When top Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists published a whitepaper in 2011 outlining the power of a new research model known as “convergence,” it became one of the first times a research institution had drawn attention to the potential power of this promising movement that could radically change the future of biomedicine. More recently, in a 2016 whitepaper that more fully outlined the potential influence of convergence on the healthcare sector, MIT leaders defined the movement as a confluence of concepts from the life science, chemistry, physics, computing, mathematics and engineering sectors.
Convergence requires professionals in these scientific disciplines to work together in a way that exceeds collaboration, in an integrative manner capable of innovating the way the medical sector diagnoses, treats and prevents illness. Though far from comprehensive, the following is a brief look at how these different sectors are already converging with the life sciences to the benefit of many areas of healthcare.
In general, the science of chemistry can be described as the study of the way energy and matter react. While chemistry and medicine have always been linked in terms of research, the leaders who authored the MIT whitepaper recognize that a more pronounced integration of chemistry and medicine could greatly benefit the ongoing effort to solve many of the world’s most pressing health issues.
While the potential impact of convergence between the chemistry and healthcare sectors is vast, some specific areas of interest where chemistry could yield medical innovations include enhanced studies of brain chemistry to better diagnose and treat illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. Immense potential can also be seen in the field of medical imaging, where chemists have already played a role in developing molecular spectrometry methods to enable scientists to create highly detailed maps of internal organs for use in guided surgery, as well as in the diagnosis of certain cancers.
Among all disciplines, physics is considered to be the “fundamental science,” as it forms the framework for all of the other disciplines of natural science. It focuses on the motion and behavior of matter in time and space, as well as those of energy and force. Its impact on past medical innovation cannot be overstated, as physics researchers were responsible for the invention of technologies such as the MRI, the ultrasound and the X-ray, which brought about the first revolution of the life sciences.
In terms of Convergence in Healthcare, physics, much the same as chemistry, could play a key role in the development of modern imaging techniques that help doctors gain a clearer picture of internal medical conditions. The convergence of physics and healthcare could also enable scientists to develop a better understanding of the architecture of natural substances, which could facilitate advances in regenerative engineering, including organ and limb regrowth.
Computer science and mathematics
Computer science has affected nearly every sector in today’s digital age. By loose definition, computer science is a field that studies the experimentation, engineering, and theory behind computer operation and application. The capabilities of computers have been the basis for groundbreaking advances in almost every industry since the tech boom, and healthcare is no exception. For example, computer science made it possible for medical professionals to map the human genome, conduct robot-assisted microscopic surgery and develop computer programs to quickly and accurately predict patient diagnoses.
With a number of important technologies already developed as a result of this pairing, the full convergence of computing and healthcare could completely change the technologies physicians use, as well as the way they evaluate and diagnose patients. For example, a combination of sensors and computer software could be used to continuously monitor active, as well as passive, patient data to obtain a more comprehensive picture of patient health. A better understanding of patient health on a day-to-day — even moment-to-moment — basis could lead to more effective treatment for those suffering from chronic illness. Further, large amounts of Big Data collected from patients could be gathered and processed through machine learning to help the medical community identify small, nuanced signs in healthy patients pointing to risks of developing certain types of chronic illness in the future.
It’s also important to note the role mathematics plays in this aspect of convergence. While mathematics ties into every area of science, it is especially important to the process of obtaining applicable health information from mass amounts of patient data. As computer science enables greater amounts of patient data to be collected and processed, professionals capable of designing mathematical algorithms to make sense of Big Data will be especially crucial to convergent research.
Engineering is difficult to define in the context of science because it is a broad field that incorporates many different elements of science, mathematics and even the humanities. However, in general, the basis of engineering science lies in the mathematic and physical properties of machines and structures as well as their design, construction and use. As applied to convergence with healthcare, the influence of engineering has already yielded some of exciting results in the form of innovative medical technology.
Evidence of this is most apparent in the field of nanotechnology, where engineering has enabled scientists to create new, more efficient methods of drug therapy through the design of microscopic particles capable of delivering drug packages to specific target sites in the body. Convergent research conducted with the help of engineers has also led to the creation of novel screening tools for conditions such as autism via a smartphone app. The application of engineering tools and principles has also led to new potential for personalized drug therapy for diseases such as cancer. Engineers have played a key role in the design of microdevices that can be implanted into the body of a patient to test different combinations of medicine on a tumor at a microscopic level. This small-scale testing may secure a way for physicians to test a wide range of drugs to find the most effective treatment before deciding on a drug regimen.