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Stanford Report, October 22, 2003

Bio-X: We are not alone

BY DAWN LEVY

The Bio-X Program is pioneering -- its first research and teaching grants were awarded in 2000 -- but it's far from alone in probing the unexplored space between disciplines. Interdisciplinary programs are popping up across the country like Tribbles in a famous Star Trek episode, and now is a good time to look beyond our own world and survey the galaxy of "other Bio-Xs."

Here in California, the interdisciplinary universe teems with new life. Three campuses of the University of California -- San Francisco, Berkeley and Santa Cruz -- have joined forces to form the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, or QB3. Each campus is constructing a research center. Two buildings on the Santa Cruz campus are scheduled for completion this year and next. The Mission Bay building in San Francisco is scheduled for completion in 2004, and a Berkeley building is slated for 2006. In addition, the University of Southern California has begun construction of a building for molecular and computational biology.

Beyond the Golden State, interdisciplinary programs have emerged at the University of Michigan, Duke, Harvard, Yale and elsewhere. Princeton, for example, has the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, led by former Stanford genetics Professor David Botstein. In some cases, these programs don't even need universities. Human Genome Project pioneer Leroy Hood founded the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle free of a university affiliation.

And soon, alas, Stanford won't be the only Farm with a capital F. Scheduled to open in 2006 is Janelia Farm, loosely modeled after two of the world's great interdisciplinary labs -- Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., which brought the world the transistor and the laser and much more, and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where the structure of DNA was discovered and where numerous other important medical breakthroughs were made. The Virginia facility will house Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers, elite among medical scientists.

"The new interdisciplinary centers are all exciting and all different," says Matthew Scott, chair of the Bio-X Scientific Leadership Council. "They are tuned to the strengths and goals of their respective institutions. No particular style or system is likely to work equally well for all research challenges. We are fortunate in having such diverse strengths on one campus along with a tradition of generous collaboration."

The proliferation of interdisciplinary programs and labs is more than just a trend. It is recognition that discoveries don't just happen within boxes labeled "science," "engineering" or "medicine." In the space between those boxes, Bio-X professors like computer scientist Daphne Koller and medical researcher Robert Shafer can work together to analyze the genetic sequence of HIV for drug resistance studies. And ophthalmologists Harvey Fishman and Mark Blumenkranz can team up with electrical engineer David Bloom and chemical engineer Stacey Bent to build a neural interface to help blind patients -- it connects a digital video camera to individual retinal cells in the eyes of patients with age-related macular degeneration.

A lot of intellectual frontier remains. So far at Stanford collaborations have tended to explore complex questions in biodesign, biocomputation, biophysics, brain and behavior, chemical biology, genomics, proteomics, imaging and regenerative medicine. Future collaborations may form in completely new areas. A goal, says Scott, is to "get a project far enough along to attract external funding."

Indeed, that's beginning to happen. In October 2002, Assistant Professors P. J. Utz, medicine, and Juan Santiago, mechanical engineering, received a 7-year, $14.6 million contract from the National Institutes of Health that built upon Bio-X funding for proteomics work. Along with principal investigator Garry Nolan and several other investigators, Utz and Santiago are developing cutting-edge techniques to study proteins from single cells by using microfluidics to separate molecules in channels that are so small they can only be seen with a microscope. Their work remains focused on blood diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Understanding complex diseases will require a holistic knowledge of genetics, diet, infectious agents, environment, behavior, social structures and other factors. Policymakers are beginning to see that interdisciplinary collaboration is the best way to address complex research challenges such as cancer and diabetes -- and they are beginning to support teamwork in a big way.

Earlier this month, National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni unveiled a "roadmap" (http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/) to accelerate medical discoveries for patient benefit. A big part of his plan is creating "research teams of the future" with 5-year awards to support interdisciplinary research centers, training and meetings. Similarly, the National Science Foundation has identified interdisciplinary research as a priority area in its budget for fiscal year 2004.

Once thought fruitful only if serendipity stepped in, research marriages between unlikely collaborators are now seen as high-risk, high-payoff ventures. Bio-X and its siblings may speed science, engineering and medicine to boldly go where no one -- toiling alone -- has gone before.