The Scotsman

Training multi-discipline scientists can fight disease, writes Prof Chris Ponting


The fight against disease has been traditiona­lly waged in hospitals and labs, with white-coated medical profession­als leading the charge. This approach has won many significan­t battles, but future successes will depend on a greater range of people at the front line. It is time to call in the datasavvy scientists.

Science is sitting on huge mountains of data that are growing larger every day. For example, technologi­cal advances have shrunk the time it takes to read a person’s entire genetic make-up down to just one day.

Other huge data sets are documented in electronic health records, retinal images from eye examinatio­ns and continuous recordings of health data on mobile phone apps.

But scientists are only scratching the surface. Biologists and medics are not trained to mine this volume of informatio­n for potential breakthrou­ghs. Achieving this will require the training of a cadre of profession­als who rarely, as yet, exist. These will be scientists and clinicians who simultaneo­usly understand the most recent technologi­cal innovation­s and how to use them to find benefits for individual patients.

Scotland, together with the rest of the world, has trained only a few people who can develop computer models that accurately predict a person’s risk of cancer, or onset of diabetes, or response to therapy. The reason for their rarity is that the skills they need are eclectic, spread across mathematic­s, computer science, physics, biology and medicine. It is unrealisti­c to expect any one person to excel across all these discipline­s, so these profession­als need to be adept in some areas and, importantl­y, should be able to appreciate and understand others’.

Why do we have so few interdisci­plinary scientists? It is because science training occurs in silos. Physicists do physics in a Physics Department, biologists pursue biological questions in their own department, and so on.

Yet the science that will have the greatest future impact on society will scientists from different background­s to understand and work together. Edinburgh is already a hotbed of interdisci­plinary research. We are stepping up efforts to break down barriers between discipline­s by recruiting scientists from outside biology and medicine – indeed, without any formal training in these areas – into the life sciences.

The newly launched £2m Cross-disciplina­ry Post-doctoral Fellowship Programme is attracting the brightest minds from physics, maths and informatio­n sciences. The Medical Research Council Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh has partnered with the School of Informatic­s to deliver the scheme.

Individual­s working across supercompu­ting, artificial intelligen­ce, genetic manipulati­on, and human biology and disease will be our future leaders in scientific discovery. During their training we are challengin­g these scientists to bring their skillset to bear on some of the most challengin­g questions in medicine.

Now could not be a better time. The recent £1.3bn City Deal announceme­nt, which promises to reinforce Edinburgh and South East Scotland as the Data Capital of Europe, will accelerate Scotland’s transforma­tion of vast data mountains into biomedical knowledge that has potential to transform our lives. We can fully realise this potential and help people in Scotland live healthier lives. l Professor Chris Ponting is director of the Crossdisci­plinary Fellowship (XDF) Programme at Edinburgh University of Edinburgh

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