2019 marks the eighth year of the Golden Goose Awards, accolades that honor scientific work that has significantly benefited society but sounds totally absurd.
Past winners have observed the sex lives of screwworm flies, gently massaged baby rats, and studied the venom of the Gila monster. In doing so, they have helped to eradicate the screwworm fly (a nasty critter that can kill animals and people) from the American South, improved the survival of preterm babies, and protected people from diabetes’ worst complications. And that’s just a small selection of the golden gaggle.
The Golden Goose Awards came about in reaction to the Golden Fleece Awards, which, between 1975 and 1988, targeted federally funded projects deemed to be wastes of money. Silly-sounding science was often selected despite the fact that bizarre, creative studies can have incredible results. So, Representative for Tennessee Jim Cooper created the Golden Goose Awards in an attempt to show that strange, obscure research can actually benefit society and save lives. The selection committee is led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
So, who will be celebrated by 2019’s awards?
First off is David Sachar, whose work on frog skin, yes frog skin, has helped to save over 50 million lives. Back in 1966, Sachar was working as a US Public Health Officer in Dhaka, Pakistan. He had the goal of working out the basic mechanisms behind the terrible, potentially lethal, diarrhea suffered by those infected with cholera.
Adept at measuring electric potentials across frog skin, he used frog skin to determine the electric potential of human intestines, which allowed him to work out how well sodium could be absorbed by the guts of cholera patients. He discovered that sodium absorption was intact and could be boosted with glucose. Sachar realized that a glucose-sodium solution could hugely benefit those suffering from severe diarrhea, eventually leading to the creation of oral rehydration therapy (ORT), which is used to treat cholera and has saved millions of lives around the world.
Back in the ‘60s, half of the people who caught cholera would die. If treated rapidly with ORT, this figure plummets to less than 1 percent.
Next up are Jack Levin and Frederik Bang (who receives the award posthumously) for their research into bright blue horseshoe crab blood and human drugs. Horseshoe crabs are primitive-looking sea beasties that have very special blood. It is highly sensitive to endotoxins, toxins released by bacteria that cause fevers in humans, and efficiently clots in response to gram-negative bacteria. Bang spotted this phenomenon in a crab he was studying and while working in his laboratory, Levin created a test that uses crab blood to detect whether endotoxins are present. This test, called the LAL test, is now used all the time to check that drugs, injections, and pharmaceutical equipment are not contaminated with endotoxins before they’re used to treat people.
The final Golden Goose of 2019 goes to Noel Rose and, posthumously, Ernest Witebsky for their work on autoimmune diseases. This might sound less strange and Harry Potter-esque than frog skin or crab blood, but the duo’s discovery seems totally counterintuitive. In the 1950s, Rose, under guidance from Witebsky, noticed that animals’ immune systems can react to and attack cells within their own bodies, something scientists had no idea was possible. Their research has improved our understanding of autoimmune conditions like lupus, MS, and type 1 diabetes.
“Science can change the world in unpredictable ways,” said AAAS Interim CEO Alan Leshner. “These awards recognize the scientists whose work leads to the tangible human benefits.”