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Debate: The health research of the future should take place in a collaboration between several professions

If the health research of the future is to be successful, we must be better to ‘converge’ specialised skills and methods from different disciplines. Internationally, what is known as ‘the convergence revolution' is being discussed and Denmark ought to be part of it.


If we are going to truly take part in the international convergence revolution, there must be political support to invest far more in convergence at national level.

If we are going to truly take part in the international convergence revolution, there must be political support to invest far more in convergence at national level.

by Lars Bo Nielsen, Dean of the Faculty of Health, Aarhus University

At the turn of the year, the first cancer patients will be treated in what is probably Denmark’s most advanced piece of equipment for treatment; the particle canon in the National Centre for Particle Radiotherapy at Aarhus University Hospital. Particle therapy is charged proton particles being fired against the cancer cells with great precision. It represents a breakthrough for specialised cancer treatment in Denmark, and oncologists expect that particle therapy will be particularly beneficial for children with cancer, because they will not suffer from the serious late complications that traditional radiotherapy often leads to.

As groundwork for the first patient treatments, highly-specialised researchers from different fields – physicists, engineers. biologists – have invested thousands of working hours in planning, constructing and building the particle accelerator together with healthcare researchers and treatment personnel. This interdisciplinary, research-based collaboration for better patient treatment is an example of convergence, and it is expected to play a key role in the health sciences of the future.

Great things are expected of the healthcare services of the future. Here in Denmark, we are critical consumers of healthcare services and expect precise diagnosis, world-class treatment and in general more years without disease. These are demands that Denmark as a research nation can only satisfy if the research environments at the universities, hospitals and in business and industry are given favourable conditions.

But in research circles it has also been also gradually acknowledged – at least internationally – that major scientific breakthroughs are not solely the result of state-of-the-art equipment, years of patience, generous funding and strong professional excellence.

An important factor is the ability, will and organisational framework to bring specialised disciplines and processes together. Also disciplines that are traditionally segregated.

In its pure form, convergence means “the point at which two lines converge” or as it is used here, the idea of merging disciplines.

Danish patients are already benefiting from convergence initiatives; the mapping of the human genome, where chemists, mathematicians, biologists and medical doctors have each used their expertise to contribute to an understanding of the importance of the genome for health and disease. Deep natural scientific understanding of the genome’s structure and function in combination with the large amount of health data which medical doctors and nurses generate together with the patients each day can be utilised in personalised medicine.

Progress has been helped by different disciplines stepping out of their respective departments to utilise their core expertise in new contexts. Patients are given better conditions for taking ownership of their illness and treatment, and they get better opportunities to promote their health with e.g. mobile technologies and aids.

In food science research, the innovation of industrial food production based on new processing methods and sources of nutrition such as insects should go hand in hand with deep knowledge about health and disease and with expert knowledge about food aesthetics and taste. This will ensure that we can succeed in developing sustainable food production which also takes into account our health and quality of life in the future.

The possibilities for the development of medicinal products and better tools to diagnose diseases are growing exponentially. On the one hand, medicine understands more and more details about the function of cells, organs and the body as a whole, while on the other, this is because researchers in chemistry develop entirely new ways of synthesising bioactive molecules. The convergence of chemical, molecular and medicinal research is simply another example of an area where research fields, knowledge, methods, concepts and processes within chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science and health research merge together.

Continuing out of the convergence tangent opens for wide-ranging perspectives: Research into the development of apps that monitor patients' disease and warn the patient and treatment professionals in time so that symptoms do not develop into serious diseases. Patients will be spared suffering and society will save on healthcare services and hospital admissions. Mutual and integrated contributions from engineering, physics and chemistry can – together with medicine – develop new ways in which we can restore damaged tissue and organs and develop intelligent limb prostheses connected to the nervous system, so the wearer feels and controls its movements.

This interdisciplinary collaboration – interdisciplinarity – is in full swing at Aarhus University, where we are continuously moulding the foundation between the health sciences and the natural sciences. Our researchers are used to utilising their core expertise in other contexts, and industry and business, agriculture and the service industries have growing interest in research projects and solutions that incorporate several research fields.

But if we are going to truly take part in the international convergence revolution, we must have political support to invest far more in convergence at national level. One place we can begin is by realising the concept of convergence in a national health science research strategy and describing the benefits.

It is essential that the knowledge which is generated in our university research laboratories benefits society. Specifically; society must be offered new and improved opportunities for the prevention and treatment of diseases. Intelligent technological and environmental breakthroughs must be utilised. This means that the traditionally focused strong academic research environments must intensify their collaboration with other disciplines and areas of expertise and do so even though this requires breaking with traditions and long-standing values and norms.

This does not mean that we have to compromise on quality and the individual researcher's high academic standards. Those values must be preserved, but as a management team we must commit ourselves to creating the framework, transparency and opportunities for building new creative constellations of intelligent and dedicated researchers who can create research breakthroughs. In this way, we can contribute to and benefit from 'the convergence revolution'.

The editorial was published in Science Report on Monday 5 November 2018.  

Research, Health and disease, Public/Media, External target group, Health, PhD students, Graduate School of Health, Academic staff, Department of Biomedicine, Department of Public Health