Over the past 50 years, advances in science and engineering –– many of which came from MIT –– have resulted in dramatic changes in medical care –– and the future holds much promise for even more extraordinary developments in the future. Advances in information and computer technology and in the recent molecular and genomic revolutions are being made possible by an unprecedented wave of interdisciplinary cooperation.

This new collaboration is not only transforming the world of medicine but also is transforming human health. In the next two decades, more sophisticated biomedical devices and techniques, along with new imaging methods, could lead to more accurate diagnosis and better treatment of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, among others.

Already under way at MIT are new materials built from bio-molecules that possess many of the qualities found in living skin and muscle, and researchers are now growing new cartilage tissue and new bone. Within a few decades, some predict it will be possible to grow a new lung or even a new heart.

MIT has a rich tradition of applying engineering techniques to medical problems, and a new generation of pioneers at MIT already have made dramatic breakthroughs.

For example, Robert Langer, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, is considered the father of controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering. Among his groundbreaking insights is a pharmacy-on-a-chip that time-releases medicine and a dime-sized wafer that delivers chemotherapy to the brain, the first effective new treatment for brain cancer in two decades.

Ioannis V. Yannas, professor of polymer science and engineering, developed the sophisticated technology that has made it possible for surgeons across the country to implant artificial skin on burn patients. And Linda Griffith, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, built a colony of liver cells on a tiny wafer of silicon.

The liver chip has the potential to test the toxicity of new drugs and has caught the attention of the U.S. Defense Department for its potential in detecting biological toxins.

By taking advantage of a cross-disciplinary academic approach, MIT is now vigorously setting the nation’s pace in educating a new generation of leaders and opening new directions in many cutting-edge research programs.

One example of an area that has blossomed as a result of MIT’s unique approach to science study is neuroscience, one of the premier growth areas of the next decade.

We have now created new cross-disciplinary research enterprises, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Center for Learning and Memory, where we are adding world-class faculty and seeking out the best students to help advance understanding of the brain. (In spring 2000, Spectrum devoted the cover story to MIT’s exciting work under way on the study of the mind and brain.)

MIT’s expertise in these areas gives us the ability to collaborate effectively with other institutions focused on medical science. MIT scientists and engineers are collaborating daily with experts at Boston’s world-class hospitals, and we are now also working with the MIT affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, an international leader in the Human Genome Project, to increase synergies across disciplines.

MIT’s Biological Engineering Division (BE), founded in 1998, aims to educate students how biological systems work, enabling them to apply their design perspectives to create innovative, biology-based technologies not only in the medical diagnostic and therapeutic industries but in other industries as well.

And MIT recently launched the Computational and Systems Biology Initiative, which brings biologists and computer scientists together to use the tools from both fields to better understand how genes and cells work in order to improve health.

The Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology is a 30-year collaboration among MIT, Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, and its affiliated teaching hospitals and research centers. It is among the largest biomedical engineering and physician-scientist training programs in the country.

These are just some examples of collaborative research now under way. In the next 10 to 25 years, we will see advances in curing human disease that could dwarf anything seen in the past. They will change the face of our health care system in unprecedented ways that surely will be for the greater good, and we are proud that MIT is poised to be a world leader in bringing about this long-dreamed about transformation.

Charles M. Vest

Charles M. Vest