Problem-free switching between different levels of knowledge
More than 250 million people worldwide suffer from neurological diseases. These include diseases as diverse as Alzheimer’s, ALS and abnormalities on the autism spectrum. They all have to do with the brain and with transmission of signals within it. In recent years, much research has been done and a lot of money has been invested to better understand and develop treatments for these diseases. But many of these diseases still cause a lot of damage and are still largely misunderstood.
According to Daan Brinks, one reason for this is that although there is a great deal of knowledge – on topics ranging from molecular and cellular processes to tissues and organs – these different types of knowledge are not properly coordinated.
‘A wide variety of specialists has gained the knowledge we have about neurological diseases’, Brinks explains: ‘These specialists research with a variety of time and length scales: Some look at short-term processes that take place deep inside human cells, while others look at the developmental processes that take place over a lifetime.
“The problem becomes clear when we look, for example, at efforts to develop drugs for a complex disease like Alzheimer’s,” Brinks continued. “New drugs are often first tested in mice. There they often work well, but when researchers take the next step, and start trying the drugs on real patients, they often don’t work at all, and we don’t exactly know why. The researchers doing tests with mice in a lab are very different researchers than those working with real patients. They don’t speak each other’s language, and usually don’t make decisions based on each other’s knowledge. As a result, the step from a mouse to a human becomes too big. We are going to try to improve that.”
One way in which Brinks and his colleagues want to do that is by training a new generation of people who can oversee this big complex picture and consult with all specialists, from molecular biologists to physicians in the treatment room. They want to achieve more mutual communication and develop experiments verifying if the different steps taken are based on mutually transferable knowledge.
Brinks: ‘Five years from now, we want to be able to show the added value of our approach with a working drug or diagnostic procedures for patients developed in our pipeline. That is to say, as a result of a renewed process in which all the steps are correct and follow one another logically based on transdisciplinary knowledge.’
If we really want to solve the complex problems of our time, we have to start thinking much more transdisciplinary.
One way Brinks and his colleagues want to do that is to educate a new generation of people who can oversee this big complex picture and talk to all the specialists, from molecular biologist to doctor in the treatment room. “We would like to achieve more mutual communication in such a pipeline. But also that all those specialists start developing experiments to verify that the different steps in a development process are really taken on the basis of mutually transferable knowledge.”
The Flagship Integrative Neuromedicine is made up of a group of relatively young researchers. It includes physicists, chemists, biomedics, microbiologists and neuroscientists from Erasmus MC and TU Delft. But also doctors, psychologists, philosophers and people working to integrate new knowledge and methodologies into the Dutch health care system. “We now have 21 researchers within our partnership. That number is certainly going to continue to grow. We all naturally recognize that the appearance of silos in the scientific process is a problem that needs to be solved. We work as democratically and bottom-up as much as possible. Our researchers have discussed how they can use each other’s knowledge and conduct experiments that verify that the knowledge transfer is going well.”
Our own physical institute
“In five years, we want to be able to show the added value of our approach with a working drug or diagnostics for patients developed in our pipeline. Organizational wise, I would like to see us grow and have our own physical institute in five years, where we can talk and think about these kinds of issues together. But we also have ambitions in terms of education.
Students are now still being educated in rather narrowly defined fields, in delineated disciplinary cubicles. This must also partly change, for example by organizing a broad, transdisciplinary bachelor’s program, where students can compose their own study path. Of course subject specialists are always needed, but if we really want to solve the complex problems of our time, we really have to start thinking much more transdisciplinary.”