Lab animals have for a long time been used as a model for the human situation. My research will help to gradually replace many of those experiments by computer simulations. This transition also saves a lot of time and money, and helps us to get a more deep and holistic understanding of the systems that we are studying.
Picture from Wikipedia.
So, where did I go next...?
The answer is Frankfurt! Frankfurt is the home of many companies, and one of them is Sanofi, which is one of the biggest drug development companies in the world. I have been here to talk to them about my research, in particular that part that concerns metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes.
As some of you know, I have worked with type 2 diabetes for many years. In this I take a systems biology approach, where mathematical modelling is combined with experimental research in a more holistic approach, than what is typical in more conventional medicin and biology. "Holistic" is word that often is used also in yoga and spiritual societies, and it means that you take into consideration the whole system, rather than only a few of its isolated parts. Here, however, its usage is completely non-spiritual and used in a purely scientific fashion. For type 2 diabetes I am part of the coordination of a many-group initiative that attempts to create a mathematical model for the various organs involved in type 2 diabetes: both regarding their intracellular dynamics, and regarding their interactions. This has been described in a popular science way e.g. here. Since this description, an important new development has happened, maybe the most important development so far. It was published in a scientific journal about a week ago, and it is a first mathematical model for the important first step leading up to the development of type 2 diabetes: the reason why fat cells stop responding to insulin.
This means that our mathematical models for type 2 diabetes now have become so realistic and interesting that they are getting more and more relevant for drug developments. A type 1 diabetes version of the model we are using has already been approved by the FDA as a possible replacement for test animals, when certifying certain insulin treatments (meaning that a step that used to take 4-6 years and cost 1 Billion SEK now takes a few months and costs less than a million SEK - saving the lives and displeasure of thousands of test animals in the process!), and we are now rapidly evolving towards a highly relevant usefulness also for our type 2 diabetes models. Not only Sanofi, but also quite a few other major pharmaceutical companies have shown a high interest in our work. This is really cool, for several reasons. First, it could mean a lot of funding for my research :) . Second, it could mean that we have a new example of where the interplay between academia and industry is better than either of them alone. Regarding the usage of these mathematical models, they often need to be initiated in academia, since it requires more long-term project investments that industry is used to making. However, there is then often a big resistance within the mainstream academic biological fields to start taking these models seriously. This is because academia consists of research groups who have a vested interest in not seeing their own ways of doing things getting outdated, but in preserving the status quo to lie within their field of normal activities. Industry, on the other hand, are not going for the preservation of status quo, but for getting a competitive edge compared to their competitors. The short-termness that was a problem in initial developments, are therefore now an advantage, and they are therefore more likely to jump on new techniques, once academia has developed them sufficiently far. Industry's view on current techniques may therefore surprisingly enough be more objective and leading-edge than academia's!
I think that this part of my research lies in a very exciting meeting point between conceptually groundbraking views of biology and medicine in general; between usefulness to really make a diffeference for industry and for people's health by collaborating with pharmaceutical companies and medical doctors; and in a field that will allow me to eventually do research on why and how and when yoga is a useful tool in medicine. So, you will certainly hear much more about the interplay between my scientific carreer and my other interests as I keep elaborating on my thoughts and ongoing projects here at this blog. So look forward to that! :)
Frankfurt by night.
CC (non-commercial, non-derivative), from Wikipedia, by Roland Meinecke