While the term “Convergence in Healthcare” has yet to enter popular jargon, the concept is set to completely change the way that professionals within the life sciences sector do business and heal the human body. By definition, Convergence in Healthcare refers to a collective way of studying healthcare that combines the perspectives of experts from many disciplines of science, including mathematics, computing, physics, engineering and life science. Extending beyond mere collaboration, by relying on the expertise of people beyond the medical field, we create a brand-new way of approaching how we look at treating human health, bringing new, informed perspectives to the process.
Convergence in Healthcare as a trend is in its early phases, but this revolutionary medical movement is undoubtedly beginning to gain traction. If it could overcome problems posed by the current structure of higher education programs, the rigid separation of science professionals by industry, and the low rates of government funding to crucial grant programs, experts suggest that Convergence could be applied to curtail the dangers posed by some of medicine’s most pressing health problems, especially cancer.
What is the current state of cancer patients and the treatment they receive?
In its Cancer Facts & Figures 2018 report, the American Cancer Society states that approximately 1.7 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in the coming year. Altogether, the American Society of Clinical Oncology estimates there will be more than 600,000 deaths from cancer in 2018, and by 2020, the total cost of treating cancer patients on an annual basis will reach $175 billion.
Currently, the methods and tools that medical professionals use to diagnose and treat cancer patients are incredibly expensive and not accurate enough relative to the capabilities of modern technology. Cancer is generally treated through surgery or drug therapies that employ the use of toxic chemicals or radiation, known as chemotherapy. In most cases, patients treated with surgery will need chemotherapy as well. Modern methods of delivering chemotherapy are plagued by problems like tumor resistance, issues with drug delivery not reaching target sites, and metastasis affecting organs outside of the original site of the cancer. Even when these treatments are initially effective, cancer often returns over the long term, causing patients and their families to struggle through a highly emotional and difficult process all over again.
How is Convergence already changing cancer diagnosis and treatment?
The core idea behind Convergence in Healthcare is to bring together as many experts as possible from fields beyond medicine to work in tandem and discover novel, efficient ways of doing what the healthcare industry needs to do but cannot discover on its own. Though the concept seems simple, its effects are significant, and evidence of its success can already be seen in recent work at institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University and the University of Washington.
Non-invasive, more affordable early detection methods
Using a convergent approach, a science research team at the Koch Institute at MIT has developed a new method of early detection for colorectal cancer that is more affordable and less invasive than a colonoscopy, the typical screening method for this form of cancer. The team employed principles of nanotechnology and bioengineering to create a paper strip urine test that uses nanoparticles to release detectable synthetic biomarkers into urine when interacting with specific proteins found in colorectal cancer. This test also has the potential to detect diseases like thrombosis and liver fibrosis.
Combination therapies for drug-resistant tumors
Nanotechnology is also being used to create new combination drug therapies geared toward subverting drug-resistant tumors. Northwestern University scientists applied this convergent approach when designing nanoparticles containing RNA segments that were able to reach the brain. From there, the nanoparticles were able to deliver the RNA molecule segments to brain tumors and penetrate them, allowing the RNA to alter the tumor’s genes so as to “silence” them or turn them off entirely. This stopped the brain tumor from growing any further.
This kind of research into targeted combination therapies could be used to find ways to halt tumor growth in cancer patients whose bodies do not respond to any other form of therapy.
Novel immunotherapy approaches
In spite of the general effectiveness of the immune system, cancer is a difficult disease to treat because the body doesn’t usually recognize it as foreign and threatening, as cancer arises from within the body’s own cells. Scientists from MIT took a convergent tactic when attempting to solve this problem by removing the immune system’s T-cells — the white blood cells in charge of crafting a specific immune response to different pathogens in the body — and reprogramming them in a way that taught the T-cells to identify tumor cells and then attack them. The re-engineering of T-cell behavior has also been tested as a possible basis for a cancer vaccine that could be injected into the body, where it would be able to recognize cancer cells if or when they develop, springing to action immediately.
What action is needed to take Convergence in Healthcare further?
While convergent research so far has shown promising results with incredible potential, potential is all that these kinds of novel discoveries will ever have unless the Convergence in Healthcare movement gains the support it needs. The revolution needs institutions of higher learning to design Convergence-friendly programs and cultivate interest in the subject among undergraduate students, and it needs the professional science community to think beyond tradition to blur the lines between different scientific disciplines.
Most of all, Convergence in Healthcare needs the support of government-funded grant programs, which often go to projects focused on a single, more typical area of medicine. If Convergence in Healthcare was embraced as the rule rather than the exception, the United States could lead the world in finding methods to do away with a disease such as cancer, which has affected so many lives and will continue to do so until the larger community comes together to put a stop to it.