The study of systems biology, the field of research that creates predictive models of complex biological processes, will lead to advances in pharmaceuticals and medical treatment, but also to advances in computer science, a leading systems biologist predicted Monday.
The study of how biological systems work together, and modeling how one change to a cell or a gene affects the rest of an organism, should lead to a convergence between biotechnology and information technology over the next 10 years, said Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. Systems biology will help computer scientists understand how to make changes to complex software such as operating systems by tweaking the code, instead of adding more code, Hood said during a panel discussion on systems biology and drug discovery at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) Convention in Washington, D.C.
"I think biology is going to give fundamental new insights to IT," Hood said. "Really understanding the evolution of gene regulatory networks is going to provide completely new strategies for how one deals with this horrendous computational problem of taking big programs ... and restructuring them really efficiently so that you don't restructure them simply by adding more onto them."
Hood and other panelists talked about the importance of technology, including large computational resources and data-mining techniques, to systems biology. Advances in nanotechnology chips will increasingly allow systems biologists to study the impacts when molecules are manipulated, leading to an increased focus on preventative and personalized medicine.
Within about 10 years, advances in nanotechnology and other predictive models will allow the fast and cheap sequencing of individuals' genomes, Hood said, which in turn will lead to advances in predictive medicine. As scientists are able to look at 30,000 or more genes for each patient, doctors could use such genome sequences to predict what health problems the individual patient is likely to face, he said.
"I think we will have an instrumentation that could well bring sequencing of the human genome ... down to a 20-minute process and do it for under $1,000," Hood said. "This changes the way we think about predictive medicine."
A diagnosis including this individualized systems biology analysis will have multiple benefits, Hood said. "It will allow us to access a disease progression and to determine the effectiveness of drug response for an individual," he added.
While Hood talked of the potential of systems biology, David Lester, the New York site head of Worldwide Clinical Technology for Pfizer Inc. Global Research and Development, said substantial impediments exist to the "dinosaur" pharmaceutical industry embracing new technologies and new scientific concepts.
About 90 percent of researched drugs fail to reach the market, he said, and shareholders expect strong earnings from pharmaceutical companies. One challenge for scientists to integrate systems biology in drug research is to show how such research will add to the drug companies' bottom line, Lester said.
But Lester also said he's optimistic that systems biology will aid the drug development process by better targeting drugs to diseases. "A market-driven adaptive R&D approach is increasingly dependent on high-performance, flexible technology environment, basically the antithesis of the pharmaceutical industry," Lester said. "I may sound pessimistic, but I'm actually quite optimistic."
Systems biology has the potential to give drug researchers more and better data, he added. "The issue with modeling is you need good data," Lester said. "The more data and better data you've got, the better model you have."