According to a collection of researchers affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the one thing that could most help the healthcare industry evolve is the convergence revolution, the third revolution of life science. Within healthcare, the term “convergence” refers to the way that experts from the life sciences, mathematics, engineering, computing and physical science disciplines can share knowledge to approach problem solving in medicine collectively, leading to sweeping innovation and more comprehensive care for patients. It requires professionals from these fields to do more than simply collaborate across the lines of their disciplines; it instead directs them to remove those lines, creating a new, inclusive framework for approaching healthcare research holistically.
Below is a brief outline of the history of Convergence in Healthcare, reflecting on its beginnings, clarifying its current state and considering the possibilities of the bright future it could create if members of every science community embrace it fully.
Prior to the convergence revolution, which started to gain interest around 2010, the first effective cooperation between rigidly defined math and science disciplines was seen in the 1950s, when the first life sciences revolution prompted major advances in the relatively new field of molecular and cellular biology.
This movement stemmed from research conducted by biologists in the 1930s looking to discover more about cell life on the molecular level. By working with experts in the fields of chemistry and physics, life scientists were able to build upon the field of microbiology, ultimately leading Francis Crick and James Watson to discover the structure of DNA in 1953. This discovery firmly established microbiology and cell biology as a scientific discipline and officially incited the first life sciences revolution. Thanks to Crick and Watson’s discovery, healthcare researchers were able to use cell biology to explore the functions of cells affected by disease, leading to greater knowledge of serious illnesses and the eventual ability to modify cellular processes.
The second life sciences revolution began in the mid-1970s and fully manifested itself in the early 2000s with major breakthroughs in the field of genomics. About two decades after the discovery of DNA’s structure, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) set out to create general science centers where professionals could conduct cancer research through the lens of molecular and cellular biology. This and other developments helped to usher in a decade of professional interest in biotechnology that ultimately led to a booming biotech sector with a fast-growing job market.
In the 1990s, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) worked side-by-side to bring professionals from the genomics and supercomputing sectors together. Experts from both fields collaboratively brought about the genomics revolution that resulted in the successful completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Whereas the first life sciences revolution integrated researchers from scientific and mathematic disciplines to understand molecular processes within human cells, the second revolution went a step further to focus on greater understanding of the biology that drives cells to undertake these processes in the first place.
Today and Beyond
Both the first and second revolutions set the stage for modern medical science and were the direct result of convergence; experts applied knowledge from the perspective of multiple scientific disciplines to see new perspectives and come to conclusions they may not have otherwise reached. The scientists of the third wave, the convergence revolution, continue in this same spirit by applying the principles of engineering to biology, resulting in modern technologies that enable the medical research community to accomplish life-changing feats.
For example, biomedical research conducted as a result of the convergence revolution in the last several years has led to the development of computer chips that scientists are place in the brains of patients afflicted by paralysis, allowing them to regain control of nonworking limbs. On a broader scale, the global threat of antibiotic resistance could be answered through the development of synthetic biological strategies that create new genetic circuits in the body as a way to protect against diseases. New vaccines could be developed for serious illnesses such as melanoma, HIV and cervical cancer.
If government agencies, universities and professionals in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields work together to bring the convergence revolution to its fullest potential, medical science could drastically improve the quality of human life and vastly expand what the world currently knows about living organisms. Early detection, immunotherapy and drug testing for cancer could see cost reductions and improvements in effectiveness. High-mortality illnesses such as heart disease could be more thoroughly researched to help professionals better identify risk factors, allow for earlier interventions and reduce incidence. Big Data could be leveraged to design precision medicine that more accurately and comprehensively treats serious illness in patients with fewer side effects.
These advances and many others could lead to a world where health care is within everyone’s reach — simple, affordable and effective. While no one knows which discovery will become the next major milestone in the history of life sciences, there is no doubt that its origins will lie within innovations brought about by the convergence revolution.