Monday, January 10, 2011

“Convergence Creole” – Is Interdisciplinary Research the Future of Medicine?

by Gillian Parrish, Manager of Alliance Development and Communications, FasterCures
Innovation in biomedicine and other fields is dependent on the merging of life, physical, and engineering sciences into a unified whole, according to a group of leading Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists. Called Convergence, this new model emphasizes integration between disciplines that were originally viewed as separate and distinct.
In a white paper released January 4 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C., the 12 scientists – based in the David H. Koch Institute, a center for integrative cancer research at MIT – explain how the practice of Convergence will herald a “Third Revolution” in biomedical research, and speed the path to personalized, accessible, and affordable health care. (They point to the discovery of the DNA structure in 1953 as the first revolution, and the sequencing of the human genome in the late 1990s as the second one.)
As FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg explained, this is not about creating yet another academic track or siloed pipeline of “convergent scientists,” but rather building fundamental comfort with cross-disciplinary language and practice early on so that when faced with a research challenge, collaborative problem solving becomes the norm.
Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS and Executive Publisher of Science, likened this approach to taking an immersion language class. But instead of studying Spanish or Mandarin, students would be required to become proficient in what he coined “convergence creole” – derived from multiple “parent languages” across the scientific and engineering fields. I loved this analogy, not only because increased collaboration at all stages of biomedical research is one of FasterCures’ key priorities, but also because as a native Louisianan, I happen to know that all things creole are both striking and delicious.
Convergence in action:
Dr. Paula Hammond, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and one of the paper’s authors, offered a few examples of the recent fruits of convergence in the biomedical space, such as:
  • The engineering of nanoparticles to specifically target cancer cells and improve chemotherapy delivery
  • The development of brain grafts to treat victims of traumatic brain injury
  • The creation of a CTC Chip for cancer metastases detection, which uses a blood test to detect a single cancer cell from among a billion healthy cells before it shows up on scan (recent media coverage is available here)
In order to capitalize and expand on outcomes like these, the scientists called on NIH and other affected agencies to take up Convergence as the wave of the future – by enhancing the pipeline of convergence-oriented researchers, rethinking academic incentives for collaboration, and expanding funding sources. More about their specific recommendations.

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