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    Jenni Laidman will interview Phillip Sharp at the Kentucky Center tonight. Click here for more information and tickets. 

    A little more than a decade ago Phillip A. Sharp, one of four Kentuckians to ever win a Nobel Prize, started to wonder if he could spend his time more wisely.

    Sure, by that point in his career, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor had founded one of the world’s first biotech companies — the hugely successful Biogen, which he helped create in 1978. And, yes, he’d won that Nobel in 1993 for figuring out that RNA, the stuff in our cells that carries out DNA’s protein-making messages, wasn’t an exact copy of DNA, as had long been believed. Instead, RNA represented a splicing of discontinuous segments of DNA. And don’t forget the brain science center he helped found at the MIT in 2000 — and he’s not even a neuroscientist.

    Yet, despite those accomplishments, he thought he might do better.

    “I was mostly wasting my time,” he said in an interview Friday afternoon. Phillip Sharp himself wasn’t really the problem. The problem was science. DNA sequencing technology, which came on the scene in the early 1990s, had changed everything, and yet scientists hadn’t begun to mine its potential. Everests of genomic information were erupting as a result of the increasing ability to rapidly translate the genetic code, yet Sharp and every other scientist continued plodding along, “one gene at a time.” Mapping the genome meant the possibility of understanding the cellular processes that drive disease. It created the possibility of medicine tailored to individuals. But making the scope of the information useful was a huge task, one beyond the capabilities of one-gene-at-a-time research. “I needed a more holistic view to really make significant insights,” Sharp said. “I’m not interested in just publishing another paper. (He’s published about 400.) That was long gone! I’m interested in trying to change how we do science.”

    Who says stuff like this? Who says they’re going to “change how we do science”?

    Sharp is a very determined guy. He always has been. When he was 6 years old he started saving for college. The family lived near Falmouth, the seat of Pendleton County, which lies between Cincinnati and Lexington. His dad had a high school education. His mom completed eighth grade. But Sharp’s parents thought he was college material, so after his father bought a farm, his parents gave their son a calf every year to raise for market. They gave him a small tobacco patch to work. Every penny he earned went into his college fund. He made up his mind that’s what he’d do, and he never deviated. “That’s exactly the decision you have to make. I made every decision that way from the time I was 6,” Sharp said. He could buy a toy train, or he could go to college; he could buy a bike, or he could go to college; he could buy a car, or he could go to college. He went to college. His savings paid for a year and a half of tuition at Union College in Barbourville, 150 miles south of Falmouth. A summer job and a student loan paid for the rest of the $1,000 per semester school tuition.

    He’s still determined, and he became determined to help change science. It could do better. He could do better. “I’m not happy working really hard to do a little bit more,” he explained. “I’m happy when I can bang my head against something that allows me to change how science is done.”

    And thus was born what he calls “the third revolution” in bioscience. In Sharp’s formulation of history, the first revolution was the elucidation of DNA’s structure in 1953 and the birth of molecular biology and biotechnology that followed. The second revolution, Sharp says, was the complete sequencing of the human genome in 2003, the discoveries that introduced. The third revolution, the one he and others have been fomenting for about a decade, is “a convergence of all this first and second revolution” by integrating biology with information technology, physics and engineering in the pursuit of answers — the marriage of divergent disciplines for convergent discovery.

    “Convergence is a blueprint for innovation,” Sharp said in a lecture at U of L Thursday. “Advances in information technology, materials science, imaging, nanotechnology, optics and quantum physics. Plus, advances in computer technology, modeling and simulations have already transformed the physical sciences: that’s self-driving cars. That’s everything we’re talking about. And they’re now beginning to transform life sciences.”

    MIT today is ringed by bioscience firms, companies from those first two revolutions, including the company Sharp was associated with for nearly 30 years, Biogen, as well as Pfizer, Sanofi and Genzyme. Sharp showed a picture of one biotech-friendly neighborhood at night; glowing in center was the prominent logo of Google, one of the information technology companies rushing to join with bioscience in this third revolution.

    MIT created the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in pursuit of convergence; Sharp is an institute professor. At Koch, twelve engineers and twelve cancer biologists work together in a building designed to engender interaction between the disciplines, with one common dining room, and all the lavatories in one place — no kidding, he said this was part of the plan to make scientists rub shoulders. Just as important, there’s incentive funding that rewards collaboration. Engineering graduate students hold tutorials for biologists and biologists hold them for engineers, further ensuring cross pollination.

    To create similar convergence, UofL and other universities would need to create an environment in which physicians, biological scientists, biochemists and cell biologists were motivated to work with engineers, physicists, computational scientists and vice versa, Sharp said.

    “You have to find social structures that encourage them to meet and mix with each other. They have to have some money to actually support joint science. They probably need to create some facilities where the technology, where the engineers and physicists and computationalists and biologists come together to solve problems. And then there’s a demand for education of the physician/biologist about what problems can be solved with a quantitative engineering approach. And engineers need to be educated about the opportunities in biology,” Sharp said.

    Signs of this evolution at MIT include a distinct change in the makeup of engineers at MIT. Forty years ago, it was rare to find an MIT engineer with an interest in life sciences. Even a decade ago, perhaps 5 percent of engineers had some life science focus, Sharp said. Today, about a third of all MIT engineers are involved in some aspect of the life sciences, he reports. “And that third is the youngest third in the engineering department,” he said. “That means it’s going to grow.”

    Sharp and several others created another biotech firm that depends on such convergence, Alnylam, which has several treatments in the pipeline including treatments for hemophilia, high cholesterol and a life-threatening disease called hereditary ATTR amyloidosis.

    Several other universities are taking on similar “convergence” initiatives, Sharp said, including the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech and Stanford. But there is still a ways to go. For instance, today only 3 percent of National Institute of Health investigators have appointments in engineering or physics, he said. To meet the future of convergence, that share will be higher.

    “Yes, it’s going to be hard,” Sharp said. “It’s going to take 10 years to do it. Yes people are going to resist it, because they don’t want to change. Yes, they may not believe that it’s important, but I don’t give a damn.

    “I’m confident that this is what we need to do to do science to make a difference,” Sharp said. “You just have to start talking about it.”

    Cover image: Phillip Sharp


    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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