Big Science 1/2
None of the proposals in this piece is an original thought of mine. This specific blog is simply a summary of prevailing thoughts in the extant literature on biomedicine and represents an informal discussions and thoughts that are prevalent in the biomedical community. The terms “Big Science,” “Team Science,” and “Big Data Science” are used interchangeably to refer to the amalgamation of research activities from disparate research groups that are traditionally different. The three terms therefore encompass scientific research that are expensive and typically involves large teams of scientists from different disciplines.
As KNUST transitions into a “Research-oriented university,” it needs a re-evaluation of its past research efforts followed by a re-definition of itself – introduce new defining features that will be most readily associated with its brand in the global scientific community and in the national public space. It is my proposition that we make biomedical research the major fulcrum of our research effort and by extension, the main inter-institutional-defining recognition and distinguishing academic research feature. No, this proposal doesn’t mean all other pre-existing research endeavors are suspended or that they are unimportant. What this proposition merely seeks to convey is that our basic branding can concentrate on excellence in biomedical research. And that concentration can be strong that wherever and whenever KNUST is mentioned, the first bell that rings in peoples mind is excellence in all aspects of biomedical research with research output that has high relevance to human health.
The conceptual framework of “one gene-one hypothesis” that undergirded much of Biomedical research in the past has quickly evolved into one defined by “multi-genes-multi-hypothesis” paradigms. The herculean scientific efforts that drove this transformation was invariably accomplished with teams of disparate researchers unified by a common goal in a practice euphemistically termed “Big Science,” or “Team Science,” or “Big Data Science.”
Some “Big Science” teams focus at the interface of their disciplines while others concentrate at the intersection of their chosen core disciplines with biology. Whatever the case, the interdisciplinary approach serves as a bridge linking the seemingly disparate fields. Historically most scientific and therapeutic advances considered revolutionary have emerged at the interface between disciplines where researchers with different yet complementary expertise collaborated. So in “Team Science,” we are simply stating the obvious that for optimal productivity to occur within our research community, we need to be strong in our individual disciplinary foundations and yet need to extend a hand of effective work fellowship to researchers outside our discipline.
“Big Science” communities are complex societies, inexorably full of contradictions but the major consequences of human foibles are minimized and subsumed by a thriving synergy. How could challenges be absent, given the diverse academic backgrounds and sometimes the multiple competing interests of individual group members? And yet, if you were to ask me which is better: “individual researchers sequestered in academic silos” or “multi-investigators engaged in “Big Science”” – my answer will unequivocally be “Big Science.”
Why Biomedical “Big Science” Now at KNUST?
Several open biomedical challenges in the areas of tropical disease treatment, tropical disease etiology, and molecular level understanding of the interaction of therapeutics with cellular biomolecules associated with tropical disease management exists. Simply put, atomic level cellular etiological mechanisms for many endemic tropical diseases are generally unavailable and this scenario hampers effective treatment. When the rubber meets the road, few liberal “do-gooders”-European or American researchers-will ventures into this “unforgiving” terrain to offer mechanistic clarity and point us to potential therapy for the common deadly and disabling tropical diseases. So for all intents and purposes none but we ourselves have to provide the scientific clarity that will bring both medical relief from the affliction and mental relief from the too-often association with work of witchcraft and not with aberrations in molecular processes. The gallant efforts of individual KNUST researchers working as individuals in stratified and straitjacketed academic silos can be likened to a “spit in the ocean.” Such individual effort will be too little to gain traction in relative proportion to comparable efforts from “Team Science.”
“Big Science”-inspired genomic data has revolutionized the delineation of disease mechanisms and has allowed the reclassification of diseases based on molecular biological features instead of the sometimes problematic symptoms or external disease presentation. Current drug discovery has undergone major transformations initiated by the incredible wealth of genomic information and the introduction of other powerful new and ubiquitous “omics.”-based technologies introduced via “Team Science.”.
The recent “Team Science”- mapped out the Human-associated microorganisms (human microbiome project) led to the observation that the number of human associated microorganisms exceed that of human cells by at least 10-fold and its’ collective microbial genome (the “metagenome”) exceeds the human genome by at least 150-fold in terms of gene content. Novel research direction directly derived from this observation and known as “metagenomics” is now an actively funded research area. A rather controversial conceptual finding, supported by mountains of compelling experimental data is that the bacteria community in our stomach biosynthesize small organic molecules that crosses the blood-brain barrier to influence our thought patterns. Interestingly, through the use of “metagenomics,” the genetic materials of previously uncultivable microbes are placed in a more readily culturable microbe to enable access to its bioactive secondary metabolites in drug discovery. Few new drugs have been discovered via this “metagenomic” route.
Mathematics and the quantitative sciences use of “Mathematica” software and other mathematics-based software are now routine and a necessary part of “Team Science” toolbox for shedding alternative light on biological mechanisms that has defied simple biochemical categorizations. “Molecular docking” algorithms and other modeling software that relies on quantum mechanics-molecular mechanics hybrid are currently in use to illuminate biological assemblies of disease-relevant biomolecules and to decipher disease etiology with more clarity. Other newly developed mathematical algorithms can predict medical outcomes based on genetic profile of patient in a personalized medicine scenario that treats each patient as a distinct entity and not as part of group. The operative words are: predictive, preventive personalized and participatory (P4) medicine and this view presents strikingly novel conceptual direction to the diagnostics, therapeutics and disease prevention paradigm. In the future, your hospital card will be a computer file on a pendrive that has your genome saved and that enables Doctors to access your genome and offer personalized healthcare including the prescription of a drug that would be ideal for your genome.
Other active biomedical research areas that demands “Team Science” because of its rigor include chemical genetics and its role in the development of chemopreventitive and chemotherapeutic agents; High Throughput Screening of compound libraries using phenotypic bioassays on model organisms and with reporter gene constructs; recombinant DNA technology; gene silencing methodology (RNAi) and its therepeutic use; and delineation of natural product biosynthetic pathways and its application in herbal medicine and in total organic synthesis. Structural Biologists use of structural biological models constructed from solved 3D structure of biomolecules elucidates biological function and illuminates mechanisms of therapeutic action of drugs. Environmental science-based study of the interaction of susceptibility genes with environmental exposures. The evolution of herbal medicinal formulations into a robust drug discovery program where bioassay-guided fractionations are performed on a cell-based or live animal-based platform to enable the isolation, identification and the organic synthesis of bioactive agents. The revolutionary new gene editing technology CRISPR and its myriad uses (excluding the generation of designer babies as was recently performed by Prof. He of China. Prof. He was stripped of his honorary academic titles and he lost his job as well. He is now serving a 3-year jail-term for playing God.)
“Team Science” will undoubtedly continue to be at the forefront generating “Big Data” in collaborative efforts from researchers with different expertise working in synergy within studies that are completed in good time in biomedicine. Most importantly, its history of productivity is undisputed. “Team Science” efforts have resulted in studies whose relevance is high, whose significance is long-term, whose impact is exceptionally high and whose applicability for the common good is disproportionately high.
Social scientists have key roles to play in “Team Science.” Take any public health issues as an example. To advance our understanding of the causes, consequences, and alleviation of diseases including lifestyle-induced conditions, social scientists can ask pointed questions within an input framework that will literally define plausible risk factors and point unambiguously to actionable policies or targets for biomedical mitigation. This observation implies that the diversity of the biomedical big science/ big Data workforce will have to be expanded through creation of new courses that stresses such research endeavors among the social scientists and through the development of core curriculum in all social science disciplines that teaches big science/big data management. We have to develop and implement new instructional approaches that can engage our students (undergraduates/graduate) with interest in biomedical research.
Since “Team Science” biomedical breakthroughs utilize a holistic rather than reductionist approach to decipher chemical/engineering/social science complexities in biological systems, a judicious blend of such research concepts will favorably situate KNUST to make the next breakthroughs in biomedical research and offer our students (undergraduates/graduates) opportunities to learn to share ideas across historical traditionally separate fields.
The biomedical challenges that confront Ghana today are not identical to those that date back twenty years ago. Continuing refreshments of our teaching curricula is necessary to ensure a seamless transition to address challenges as they come. As we continue to refresh curricula to bridge the disciplines and to train students desirous of future careers at the interface of basic science-biomedical domain, social science-biomedical domain, mathematical sciences-biomedical domain, engineering-biomedical domain, big “Data Science” will become more accessible; and will provide students with marketable skills necessary to engage in interdisciplinary careers. The United States National Institute of Health offers a T32 grant to support such institutional endeavors for student training in interdisciplinary biosciences.