The mission of the Department of Systems Medicine and Bioengineering (SMAB) at Houston Methodist Research Institute is to engineer better medicine and effective theranostics, while training clinicians and researchers in the use of a cutting-edge systems approach to advance medicine and healthcare delivery.
Owing to the complexity of living systems, biological experiments have had to focus on individual or small numbers of components at a single level of biological organization. Such a reductionist approach has helped reveal many molecular, cellular, physiological, and ecological processes that govern life and forms the foundation of scientific education and research for centuries. Translating the rationale of the reductionist approach to medicine resulting in a framework of education and practice that is based on biological discovery and understanding of disease mechanisms, and delivered as evidence-based medicine with such scientific findings. Although the rationale remains compelling, the increasingly reductionist framework often leads to treatment of disease in isolation and neglects the dynamic interaction of all components and how they affect the human body as a whole. The reductionist approach to medicine often results in therapeutics plan focusing on the affected organ and incomplete delineation of the root cause of disease.
In biomedical sciences, the trend is moving from the traditional reductionist approach to a "systems understanding" paradigm that aims to comprehend biology and pathophysiology in a holistic manner. The application of engineering precepts to biological systems has spawned the field of systems biology. Biologists are now gaining the capability to go beyond the interactions of components within a single level of biological organization and the study of one or a few components at a time, making use of and integrating increasing amounts of -omics data, pathway information, phenotypic images, population and other quantitative data. They are increasingly able to integrate information and form network of interacting components across many organisms, from multiple levels of biological organization, such as cells, organs, and populations, and about entire systems, such as all the genes in a genome, to obtain new knowledge that incorporates more of the complexity that characterizes biological systems. The challenge now is to convert scientific advances made in molecular and cellular biology and the availability of massive amounts of experimental and clinical data systematically into medical knowledge and clinical utility that benefit patients and improve quality of life.
Extending from the engineering mindset of systems biology to bear on clinical problems, systems medicine integrates information and incorporates interactions between all components of health and disease such that existing networks, through dynamic interactions, manifest new, emergent properties that define the whole and that these properties are not simply the sum of the features of its components; expanding medicine beyond reductionism. Systems medicine integrates a variety of biological, chemical, medical and behavioral data at multiple scale of biology, ranging from genes, proteins and cells to tissues, organs, and populations using the power of computational analysis, information sciences, and mathematical modeling to better understand the disease mechanisms and devise cost-effective strategies for disease prevention and management, diagnosis and treatment. New medical knowledge gained in turn helps guide the creative development of next generation medical devices, drugs, and tools.
Advancing this holistic approach requires not only development of new organizing principles but also retention of existing scientific foundation in medicine. The department of Systems Medicine and Bioengineering (SMAB) at Houston Methodist Research Institute is formed to investigate and realize the promise of systems medicine in providing greater precision in diagnosis and therapy; better opportunity for earlier intervention, risk-based prevention, enhanced quality of care; cost-effective drug development and treatment strategies; and more optimization of the patient-clinician interface. We believe that the systematic integration of systems biology and bioengineering methodologies with experimental biology and clinical medicine holds the key to translating scientific discoveries effectively from bench to bedside and back.
Since the department’s inception in 2011, SMAB scientists and engineers, through active collaboration with physicians, patients, scientists, and caregivers at Houston Methodist and around the globe, have been at the forefront of systems medicine. Adapting the paradigm of systems medicine and directing a combination of systems biology, informatics, imaging, and bioengineering methods to pressing clinical concerns in such areas as cancer, neurology, and diabetes, our work has led to clinical trials for a new medical device and several repositioned drugs, as well as an enterprise clinical data warehouse with analytic solutions for quality improvement, outcomes research, and coordinated care.