8 February 2007
The UK Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal Academy of Engineering have published a new joint report: Systems Biology: a vision for engineering and medicine. Systems biology is a relatively new field that applies computer modelling techniques and systems engineering concepts to biological research, by combining and integrating information from multiple sources (for example, genomic, proteomic and metabolomic information). Such approaches are proving necessary to adequately consider the vast array of interacting networks that operate in the human body. The function of cells and organs in health and disease in terms of their interactions with other cells, organs and systems within the body is thought to hold the key to a wealth of valuable information in terms of understanding, predicting, preventing and treating different forms of disease. It is already being used in pharmaceutical drug discovery and development. Systems biology also has wider applications, such as in the development of biofuels.The report hails systems biology as a “groundbreaking new approach to scientific research in medicine and engineering” and calls for immediate efforts to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of international progress. Joint chair of the working group Sir Colin Dollery warned that: “Success could make the UK a leader in a key field; failure could have serious repercussions on scientific and economic progress with the UK losing its competitive edge over other countries such as the US and Japan" (see press release).Specifically, the report calls for an investment of £325 million over the next ten years, to establish between three and five new systems biology centers of excellence; in addition, the report also calls for reforms to higher education and traditional working practices to ensure that there are enough suitably qualified researchers. Joint chair of the working group Professor Richard Kitney commented: “The UK can become a leader in this field, but institutions must overcome the barriers posed by traditional research structures which slow down interdisciplinary work. It should be natural for a molecular biologist to work closely with engineers, mathematicians and computer imaging specialists” (see press release).