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Letter from the editor | 148

Knowledge, fear and passion

Pleasure, euphoria and extreme excitement are the most constant emotions felt by a creative researcher when he is on the threshold of what he or she deems to be a major discovery or an extraordinary finding. My impression, however, is that fear is the most common, banal, and recurrent feeling researchers experience when they are confronted with the descriptions provided by scientists of something new and potentially life threatening, which, either by chance or after a long and calculated effort, they finally discover. This might be a hypothetical identification of a meteorite whose well-calculated route indicates a dramatic collision with the Earth within a few months, or the forecast of a gigantic and uncontrollable tsunami in the previously quiet waters of the Pacific Ocean. But the truth is that nothing coming from scientists is more terrifying than their descriptions of new and unsuspected diseases that attack the human species. To illustrate, let us mention some examples from the last few decades of the twentieth century: AIDS; a deadly infection caused by the Ebola virus in Africa; or the human form of mad cow disease in Europe, which first surfaced at the end of the nineties and has advanced into the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Common sense tells us that scientific knowledge not only produces fear when it connects us to the individual awareness of our undesired finiteness, but also provokes immense relief when we are told about findings of antidotes to the announced diseases or when they are compared and placed within a new context which at first had seemed to be the incarnation of absolute evil in nature. It is always gratifying to hear that we will survive. The cover story of this issue focuses – to a certain extent – on this relief where the relativity of evil is concerned.

More specifically, the article reports how a group of Brazilian researchers was able to explain the functioning of the healthy form of prion, the so-called cell prion, a kind of counterpart to the evil protein that causes mad cow’s disease. Even better, the research team showed that the healthy prion is essential for the growth of the nerve cells, for memory and for the regulation of the immune system. Furthermore, as Ricardo Zorzetto, our science editor, explains, starting on page 16, these researchers from the States of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul, coordinated by oncologist Ricardo Renzo Brentani (director-president of FAPESP), presented the most wide-ranging review on the infectious agents of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in an article published last April in Physiological Reviews. The review contains “information that can influence the treatment of this disease, which installs itself surreptitiously in the course of two or three decades, evolves at a frightening speed, and leads to a tragic death.” We would like to clarify that this disease comes in four forms, one of which is the human version of mad cow disease. But Zorzetto’s article contains various other details, and reading it is a must.

I would like to take this opportunity to strongly recommend reading the interview with Newton da Costa, which starts on page 10. Costa was interviewed by our editor-in-chief, Neldson Marcolin. Another must is the article on the life and role of General Osório during the War with Paraguay. The article was prepared by our humanities editor, Carlos Haag (page 104). And make sure not to miss the article on what drove scientists in the seventies, drives them now and perhaps will always drive them, written by our scientific and technological policy editor, Fabrício Marques: the passion of understanding, knowing and comprehending (page 30). I also suggest that you travel through the texts of the lectures linked to the Genome Revolution Exposition – the third in a series of five.

To conclude, we must rejoice that the lawsuit claiming the unconstitutionality of the Biosafety Law in regard to the use of embryo stem cells was rejected (page 28). The right to knowledge that benefits life was the winner in this case.