Serendipitious Science

Texas A&M Biologists Among Finalists For NPR’s Golden Mole Award

Microscopic views of fibrocytes -- the long, skinny cells responsible for the formation of scar tissue.

Microscopic views of fibrocytes — the long, skinny cells responsible for the formation of scar tissue. (Credit: Richard Gomer.)

In scientific research, simple mistakes or unanticipated results don’t always mean failure; in fact, they can lead to some remarkable breakthroughs.

One such happy accident involving two Texas A&M University biologists has led to major advances in the treatment of fibrotic diseases and recently was named one of 12 finalists for NPR’s Golden Mole Award for Accidental Brilliance.

Dr. Richard Gomer and Dr. Darrell Pilling, researchers in the Texas A&M Department of Biology, occupy the No. 7 spot in the unranked list of the news organization’s picks for most serendipitous discoveries for their identification of a protein in human blood, serum amyloid P (SAP), that prevents the formation of scar tissue in fibrotic diseases like asthma and cirrhosis.

The duo’s surprise success story was one of 300 submitted for the contest, sponsored by NPR’s Skunk Bear, which yesterday (March 1) unveiled University of Michigan biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts as the official winner.

“This all started with very basic research,” Gomer said. “The punchline is that this work didn’t come from deliberately trying to find a therapeutic. We probably never would have found one if that had been the case.”

Since teaming up to identify the blood protein serum amyloid P (SAP) as the key to controlling routine tissue-related processes from scarring to healing, Texas A&M biologists Darrell Pilling (left) and Richard Gomer (right) have collaborated on several SAP-related advances, including co-founding a company, Promedior Inc., in 2006.

Professor Gomer and Professor Pilling

Gomer and Pilling originally were investigating white blood cells, one of the human body’s first mechanisms for defense, to identify a way to combat fibrosis. In a test to see if the white blood cells could survive in a culture without blood serum, they devised two samples – one with the serum and one without.

To their astonishment, the sample without the serum had developed fibrocytes, the long, skinny cells responsible for the formation of scar tissue, whereas the sample containing serum did not. Something in the serum had prevented the creation of fibrocytes, which they later identified as SAP. They have since isolated the serum and begun testing it as a treatment for myelofibrosis, a scarring of the bone marrow.

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