Many diagnostic and therapeutic techniques that have revolutionized
medicine are also symbols of the interdependence of the physical
and biomedical sciences. Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Neutron
Therapy are just two of the prominent examples of the successful
collaboration among innovative medical researchers, physical
scientists and engineers. Electron storage rings first developed for
high energy physics evolved into synchrotron light sources; they are
now so important to medical research that the National Institutes of
Health is putting millions of its own research money into building
more beam lines at synchrotron facilities.
Harold Varmus, the president of Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, former director of the
National Institutes of Health and recipient of the 1989
Nobel Prize in Medicine, wrote an Op-Ed article for the
Washington Post about a year ago discussing this
interdependence of the physical and medical sciences.
He noted that support for the physical sciences has
been falling for a decade, at the same time that support for medical
research almost doubled in real dollars. Dr. Varmus wrote:
"I first observed the interdependence of the sciences as a boy when
my father-a general practitioner with an office connected to our
house-showed me an X-ray. I marveled at a technology that could
reveal the bones of his patients or the guts of our pets. And I
learned that it was something that doctors, no matter how expert
with a stethoscope or suture, wouldn't have been likely to develop on
"Of course, the X-ray is routine now. Medical science can visualize
the inner workings of the body at far higher resolution with
techniques that sound dazzlingly sophisticated: ultrasound,
positron-emission tomography and computer-assisted tomography.
These techniques are the workhorses of medical diagnostics. And
not a single one of them could have been developed without the
contributions of scientists, such as mathematicians, physicists and
chemists supported by the agencies currently at risk.
are among the most
prominent products of
medical research, and
drug development also
relies heavily on
contributions from a
variety of sciences.
The traditional method
of random prospecting for a few promising chemicals has been
supplemented and even superseded by more rational methods
based on molecular structures, computer-based images and
chemical theory. Synthesis of promising compounds is guided by
new chemical methods that can generate either pure preparations of
a single molecule or collections of literally millions of subtle variants.
To exploit these new possibilities fully, we need strength in many
disciplines, not just pharmacology.
"Medical advances may seem like wizardry. But pull back the
curtain, and sitting at the lever is a high-energy physicist, a
combinational chemist or an engineer. Magnetic resonance imaging
is an excellent example. Perhaps the last century's greatest advance
in diagnosis, MRI is the product of atomic, nuclear and high-energy
physics, quantum chemistry, computer science, cryogenics,
solid-state physics and applied medicine.
"In other words, the various sciences together constitute the
vanguard of medical research. And it's time for Congress to treat
them that way. Sens. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Barbara
Mikulski (D-Md.) have just proposed to double the budget of the
National Science Foundation over five years. This admirable effort
should be vigorously supported and extended to include the
Department of Energy's Office of Science, which funds half of all
research in the physical sciences and maintains the national
laboratories that are central to biomedicine.
"Scientists can wage an effective war on disease only if we-as a
nation and as a scientific community-harness the energies of many
disciplines, not just biology and medicine. The allies must include
mathematicians, physicists, engineers and computer and behavioral
scientists. I made this case repeatedly during my tenure as director
of NIH, and the NIH has made significant efforts to boost its support
of these areas. But in the long run, it is essential to provide adequate
budgets for the agencies that traditionally fund such work and train
its practitioners. Moreover, this will encourage the interagency
collaboration that fuels interdisciplinary science. Only in this way will
medical research be optimally poised to continue its dazzling
I cannot improve on such an eloquent statement. I will simply add
that in most of these important medical developments, the new
technology was a result of research that was not directed at
developing medical technology. The scientists did not envision this
most beneficial use of the research they were carrying out. The
physicists who first built a laser could not have imagined the many
ways that it is used in medicine today. Science is not a collection of
many disciplines, advancing independently. It is rather an interlocking
web. If we ignore the deep connections between the many individual
fields of science, we miss the importance of the whole.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.