As the technology and medical sectors continue to intersect in 2018, concepts central to the idea of Convergence in Healthcare have been featured in many major news articles. While only a limited number directly reference the Convergence in Healthcare movement itself, few of the major medical achievements in the last several years would have been possible without it.
Convergence in Healthcare is loosely defined as the deep integration of knowledge from the fields of life sciences, physical sciences, chemistry, computing, mathematics and engineering. Many of the top minds in science believe that embracing convergence is the only way the U.S. can adequately innovate the medical research field to create the diagnostics, treatment and prevention methods the world desperately needs.
Leaders from science and academia are taking steps to educate their colleagues, as well as the general public about Convergence in Healthcare, and arguably no group has been doing so longer or more powerfully than the people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Here is a brief look at some of the ways MIT has demonstrated its belief in and commitment to Convergence in Healthcare since 2011.
Introducing the term
The term “Convergence in Healthcare” was introduced by MIT in a 2011 white paper. The report was presented by 12 of the university’s researchers at an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) forum on January 4, 2011. The 32-page report defined the movement as a new research model which “draws on an ongoing merger of life, physical and engineering sciences.” It concluded by urging the “[National Institutes of Health] NIH and other agencies to take up convergence as the wave of the future,” contending the movement could “fundamentally alter and speed our scientific trajectory.”
Refining the concept
Five years after the first white paper, MIT explored more deeply and refined its definition of Convergence in Healthcare as a research model and movement in its 2016 report “Convergence: The Future of Health.” More than twice as long as the original study, the leaders who co-authored this new report stated that the ideas and methods of chemists, mathematicians and computer scientists were as integral to the research model as those of the original classes of engineers, life scientists and physical scientists. The new report noted Convergence in Healthcare required the “integration of insights and approaches from historically distinct scientific and technological disciplines.” The report also deeply explored a number of important unmet health needs to which convergent strategies could be key, including the treatment of cancer, brain disorders and injuries, chronic illness and infection.
Promoting convergent research within its own operations
In addition to outlining the Convergence in Healthcare movement on paper for the rest of the scientific research community, MIT leaders took direct action by sponsoring convergent projects within its own community. The whole of the work conducted at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT is convergent in nature.
The Koch Institute’s primary areas of study are nano-based drugs, detection and monitoring, metastasis, personalized medicine and cancer immunology. The nano-based drug program is focused on the use of molecular engineering to target and destroy cancer cells more precisely and with fewer side effects than the currently available treatments. The detection and monitoring program aims to design more sensitive cancer detection tools using molecular imaging and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), while the metastasis program uses advanced technology to investigate the cellular pathways and proteins that lie at the root of malignant tumors. The personalized medicine program is exploring innovative and more effective ways of testing therapy regimens specific to the needs of individual cancer patients. Lastly, the cancer immunology program is looking to harness the power of each patient’s immune system to defend itself against cancer cells.
Beyond the work undertaken at the Koch Institute, recent discoveries by scientists at MIT represent some of the most exciting examples of what convergent research can do. These include achievements in synthetic biology allowing for the development of affordable diagnostic tests for contagious diseases such as Ebola, nanotechnology which makes it possible to silence dangerous or deadly genes in diseased cells, and the identification of new cell types in the brain that may be key to restoring memory function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Partnering with others
Even before publishing its first white paper on the benefits of Convergence in Healthcare in 2011, MIT was already taking steps to educate people about it by partnering with other leading academic institutions and media sources. One such partnership occurred in 2008, when an alliance program known as the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology entered into an agreement with The Journal of Life Sciences. Under the terms of this partnership, two Harvard-MIT program representatives joined the journal’s editorial board in order to “further the national discussion on the role of scientific innovation in patient care, medical technology research and health policy issues,” per a press release published at the time.
Today, the partnership between Harvard and MIT continues to focus on the advancement of Convergence in Healthcare through the Program of Health Sciences and Technology by establishing courses such as Healthcare Innovation Bootcamp. This week-long program taught by instructors from both institutions promises to educate participants on the subject of entrepreneurship, healthcare and innovation with the goal of helping aspiring innovators who are “passionate about solving healthcare-related problems and other innovation challenges,” per the bootcamp’s website.