Convergence in Healthcare is based on a whitepaper produced in 2016 by faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The movement is likely to provide biomedicine with the support necessary to meet a growing global need for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illness in humans.
The movement is best described as the integration of knowledge from the life sciences, physical sciences, chemistry, engineering, computing and mathematics sectors. Academics suggest a convergent approach would enable the medical community to rely on a new research method that naturally lends itself to much-needed innovation.
Convergence in Healthcare can be described as a confluence of professionals who collectively possess knowledge from a wide background of scientific disciplines. These individuals work in a way that goes beyond collaboration.
This pioneering take on the traditional research model, academics argue, is the best chance the biomedical community has to address the world’s most serious and widespread illnesses. However, to understand where the movement is headed and what it can do, it’s important to first understand how it came to be.
The Preceding Revolutions in Life Science Research
The first major event signaling the revolution of the biological sciences can be traced to the discovery of the structure of DNA in the mid-20th century. Some also consider the first steps in this revolution to extend as far back as the 1890s with the discovery of the X-ray, since the tool changed medical imaging — and thus medicine — forever.
Advances to existing X-ray diffraction techniques in the 1950s enabled the discovery of DNA’s structure as a three-dimensional double helix. The finding was made by James Watson and Francis Crick — a biologist and a physicist, respectively — and allowed scientists to learn more about the internal function of disease cells. This led to an exponentially larger amount of research on serious illnesses such as cancer.
What is considered to be the second revolution of the life sciences would not occur until half a century later. At that point, federally funded groups such as the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health applied supercomputing technology to genetics research, leading to a “genomic revolution.”
This second revolution enhanced science’s understanding of the genetic makeup of diseases. It also allowed medical researchers to look toward developing treatments for patients based on their own genetic makeup. Significantly, it relied upon the expertise of professionals not just in biomedicine, but in sectors such as material science, chemistry and physics.
Convergence in Healthcare as the Third Revolution
Convergence in Healthcare is a natural extension of these two previous life science revolutions. Since a physicist and a biologist first joined forces and discovered the structure of DNA, the history of recent advances in the life sciences serves as proof that incredible feats of innovation can be accomplished if members from different scientific disciplines work jointly on projects to benefit human health.
As the third revolution, Convergence in Healthcare takes this concept a step further. It asks scientists from the life sciences, physical sciences, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and computing sectors to move beyond collaboration and completely revolutionize established research models.
The innovation of a longstanding model that strictly delineates research between interdisciplinary lines is a task which will require persistence and significant effort. The good news is many government organizations and major research institutions have backed the movement from its inception.
Before the 2016 whitepaper from MIT, there was another MIT whitepaper in 2011 to first outlined the concept of convergence in the sciences. Since then, the idea has gained support in the form of national research initiatives, official reports, and the establishment of offices and centers dedicated specifically to conducting convergent research projects.
Among the most notable examples of convergent research initiatives founded in recent years are the BRAIN Initiative, the Cancer Moonshot Initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative. These initiatives were announced and supported by the Obama administration.
The Future of Convergence in Healthcare
The question about Convergence in Healthcare is not whether or not it will succeed — it is how quickly society will reap the rewards. Convergence is already occurring in every sector due to the exponential growth of IT in the digital age. A purposeful, concentrated effort on the growth of Convergence in Healthcare would enable the medical sector to address the most pressing human health needs much sooner than it will otherwise.
The widespread acceptance of Convergence in Healthcare as the key to modern medical innovation would allow the movement to expand significantly on many of its already-promising results in biomedical research. For example, at MIT, scientists have leveraged the power of convergence to develop optogenetics. This therapy could theoretically one day permit scientists to help Alzheimer’s patients recover memories they have lost to the disease.
Convergence has led scientists to discoveries in the field of cancer treatment. These include new, affordable paper-based urine tests to alert users of the presence of a tumor in the body. Convergence also led to the development of research strategies to help scientists collect and analyze data to identify even earlier warning signs of health conditions such as heart attack or stroke. Ultimately, this may encourage people to seek out life-saving help before the conditions occur.
There is no limit to the possibilities Convergence in Healthcare holds for biomedicine. To reach its fullest potential, the movement must gain widespread support and implementation at all levels of government, education and industry. To learn more about the possibilities of Convergence in Healthcare, review MIT’s 2016 whitepaper “Convergence: The Future of Health” here.