Technology: Toward Research in Biology

From X-Rays to DNA: How Engineering Drives Biology

Edited by W. David Lee, MIT Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-262-01977-4. xii + 233 pages, US$30.

This text, primarily authored by W. David Lee, is a straightforward argument that there are many instances with a period of 40 or so years from the discovery of a technology (for example, X-rays and associated equipment) to the development and utilization of such equipment in the biologists’ laboratory such that DNA analysis could be performed. The case is made that many Nobel Prize-winning discoveries were the result of multiple years of study facilitated by technology that had evolved over a period of approximately 40 years; a few were achieved in far less time due to collaborative efforts. These enabling technologies include radioisotopes, improved imaging technologies, electrophoresis techniques, microarrays, and the like. To speed up the process, the author argues for concurrent engineering practice, where biological (or clinical) research efforts are directly supported by involved, hands-on engineers or technicians (or others) who are developing instrumentation to assist in improvements of experimental measurements (e.g., an increased number of samples analyzed per second, increased accuracy of measurements, etc.).

A total of 16 chapters outline this argument from introduction to summary. Of special interest, one chapter covers exemplars of institutional teams that have contributed well as a result of concurrent engineering (e.g., Rockefeller University, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Cambridge). Another, as an extension of the biological discussion, cites concurrent engineering breakthroughs in clinical practice. Two chapters outline unmet needs in the areas of cell signaling and cancer treatment.

In brief, the summary chapter explains that, to cut the breakthrough time from 40 years to ten or fewer, one must collaborate (biologist and engineer), have vision, find funding, and have motivation. The author suggests that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency model (and, for that matter, the moon landing effort) might best be applied to U.S. National Institutes of Health funding.

The text can be used as a discussion point when asking for funding, as there are some good arguments presented. It is not a classroom text and is heavily oriented toward research in biology. The fields of biomedical and/or biological and/or clinical engineering (personnel, exemplars, and contributions) are not considered.