On a day the world is reeling from the outcome of the “Brexit” vote, a profound repudiation of unity, scientists have issued a report that is entirely different in spirit. The report, which was coordinated by MIT-based scientists, is being presented today at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington. It calls for “convergence,” the merging of approaches and insights from historically distinct disciplines such as engineering, physics, computer science, chemistry, mathematics, and the life sciences.
The report not only discusses the general benefits of convergence, it advocates new funding priorities. For example, it points out that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the primary source of research funding for biomedical science in the United States. In 2015, only 3% of all principal investigators funded by NIH were from departments of engineering, bioengineering, physics, biophysics, or mathematics. Accordingly, the report calls for increasing NIH funding for convergence research to at least 20% of the agency’s budget.
The report also puts flesh on the bones of convergence that were described in a 2011 report. This earlier report suggested that convergence is more than just interdisciplinary research. Convergence, it said, entails the active integration of diverse modes of inquiry into a unified pursuit of advances that will transform health and other sectors, from agriculture to energy.
“The 2011 report argued that convergence was the next revolution in health research, following molecular biology and genomics,” said Tyler Jacks, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and director of MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “That report helped identify the importance and growing centrality of convergence for health research. This report is different. It starts us off on a true strategy for convergence-based research in health.”
The new report, entitled “Convergence: The Future of Health,” lays out a more comprehensive vision of what convergence-based research could achieve, as well as the concrete steps required to enable these advances. Some of the reports particulars are as follows:
- An overview of health care trends and costs demonstrating an urgent need for Convergence solutions.
- Case studies of three disease-specific challenges and examples of how Convergence is helping to solve them.
- Case studies of four exciting Convergence technologies impacting multiple disease states;
- Recommendations for accelerating the Convergence revolution.
The new report insists that the Convergence revolution is already well underway. Convergence-based research has become standard practice at MIT, most notably at the Koch Institute and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.
“About a third of all MIT engineers are involved in some aspect of convergence,” noted Phillip Sharp, Institute Professor at MIT and Nobel laureate. “These faculty are having an enormous impact on biomedical science and this will only grow in the future. Other universities are beginning to evolve along similar paths.”
Indeed, convergence-based approaches are becoming more common at many other pioneering university programs, including the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and the University of Chicago's new Institute for Molecular Engineering, among others.
The report also points to several new federal initiatives that are harnessing the convergence research model to solve some of society's most pressing health challenges.
For example, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, launched by the Obama administration in 2013, seeks to improve our understanding of how individual cells and neural circuits interact, in order to develop new ways to treat and prevent brain disorders. And the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, launched earlier this year to accelerate research to develop cancer vaccines and early detection methods and genomic tumor analysis, will also operate largely using convergence tools and approaches.
But the integration of new technologies and methods from genomics, information science, nanotechnology, and molecular biology could take us even farther.
The report outlines three major disease areas—brain disorders, infectious diseases and immunology, and cancer—and promising convergence-based approaches to tackling them. It also presents case studies of four emerging technology categories: advanced imaging in the body, nanotechnology for drug and therapy delivery, regenerative engineering, and big data and health information technology.
A sampling gives a sense of their transformative potential. Convergence techniques could enable rewiring the genes of mosquitoes to eliminate Zika, dengue, and malaria. They could help solve the emerging threat of drug-resistant bacterial strains, which infect over two million people in the United States every year. Convergence-based immunotherapy could activate a person's immune system to fight cancer, reprogramming a person's T cells or antibodies to find and attack tumor cells. Big-data techniques could be used to generate and analyze huge amounts of data on people's exposures to industrial chemicals, environmental toxins, and infectious agents, creating a new field of “chemistry of nurture,” to complement the “chemistry of nature” developed by the documentation of the human genome.
“Convergence might come just in time,” remarked Susan Hockfield, noted neuroscientist and president emerita of MIT, “given our rapidly aging population, increasing levels of chronic disease, and mounting healthcare costs due to demographic trends throughout the developed world. But we must overcome significant barriers to get to convergence.”