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