The Benefits of Interdisciplinary Science for Healthcare: Engineers & Biologists Working Together to Tackle Diseases

Alexis Karandrea, Technology Analyst, IDTechExAs a medical scientist by training, I have been guilty of boxing myself in to my extremely specific topic, refusing to venture into the world of interesting tangential questions outside for lack of expertise. Fortunately for me, my mentors at USF were a talented, interdisciplinary team who decided that I would get comfortable learning new topics, like bioinformatics, very quickly. Now, when I sit down at a computer it’s nothing like The Matrix I once imagined; but I can stockpile gene or protein sequences, choose the right algorithm to align them, and run phylogenetic analyses- and that’s a big step for me. In the end, we used such information to confirm with a tiny nematode that our gene expression can in fact change our fat mass, and unveiled the possibility that the uterine environment might be linked to this. It’s a big step because it taught me first, how indispensable this seemingly disparate field was to answering our ultimate question at the bench, and second, that cross-training in foreign fields was inextricably tied to true, innovative progress.

So why am I subjecting you to this personal history? Because it fits in-line perfectly with what the future of biological science and healthcare will inevitably be- engineered. We’ve already had a major overhaul of medical records here in the United States, yielding the notorious acronym EHR (Electronic Health Records) that logs away patient data after each and every visit to a doctor’s office or hospital. Genetic testing is becoming more and more common every day, both in the clinic with cancer screening tests, and at home with kits offered by companies like 23-and-Me. Every day we are generating massive amounts of medical data that have the potential to provide incredible levels of insight as to the overall health status of a nation. ‘Biobanks’ are basically large collections of medical data and/or tissue samples, and they’re becoming increasingly common. Some examples include the ORIEN from M2Gen (spun out of the acclaimed Moffitt Cancer Center),and more recently, ‘China’s Noah’s Ark’located in their version of Silicon Valley, Shenzen. These data could be used to answer some important questions for the patients of the
future, questions already being probed today like “What is my risk of developing a certain cancer with this genotype?” and “Which drug or treatment regimen could work best for me, given my unique gene?”. The answers create a sort of ‘personalized healthcare’, fitting into the Precision Medicine Initiative’s goals when it was set up in 2015 during the Obama administration.

Genetic testing is becoming more and more common every day, both in the clinic with cancer screening tests, and at home with kits offered by various companies

The endeavors of fields like computer science even extend so far as to pave the way for new drug discovery. ‘Computational docking’ is the process of using computer generated models of proteins and seeing which virtual molecules fit best into certain pockets or regions of the main protein that will, on a molecular level, ameliorate the disease by activating or inactivating it. Such a technique is currently being used by researchers to find new antibiotics in this era of antibiotic resistance (e.g. MRSA, VRSA). One of the best features of this technology it's portable. As long as one has access to the structures and a computer capable of running the software, theyare able to make their discoveries any where, anytime.

Yet other fields in engineering, electrical and mechanical, have also lent a hand in the development of technologies that stand to enhance the overall quality of life for millions of patients worldwide. Advances in MEMS (microelectronic mechanical systems) technology are translating over into devices that are essentially rebuilding our nervous systems. Cochlear implants pioneered micro fabricated electrodes that could be inserted into the human cochlea, restoring a sense of sound for profoundly deaf patients. This technology served as the springboard for retinal implants that are inserted into the eye and placed on top of or within one of the retinal layers. The number of electrodes in some of these devices ranges from 60-1500, and work by similarly stimulating some of the remaining nerve cells in response to images gathered by an externally worn camera/processor unit. Even here, software plays a major role, creating ‘virtual channels’ that enhance the sound quality for cochlear implant recipients; and advanced algorithms for image processing that better relay changes in the external environment to the retinal implant, closer to real-time. Advances in these devices are translating over to the world of neuroprosthetic limbs, where companies like SensArs in Switzerland have designed a neural stimulator and interface that works with a patient’s own nerves to allow enhanced control over the movement of their prosthetic by restoring a level of sensory feedback. This sensory feedback has been highlighted by some institutions as necessary for the performance of more fine-tuned motor tasks, and as SensArs highlights, may be able to ameliorate the effects of 'phantom limb pain', a common problem for amputees.

All technologies and projects mentioned here required an interdisciplinary team to accomplish their respective feats. They are exemplary models of what we can hope to achieve in the future if with receptive minds, scientists in all fields, from math and engineering to biology, work together to solve those maladies that affect us all worldwide.