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MIT: More collaboration is needed to fight disease

Engadget Engadget 24/06/2016 Steve Dent
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As anyone who follows science knows, a lot of the fields have blended together. Medical research is dependent on robotics and other technology, while computer engineers are building neural networks that mimic our brains. To get everyone working together, leading MIT scientists, including President Emerita Susan Hockfield and Nobel Prize winning geneticist Philip Sharphave, have drafted a paper called "Convergence: The Future of Health." They believe the federal government, academia and industry must grasp the importance of overlapping research and fund it appropriately.

The reports focuses on three areas in need of convergence between disciplines: Brain disorders, infectious diseases and cancer research. Researchers in those fields need to collaborate with scientists and engineers who work on imaging, nanotechnology, regenerative engineering (prosthetics and organ transplants), and information technology. For instance, building artificial organs for transplants requires 3D printing expertise (below) that medical researchers don't have. Similarly, optogenetics allows neurologists to change an animal's behavior merely with light, but leans heavily on genetics and other fields.

Such collaboration, which the authors refer to as the "third revolution" in science, is already commonplace, of course. Doctors are working with geneticists to stamp out viruses and immune disorders via "synthetic biology," and cancer researchers are using AI to improve patient diagnoses. However, coordinating such research is a big problem, especially for small, underfunded projects that could result in breakthroughs.

To help with that, the report makes several recommendations. Those include changing the way that grants are doled out to favor convergence, hiring researchers with expertise or knowledge of other disciples and creating PhD programs that allow students to design their own degrees across disciplines.

However, the main takeaway is that the US government must wade in. According to the authors, it must help create a working group that across disciplines with participation from the NIH, National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the FDA. That means that not only more participation from the feds, but more cash. "Convergence science has advanced across many fronts, from nanotechnology to regenerative tissue," Sharp tells the MIT Review. "The funding allocated for convergence research in biomedical science is small and needs to be expanded." For more, delve into the report.


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