The Info/Biotech Connection

Federal research funding should reflect the reality that many biomedical innovations have roots in the physical sciences and engineering.

Although wide agreement exists that information technology (IT) and biotechnology will be the primary sources of innovation for the foreseeable future, this insight seems not to have penetrated fully into federal research policy. Biotechnology research, particularly for use in human medicine, has enjoyed rapidly growing government support in the past decade. Information technology and the physical science research on which it is founded, which have played a central role in the economic growth that has helped make it possible for government to increase biomedical research funding, have experienced a decline in support during the same period. But the problem is not simply the relative importance of the two technological domains; it is that neither technology can achieve its full potential without complementary progress in the other. Inadequate federal support for research that helps advance IT will not only slow IT progress, it will also limit the pace of development in biotechnology. Federal policymakers need to understand that the best environment for innovation in all technologies is a broad and balanced research program for all the sciences.

The info/biotech connection was a prominent theme in a conference on “Government-Industry Partnerships in Biotechnology and Information Technologies: New Needs and New Opportunities” sponsored by the National Research Council’s Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy and chaired by Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore. Although the primary goal of the conference was to examine in detail the differences in the nature of government involvement and interaction with industry for the two sectors, an important theme that emerged was the growing extent to which IT and biotech must work in tandem.

Edward Penhoet, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley, provided numerous examples of how the physical sciences, engineering, and IT were critical to the effective use of new biomedical research and technology. For example, the effectiveness of therapeutic drugs depends on determining the proper dosage for the individual and having the patient adhere to that schedule–an extremely difficult challenge. Implantable microelectronic mechanical systems can be designed that will measure drug metabolism in real time and release additional amounts as needed.

X-ray crystallography, developed by physicists, is playing a pivotal role in developing new drugs emerging from research in structural biology, and recent advances in computing are increasing the speed of this work dramatically. It took 20 years to complete the analysis of myoblobin, the first protein to be analyzed. Today, analysis can be completed within a few days. Recent progress in neuroscience is based on the work of geneticists, psychologists, vision specialist, computer scientists, and other disciplines working together.

The most compelling potential for the synergy of IT and biomedical research is in the most dynamic area of research–human genetics. The study of the 13 billion nucleotides that make up a human’s 100,000 genes is a daunting challenge in information management. In fact, Celera Genomics, the company that forced the pace of mapping the entire human genome, considers itself an information company, not a biotech company. Vast amounts of computer analysis will be required to unlock the mysteries of the genome.

The info/biotech intersection could not be more clear than in the gene chip, a collection of as many as 20,000 individual genes mounted on a surface that is then “interrogated” by a laser to elicit information about gene expression. The technology is an amalgam of biology, chemistry, and semiconductor manufacturing, and interpretation of the results requires extensive computer analysis.

Among the most promising approaches to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of health care is the growing use of home diagnostics and Internet-assisted home care. Devices that allow patients to measure vital signs at home and to automatically relay that information to physicians enable patients to better understand their own condition and to stay in touch with a caregiver without having to make a visit. Physicians can use this information to track patients and to send them advice or reminders about what they are supposed to be doing.

Measuring quality

Much of the recent discussion of the New Economy has focused on the rate of economic growth and the role of IT in boosting productivity. Dale Jorgenson rigorously explores this idea in this issue. One of the difficulties he encounters in his analysis is the absence of constant quality price indexes for some software and telecommunications equipment. The capability of new technology is expanding so rapidly that one cannot simply compare the price of a computer from year to year. It is necessary to adjust for how much more a standard personal computer can do each year. The government has been doing this successfully for computers, but the task becomes more difficult with a product such as custom software.

Biomedical technology presents even more difficulty, particularly when linked to IT. How does one quantify the quality improvement that comes with being able to know one’s genetic susceptibility to a disease or to manage a disease from home? What about the value of being able to skip the trial and error process of finding the proper drug dosage for an individual? Certainly this is one of the benefits of what is called a New Economy, but it is not a benefit that is easily measured. And if it’s not easily measured, it’s more difficult to use it as a rationale for readjusting federal research funding to take advantage of the full spectrum of scientific progress.

Developing constant quality price indexes for new medical services is a worthwhile project for government economists, but we do not need their results to recognize the need for a better balanced federal research portfolio. The representative examples cited above and the advice of people such as Gordon Moore and Edward Penhoet should be enough to convince policymakers that a broad base of scientific research will provide the foundation for a cornucopia of multidisciplinary projects with unimagined benefits for society. As we marvel at the golden eggs, we should not forget the nutritional needs of the goose.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “The Info/Biotech Connection.” Issues in Science and Technology 18, no. 1 (Fall 2001).

Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall 2001