The Promise of Discovery

Alex Garruss is propelled by his quest to understand the great mysteries of life

The Promise of Discovery
Alex Garruss. Image: Aaron Washington

This essay was written for the 2017-2018 HMS Dean's Report in answer to the question "What is the promise of biomedicine to me?"

For me, biomedicine is a spaceship that allows us to travel to center of one of the universe’s great mysteries: ourselves.

Consider that we are part of an unbroken chemical reaction that started billions of years ago from the first life forms. Look how far we have come and how nature has shaped us into ever more complex beings.

Biomedicine is propelled by the quest to understand the great mysteries of life and by our collective mission to keep each other and the planet healthy.

Biomedical research is a portal we can use to gain insight into the molecular and genetic determinants of life. Our collective effort involves examining and understanding all of the various forms, structures, and beauty within life, the exquisite orchestration of function, and the deeply mysterious processes of development and healing.

The promise of biomedicine is an understanding of how life works, so that we can recognize when and why things go wrong. Biomedicine is now integrating with previously separate disciplines, such as computer science, so that we may study hundreds of thousands of human genomes, each containing billions of data points. The goal is to discover causal relationships between differences in people’s genes and their risk for certain diseases.

The process of sifting through this data has attracted some of the world’s most talented computer programmers, while it has also leveraged the power of supercomputers using advanced artificial intelligence methodologies. The computational frontier of biomedicine is helping to give us a system’s view and understanding of life, which is, in turn, revealing new avenues for cures and therapies.

As new fields converge in biomedical research, we continue to learn more about ourselves, our nature, and the epic history which has gotten us to where we are now. And this understanding provides us with new ways to help and protect life.

For instance, biomedical research guides the process of establishing links between harmful environmental exposures and the onset of certain diseases, the breakdown of ecosystems, and the losses of biodiversity. This allows scientists to make the case for prohibiting certain chemicals due to harmful effects; their studies shape new laws and approaches to policy.

Biomedical research has also generated entirely new paradigms to address global challenges, such as the planet’s unfortunate reliance on fossil fuels. New developments in the field of synthetic biology have resulted in the ability to produce biofuels from algae that require little more than sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. These organisms and others are being designed to manufacture hundreds of chemicals so that we will no longer require petroleum, toxic mining, processing and pollution. The process is like brewing beer. Biomedicine is borrowing the technology from nature to brew environmental and medical solutions.

Related developments have removed the need to even use a living host for the manufacture of biomolecules, supporting the production of vaccines and medicines on-demand. Such a strategy bypasses the burden of cold storage and expensive transport, permitting more people in need to acquire essential medicines.

Biomedicine has propelled molecular design and engineering to a place where tiny sensors, genetically encoded and close to a billionth of a meter in size, can be employed in natural ecosystems for the discovery of new medicines, such as antibiotics. Similar sensors can monitor farms and report on crop and soil health, and they can be employed as wearable devices for real-time personal health monitoring. They can even be used inside our bodies to track the state of our health.

Biomedicine is propelled by the quest to understand the great mysteries of life and by our collective mission to keep each other and the planet healthy.