Graphic: Christine Daniloff
A new model for scientific research
known as "convergence" offers the potential for revolutionary
advances in biomedicine and other areas of science, according to a white paper
issued by 12 leading MIT researchers. The white paper, presented at a forum
hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), says
that the United States
should capitalize on the trend of convergence—which involves the merger of
life, physical, and engineering sciences—to foster the innovation necessary to
meet the growing demand for accessible, affordable health care.
"Convergence is a broad rethinking
of how all scientific research can be conducted, so that we capitalize on a
range of knowledge bases, from microbiology to computer science to engineering
design," MIT Institute Professor and Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, one of
the report's authors, told the AAAS forum.
"It entails collaboration among
research groups but, more deeply, the integration of disciplinary approaches
that were originally viewed as separate and distinct. This merging of
technologies, processes and devices into a unified whole will create new
pathways and opportunities for scientific and technological advancement."
Sharp and the other MIT authors say that
convergence offers the potential for a "Third Revolution" in
biomedicine that may be as profound as the two life-science revolutions that
preceded it: the breakthroughs accompanying the development of molecular and cellular
biology, and the sequencing of the human genome, which has made it possible to
identify the genetic foundations of many diseases.
Convergence also provides a blueprint
for addressing the country's future medical and healthcare challenges, which will
only increase as the population ages and diseases such as Alzheimer's become
more prevalent. However, federal investment in biomedical research is
critical—"and a smart investment if we are to keep our biomedical research
the finest in the world," said Sharp. As an example, he cited NIH
investments in heart-disease research, which average $4 per year per American
and have helped to cut the incidence of fatal heart attacks and stroke by more
than 60% since 1975.
A new model
The report, "The
Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and
Engineering," noted the impact that convergence is already having in a
broad array of fields.
Just as advances in information
technology, materials, imaging, nanotechnology and related fields—coupled with
advances in computing, modelling, and simulation—have transformed the physical
sciences, so are they are beginning to transform life science. The result is
critical new biology-related fields, such as bioengineering, computational
biology, synthetic biology, and tissue engineering.
At the same time, biological models
(understanding complex, self-arranged systems) are already transforming
engineering and the physical sciences, making possible advances in biofuels,
food supply, viral self assembly, and much more.
The report gives particular focus to
biomedicine, a field that is already being transformed by convergence. At MIT,
for example, scientists are using nanoparticles to transport time-release
anticancer drugs directly to cancerous cells, developing drugs that fight
diseases without damaging healthy tissues and cells, and improving new
predictive models of disease.
The report says providing adequate financial support and a well-organized focus
within NIH for convergence research are key to the success of the convergence
model, as is encouraging investigation that crosses existing research
boundaries. Among the report's other recommendations are establishing a
convergence "ecosystem," which would build connections across funding
agencies; reforming the peer-review process to support interdisciplinary
grants; and educating, expanding and supporting the next generation of
Other MIT speakers at the forum included
Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a winner of the
Millennium Technology Prize and the National Medal of Science; Paula Hammond,
the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering; and Tyler Jacks, director of the
David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and the David H.
Koch Professor of Biology.
Commentators at the forum included
Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg of the Food and Drug Administration; Thomas
Kalil, deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy; Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National institute of
Child Health and Human Development at NIH; and Dr. Keith Yamamoto, professor
and executive vice dean, University of California-San Francisco School of
Medicine, and chair of the Coalition for Life Sciences.