“Convergence” Signals a New Frontier—and Departure from Tradition—in Biomedicine

A new style of scientific research called convergence holds great promise in biomedicine, but adequate funding and some changes in how science is organized will be required for the new approach to prosper, says a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled at a AAAS-hosted forum.

The MIT white paper says the emerging field of convergence—which brings together the life sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering—should create a “third revolution” in biomedical research. It would follow the revolution that started with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and the subsequent genomics revolution, begun in the 1980s, that led to mapping of the human genetic blueprint.

While convergence may lead to advances in many sectors, including energy, food, climate and water, the authors of the MIT report focus on health research because, as they write, “we believe that this field is ripe for new discoveries and can powerfully demonstrate the benefits of convergence.”

Engineering techniques have long been applied to health research—the birth of the X-ray in 1895 led to a revolution in how doctors imaged the body— but the new excitement goes beyond simply transferring tools from one science to another.

Phillip Sharp

Phillip Sharp

As the MIT report notes, convergence establishes a two-way street in which “fundamentally different conceptual approaches from physical science and engineering are imported into biological research, while life science’s understanding of complex evolutionary systems is reciprocally influencing physical science and engineering.”

“We see convergence as part of an activity that will expand the economy in the country as well as create new jobs,” said Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, one of the report’s authors and an MIT Institute Professor. He noted that about a third of MIT’s engineering faculty has begun to take some aspect of the life sciences into their research programs over the past decade.

While the collaborations across disciplines are encouraging, some speakers predicted that the new world of convergence is likely to shake up traditional ways of doing things in funding agencies and research institutions.

Alan I. Leshner

Alan I. Leshner

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, told the 4 January forum that the new model “raises an array of very serious issues for the infrastructure of science and engineering because it, in fact, challenges the traditional disciplinary structures that we all are so comfortable with.” Convergence could signal “the demise of disciplinary science,” Leshner said.

Sharp said convergence will require adequate funding from the federal government and elsewhere in order to thrive. The report calls for consistent funding levels that meet or beat inflation in order for the National Institutes of Health “to plan and incorporate a more promising and diversified-risk research portfolio.” Sharp said the peer review process also must be reformed in order to support interdisciplinary grants and nurture the expertise to evaluate the impact of novel research approaches.

Leshner predicted that the increasing integration of research disciplines is going to threaten traditional academic institutions and their organizational structures. Funding agencies “are really no better off,” he said. Both the academic institutions and the funding agencies will need to think ahead, Leshner said, on how best to evaluate and reward those who participate in team research efforts rather than the more traditional laboratories presided over by a single principal investigator.

Speakers at the AAAS forum cited MIT’s new Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research as an example of how to incorporate convergence into the infrastructure of science. Biologists, engineers, and others in the physical sciences work together in a new building and on the same floors.

Tyler Jacks

Tyler Jacks

yler Jacks, director of the institute, cited several examples of the work being pursued, including engineering of nanoparticles into homing devices that improve drug delivery by targeting only cancerous cells and development of sensors that can be implanted into the body to monitor the state of disease and the response to therapies in real time.

Jacks noted the benefits of having young engineers talk to young geneticists and materials scientists talk to cell biologists, teaching each other different languages of science and different approaches while also learning new approaches collectively. It will be important, Jacks said, to foster cross-disciplinary training programs “to prepare the next generation of investigators to carry out the type of work that, frankly, their mentors are only partially prepared to do.”

Paula Hammond

Paula Hammond

Paula Hammond, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, described other examples of convergence, including a device called the CTC chip (for circulating tumor cells) that was created by a team of Boston-area scientists led by Mehmet Toner of Massachusetts General Hospital. The small chip is covered with 78,000 microposts, each coated with antibodies that bind to specific markers that are found on tumor cells circulating in the bloodstream. Such cells are thought to be the root of incurable metastatic cancers. The chip has detected circulating tumor cells with more than 99 % accuracy and is now in clinical trials through a partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

Margaret Hamburg

Margaret Hamburg

Whether such products of convergence benefit patients in a timely fashion will require some advances in regulatory science as well, according to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Hamburg, who spoke at the forum, expressed her enthusiasm for the future of convergence. But at a time of enormous advances in biomedical research, she said, there needs to be corresponding improvement in regulatory science so FDA will have the expertise to properly assess the safety and efficacy of new approaches.

“We need to marry the opportunities in science with the ability to really assess important issues for successful products for patients,” Hamburg said. Otherwise, she said, promising therapies may be discarded during development because regulators lack the tools to recognize their potential. Similarly, better tools might help eliminate ineffective products and therapies earlier in the pipeline, Hamburg said.

Alan Guttmacher

Alan Guttmacher

Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told the forum that he and other officials at the National Institutes of Health also are coming to grips with the new world of convergence.

“NIH is acutely aware of the fact we need to work more creatively, more collaboratively across institutes” as well as with other federal agencies, Guttmacher said.

Despite the very tight funding climate, he said, “this is not a time for us to retreat, or for us to say we are just going to hunker down and keep doing what we are doing.” The fiscal environment demands that “we need to rethink the fundamental ways in which we are carrying out research,” Guttmacher said, and look for new models to do research more effectively. He called convergence “a perfect example of the type of things that we should be doing.”

Others who spoke at the forum included Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT; and Keith Yamamoto, professor and executive dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Read “The Third Revolution: the Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering.”

Watch a video of the MIT forum hosted by AAAS.