome resources like Arnold Hirsch's Making the Second Ghetto, Family Properties by Beryl Satter, and a lot of different research by Ta-Nehisi Coates The Case For Reparations and a few other different resources that really document these policies in detail. But it's tragic and it's fascinating. It's been a hobby of mine to learn, or to educate myself about these issues, and I still have a ton to learn. Our silence is complicity, as they say.

Cody Gough:

And I have seen your Twitter feed, and if people are interested in following you, you often talk about issues like this in more of a contemporary context, so they can follow you on Twitter at ...

Dr. Brian Murphy

Writesofmurph, with a W-R. Writesofmurph.

Cody Gough:

W-R-I-T-E-S, then?

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah. It's a clever little pun off of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.

Cody Gough:

Oh, there you go.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Yeah. And I should give you more credit for your answer, 'cause you said real estate and economics, which of course I think your dad's probably right. Economics is everything, and yeah, it was a combination of factors that really did lead to poverty in some of these neighborhoods, and it was just a combination of both housing policies, or educational discrepancies, correctional like policing, and judicial discrepancies that all led to basically breaking down and the terrorism of the family unit for a lot of racial and ethnic minorities that prevented the accumulation of wealth over the years in Chicago.

If I look back to my grandfather, I'm Italian and Irish, so everybody hated the Irish when they came here, and you ask any Irishman and they'll say, "Well, my ancestors came here, and they had it really tough." Well, yeah they absolutely did, and that is true, and they were spit on, and nobody wanted to work with them, and they had to fight for their own, but when they had kids, their kids were able to escape their ethnicity, because they looked like other people. African Americans weren't necessarily able to escape their color. That is one thing that has always been there, and so they have always been discriminated against.

Yeah, anyways. I didn't mean to get dark at the end there. Sorry.

Cody Gough:

History is not always pretty.

Dr. Brian Murphy

No.

Cody Gough:

It's really often not pretty at all. There's some really terrible things about history, but fortunately we can look at it and learn from it, and I learned something, so great Curiosity Challenge.

Again, if people want to find you online, they can go to ...

Dr. Brian Murphy

MurphyLabUIC.com.

Cody Gough:

MurphyLabUIC.com. Thank you again so much for joining me Doctor Murphy. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Brian Murphy

Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Cody Gough:

Of course.

I've got an extra credit question for you courtesy of the Curiosity app. Doctor Murphy talked about traveling around the world, so this week I've got a travel related question for you. Why are most airplanes white? And I mean what's the main scientific reason, putting economics aside? The answer after this.

I hope you love this podcast as much I do. I've got one quick request. Please give us a five star review on iTunes. Well, actually, I have two requests. If you're listening to this in your car, then please pull over and park before leaving us a five star review, okay. It's the fastest, safest way to support the work that we do, and the best way to leave us feedback. If you have a specific idea for our show, then you can also send an e-mail to podcast@Curiosity.com. I promise I read every message, so keep the ideas coming. I will now reward your podcast listening patience with today's extra credit answer.

So what the main scientific reason for snow white planes? Thermal science. The color white best reflects sunlight, which keeps the cabin of the craft cool, kind of like how long white clothing is your best bet in the desert, and shielding the plane's plastic parts and composite materials from the sun is especially important. White paint also lets potentially dangerous solar radiation bounce right off. So, you can think of white paint as a kind of airplane sunblock. There are a few other reasons why airplanes are white, but to learn more about that you can take a look on the Curiosity app, or on Curiosity.com.

Before I sign off, I want to thank Ashley Hamer for her always helpful expertise and fast facts, and I want to thank you for listening. Extra special thanks and 10 Schrute bucks if you've told your friends about our show. Wonder how many people will get that reference? For the Curiosity podcast, I'm Cody Gough.

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