Texas A&M biologists Richard Gomer and Darrell Pilling were investigating an entirely different type of blood cell when they inadvertently discovered the serum protein capable of stopping fibrocyte formation -- a lab breakthrough recently honored as one of 12 finalists for NPR's Golden Mole Award for Accidental Brilliance. (Credit: NPR, courtesy of Texas A&M University; Johanna Varner; Oregon State University; Stanford News Service; Carlos Jared.)


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."

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.

"You have to have humility to realize your hypothesis was wrong, the strength of character to change your viewpoint, and a little bit of bravery to go down a new path," Pilling said. "The fact that this had a direct application for human health is what we aimed for."

Learn more about their National Institutes of Health-funded work with serum amyloid P and the latest progress in their effort to better understand scar-tissue formation in this 2015 feature article.

See the complete list of NPR's Golden Mole Award finalists.

Read related coverage in The Battalion, Texas A&M's student-run campus newspaper.

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Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu, Dr. Richard Gomer, (979) 458-5745 or rgomer@bio.tamu.edu or Dr. Darrell Pilling, (979) 458-5746 or dpilling@bio.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • 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.

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

  • (Credit: Richard Gomer.)

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