December 2014 | ISSUE 15
Inaugural systems biology workshop

On 26 and 27 November 2014, some 80 researchers from institutes across Singapore attended the Nanyang Institute of Technology in Health and Medicine (NITHM)'s Systems Biology @ Systems Medicine Workshop, held at LKCMedicine's Lecture Theatre.

Setting the tone for the workshop, workshop chair, NITHM Deputy Director (Clinical) and Professor of Metabolic Medicine Bernhard Boehm challenged the audience to move away from the adopted norms of modern medicine, which still treat diseases in isolation, and instead adopt a holistic approach that takes into account the dynamic systems of the human body.

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Prof Boehm (left) and Prof Lee  (right) at the inaugural Systems Biology @ Systems Medicine Workshop organised by NITHM

Following the opening remarks, LKCMedicine Executive Vice-Dean for Administration Professor Lionel Lee took to the stage to give an overview of LKCMedicine's innovative and systems-based approach to medical education, integrating basic sciences and clinical medicine with patient contact from Day One.

He highlighted that in aiming to achieve academic excellence, which stems from excellence in education and research, the School placed equal weight on building up research strengths from the get-go. This has culminated in the establishment of four key research themes: metabolic medicine, infection and immunity, mental health and neuroscience as well as skin biology and dermatology.

After the opening session, participants heard from two international keynote speakers about integrating genetic and metabolic human individuality, and the epigenetics of autoimmune diseases.

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Prof Best delivering his presentation on the future of metabolic medicine research

LKCMedicine Dean Professor James Best, who is a renowned endocrinologist, built on the morning's rigorous discussion with his insights on the future of metabolic medicine research. He suggested that the issues in metabolic medicine meet the criteria of a 'wicked problem', defined as a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve. This is because of incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden or the interconnected nature of this problem with other problems. Prof Best said that the combined knowledge of science, economics, statistics, technology, medicine and more fields is required to deliver effective change.

To illustrate this, he highlighted that reductionist approaches based on genetic studies have yielded very limited results and a silver bullet appears improbable. He added that integrative approaches are required to encompass the complexity of diabetes -- the world's most common metabolic disorder, echoing Prof Boehm's call for a more holistic approach.

"You don't solve wicked problems; you can only hope to move them in the right direction and make them better. The way to do this, is to clearly take the systems approach which requires a very broad spectrum of professionals," said Prof Best.

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Assoc Prof Car shared his insights about the future of medicine

Concluding the day, Associate Professor Josip Car left the audience with plenty to think about as he talked about the future of medicine, which lies in systems biology and a P4 (personalised, predictive, preventive, participatory) approach to healthcare.

The potential is already here for broad health-related data of billions of data points to be collected for each person, opening unseen opportunities to combine a wide range of -omics, health system generated and personally generated data into new discoveries.

The greatest bottleneck to leveraging P4 medicine and systems biology fully is the inertia of health systems. We need disruptive innovations in healthcare to allow for P4 medicine to flourish, argued Assoc Prof Car.

Wrapping up proceedings for the day, Prof Boehm, who is also Scientific Director of Metabolic Disease Research at LKCMedicine, said that the stimulating talks offered glimpses into what the future of metabolic medicine research might look like. This was the focus of the second day, said Prof Boehm.