Potential benefits of life sciences for health, food and sustainability are huge, but fragmentization of the research results in a low return on investment. The Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology together with Maastricht University took some cautious first steps towards greater ambition.
Research going berserk
The claim of the organizers was that society could benefit much more from the modern life sciences, but only if research efforts would be scaled up to research programmes in the range between 100 and 1.000 million.
To reach that scale, intensive communicating is needed, because scientists, policy makers and industry don’t necessarily speak the same language. The Maastricht workshop once more showed the intricacies of this ‘intercultural’ communication.
One of the initiators of the life sciences-initiative, Roel van Driel (Professor biochemistry at the University of Amsterdam), outlined the challenges the field faces. “In 2012 alone there were 70.000 articles being published with the word ‘cancer’ in the title.”
“The research is going berserk, it is completely clear that we cannot handle this anymore. Our challenge is to confer information to understanding and to integrate information in predictive computer modeling. Compared with other fields of study, we are lagging behind with this computer modeling.”
You need to show a dream
Professor van Driel: “The impact of life sciences on society is still limited. We have only a few cases of early detection of diseases that we can use as success stories.” Therefore the research strategy needs rethinking.
“Research fragmentation wouldn’t be a bad thing if only the efforts could be added up, which they now can’t. Thus far there is no standardization in the field to make adding up possible.” Even more reconsidering is needed to tie the research in with societal demands.
Michael Rutgers of the organization of lung patients boldly stated that “no citizen is interested in ‘the workings of the body’. People just want a cure for a specific disease. We need to show people a dream, to explain the general direction our research is taking. A dream is never over-promising, exactly because it’s a dream.”
No scientist-director please
The most promising example of life science cooperation came from Germany, from the Virtual Liver Network. Director Adriano Henney ‘galloped’ through an impressive overview of the 70 research groups all over Germany.
“They all came to the table as competitors, it was up to me to convince them that working together was better.” Rational persuasion and getting commitment of the researchers, that was the main challenge. The funding didn’t need to be organized: the German federal government chipped in the money for the experimental project.
Crucial according to Henney is that it’s not a consortium, but a ‘distributed team’. “And it’s not necessary to have the most expert scientist leading the project. The best scientists should be leading the scientific work.”
And it’s working. Much to the envy of other people in the life sciences who would love the field to get more organized.
Mapping the metabolism
Instead of the liver, Professor Van Driel would like to unravel the mysteries of the metabolic system. “It’s a very complicated, that why I like it so much. The system conveys 7440 different coupled chemical reactions. But to make a complete map of human metabolism is feasible.”
So technically it can be done; but practically it will need some clever lobbying and organizing to rally the relevant people around this cause. To be continued…