In 2016, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sponsored the report “Convergence: The Future of Health,” detailing the importance of the Convergence in Healthcare movement to the future of medical research in the United States. The report defines convergence as the result of “sharing of methods and ideas by chemists, physicists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and life scientists across multiple fields and industries” and “a broad effort across the sciences.”
Convergence can be applied to many areas of development, including the production of new food sources to feed a growing population, clean energy and more effective environmental protections. However, the MIT report focuses on the importance of convergence in relation to healthcare and medicine. Support for this initiative is especially crucial in a time where there is a rising need for the treatment of pressing global health problems.
The report identifies four Convergence in Healthcare strategies leading academics believe best illustrate the potential of the movement. These strategies are nanotechnology, regenerative engineering and medicine, Big Data and health IT and imaging. Listed below is a short outline of why each area is considered a promising part of the Convergence in Healthcare movement.
The U.S. government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as “science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.” Such miniature tools and technologies are small enough for use within the human body; they are even capable of being transported throughout the body via the bloodstream. One of the most promising convergent uses for nanotechnology is for drug therapy delivery to the site of cancer in the body. Researchers are also exploring the possibility of designing “smart” nanoparticles to automatically interact with each other to deliver multiple drug therapies in a specific sequence to disengage cancer cell activity.
Nanotechnology as a Convergence in Healthcare strategy also has significant potential for treating illnesses of the brain. When paired with other life science concepts, research has shown nanotechnology may be used to pass drug therapies efficiently through the blood-brain barrier to target specific brain diseases in ways that current therapies cannot.
Regenerative Engineering and Medicine
The discipline of regenerative engineering and medicine is broad. It includes treating patients who have experienced traumatic medical events such as limb loss as well as those who require organ transplants. According to the nonprofit Amputee Coalition, almost 200,000 Americans undergo amputations annually. The government’s organ donation website notes more than 116,000 American adults and children are currently listed on the transplant waiting list. While these two patient groups differ in their needs, both require replacement of specific, individual tissues. Regenerative medicine, bolstered by convergent research, could address both medical issues.
Convergence in Healthcare has led to promising developments in this area of medicine. This includes bioprinting using adult stem cells, developing matrices that allow for more effective healing of torn ligaments and tendons, and even growing whole organs using a patient’s own cells.
Beyond the need to find innovative ways to replace whole organs, convergent research has also led to research on a partial transplant technique. Scientists would be able to extract healthy cells from a patient’s ailing organ, encourage cell growth, and then implant the cells into a pig kidney that has been cleared of all the animal cells. A portion of the newly-infused kidney could be sliced off and implanted into the patient’s failing kidney. The body would recognize the transplant as its own, and organ function would improve immediately.
Big Data and health IT
IT, smart devices and computer software have a significant impact on many industries outside of medicine. Convergence in Healthcare aims to leverage some of these innovations to help the medical community learn more about the human body and provide patients with more comprehensive care.
The most exciting convergent opportunity in Big Data and health IT is the prospect of consumer-focused health IT to gather significant amounts of active and passive patient data on a mass scale through wearables. Wearables could be used to track blood sugar levels, physical activity and dietary choices along with collecting information on environmental health quality, heart rhythm and blood pressure in large numbers of people.
Scientists could then use Big Data processing and machine learning to find more effective methods for identifying different forms of diseases, or even learn to identify predictors of disease in patients who are currently healthy. In this way, Convergence in Healthcare could lead to major advances in public health as a whole.
Imaging’s importance in healthcare has been evident since the late 19th century, when the X-ray was invented, inciting the first revolution in life sciences. Imaging allows medical professionals to more precisely assess patient health issues and provide the best possible treatment. Imaging also plays a crucial role in allowing medical professionals to understand the inner workings of the human body, enabling more accurate and useful research.
Even now, medical researchers are learning new things about the inside of the human body. For example, the discovery of a new system of vessels in the brain was profiled in The Atlantic in late 2017. Additionally, according to a new study published in March 2018, New York University researchers believe they have discovered a previously undetected organ within the brain.
Ultimately, the better the imaging tools used by medical researchers to see inside the human body, the more effective treatment can become. Convergent principles have already led to new developments in the areas of molecular, whole-organ and whole-body imaging. Further work in this area will allow researchers to study complex bodily functions, from the macro to the micro level, in pursuit of the best possible treatment for complex diseases.