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Tech shot for medicine

Three key characteristics will define science this year ? integrative, fast and small. Scientists will need to move out of their comfort zones and explore unknown domains.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2006 00:29 IST

Three key characteristics will define science this year — integrative, fast and small. Scientists will need to move out of their comfort zones and explore unknown domains. As science becomes more and more complicated, they will need to search for solutions in fields other than theirs. The biggest discoveries will be made through collaborations at the interface of science and technology.

Though genomics caused the gold rush in the earlier half of this decade, it does not provide a complete picture. Scientists have come to recognise the fact that genetic information is not of much use unless one can understand the work-horses of the body — the proteins. Proteins are modified by sugars or glycome, which forms the microenvironment around a cell. To get to the root of a disease and to develop newer and safer approaches of treatment, it will be necessary to understand how the flow of information between the genome, proteome and glycome is altered in the disease state.

Furthermore, this needs to be integrated with clinics using a clinical informatics approach. This will enable early diagnosis and lead to medicine being tailored for the individual. This, in turn, will need more engineers, computer scientists, physicists and mathematicians to enter the domains of medicine and biology and work in tandem with biologists and clinicians. Together, they can push the boundaries of an emerging field called systems biology.

A key question in biology still remains a challenge — how do proteins, which are made of a linear chain of amino acids, fold into a very specific 3-D structure? The structure is essential for the protein to function normally and understanding this process can unravel the mysteries behind many diseases.

Though computer science can help in this, it takes a day for a computer to model an event that occurs in a nanosecond inside each cell of our body. To model a protein folding over 10,000 nanoseconds can take years. Prof Vijay Pande’s group at Stanford University is approaching this problem by making thousands of house-hold computers work together using an approach called distributed computing. However, with the emerging need for faster computers for systems biology and other applications, and with the traditional computers advancing ever closer to their theoretical limits for size and speed, it will be necessary to think out of box.

Interestingly, theoretical advances made by another Indian, Prof. Satyendra Nath Bose, way back in the 1920s, are enabling developments in this area. Scientists at Harvard University have shown how ultra-cold atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates can be used to freeze and control light to form the “core” — or central processing unit — of an optical computer, smashing the intrinsic speed limit of silicon technology.

Another area that will emerge is regenerative medicine, enabled by advances in stem cell research. Stem cells have the potential to form any cell type, and the goal is to harness them to repair damaged organs. An interesting question to ask is — how can the same cell form brain cells at one site and heart tissue at a different site? Is it the microenvironment that controls the outcome, and if so, can we create artificial microenvironments that could be injected with the cells to guarantee that these cells don’t form undesired tissue? Can we create designer microenvironments that will enable us to form organs from stem cells, such as a heart, that one day can be bought off the shelf? These questions — which we are asking in my laboratory at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School — can be answered by chemists, biologists and clinicians working in tandem.

Hybrid nanotechnology will revolutionise health. Our laboratory recently demonstrated that a ‘nanocell’ could home into tumours, increasing the efficiency of chemotherapy as well as reduce the toxicity associated with it. Exciting research coming out of Prof. Ajay Sood’s laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science has shown that an electric current is generated when liquids flow through single walled nanotubes. Making them biocompatible could mean that one day, we can have these nanotubes inside our body acting as sentinels against a heart attack or powering a pacemaker.

This is an exciting time for science. The need of the hour is to develop a vision for enabling seamless integration between health, sciences and technology.

Shiladitya Sengupta is Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and one of 2005’s young innovators chosen by MIT’s Technology Review

First Published: Jan 01, 2006 00:29 IST