MIT’s Susan Hockfield Talks Impact of Merging Biology and Engineering

Xconomy Boston — 

When Susan Hockfield (pictured) became president of MIT in 2004, she soon made her mark as the first life scientist to lead the university. She championed the convergence of biology, engineering, and physical sciences research to bring about the next breakthroughs not just in medicine, but also in energy and other areas. During her tenure as president from 2004 to 2012, she oversaw the creation of interdisciplinary research centers at MIT, including the MIT Energy Initiative, the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Now as a professor of neuroscience at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute, Hockfield continues to work to bring engineering and biology together. She recently spoke with Xconomy via e-mail about the potential impact of this convergence. And she will further delve into these points during her keynote address at the Xcelerate conference, part of Biotech Week Boston, on Sept. 6 in Boston.

Xconomy: What does this convergence of life science and engineering look like to you?

Susan Hockfield: Biology is rapidly adopting tools from engineering, and engineering is increasingly deploying components from biology. This convergence of biology with engineering is fueling a revolutionary set of new technologies that promise solutions to some of the pressing needs of the 21st century – in biomedicine and well beyond.

X: What impact will the convergence of biology and engineering have on the kinds of research and technologies coming out of university labs?

SH: The convergence allows us to draw on nature’s genius in designing new kinds of technologies. For example, new water filtration strategies use the water channel protein found in cells throughout the natural world to build remarkably efficient water purification systems.

Digital and computational engineering has become a key element in biological studies, both to generate and to analyze the explosion of data from gene, protein, and system studies. This biology/engineering partnership has provided new insights into disease processes and their genetic foundations, and new strategies for therapies. Advanced computational engineering strategies, like machine learning, promise to improve many state-of-the-art medical technologies, like mammography and other radiology and pathology procedures.

X: How could this affect R&D at life science companies?

SH: The new insights from quantitatively demanding approaches, like genomics, proteomics, and drug design, have made life science companies increasingly computational powerhouses, and that trend will continue. In addition, the convergence opens untold new technological possibilities, for disease detection and therapy. For example, nanoparticles can be decorated with a variety of substances to aid in recognizing targets, visualizing disease, and delivering medicines.

X: On the topic of nanoparticles for delivering medicines, nanotechnology was a big part of the recent success of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in getting its first drug, based on RNA interference (RNAi), approved by the FDA. [Editor’s note: the drug, Onpattro (patisiran), is delivered to the liver by lipid nanoparticles.]

SH: Alnylam brilliantly advanced both the biology of RNAi and the engineering to deliver (and manufacture) this entirely new class of drugs in a great demonstration of the power of convergence in action.