Doug Lauffenburger looks like the kind of guy who might love a good mystery.
Or be in one.
His bone white hair falls just short of thick round glasses as he folds his hands and ponders the best way to answer a question. In his office, light from slatted windowpanes stairsteps across the large L-shaped desk behind him, where neatly organized stacks of paper await Doug’s attention.
The question he’s currently turning over in his mind: What inspired you to combine your lifelong training as a chemical engineer with your love of biology? After a few moments, Doug responds, “In contrast to engineering, biology has always been very mysterious. It’s unpredictable.”
But, he says, it can be more predictable now that he and scientists like him have been studying the most basic components of life not as biologists, but as engineers.
Doug is head of the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT, one of the newest and fastest growing scientific fields, which marries the elusive, hypothesis-driven elements of the life sciences with the more data-based, analytical fields of engineering and technology.
According to Doug, not a lot of people even know what biological engineering really is—including top-level academics and researchers at MIT. Many people incorrectly assume bioengineers spend their time creating gadgets that incorporate technology into biology (like MRIs and mind-controlled prosthetics that help scientists study or solve a specific problem), but typical bioengineering actually reverses the arrow from life science to engineering. Instead of trying to make a tool or machine to meet a biological need, bioengineers apply the methods of engineering (math, physics, chemistry, computer science) to biology, itself, by developing models to make predictions and create useful things from the elements of nature.
“We want to understand biology in our own terms,” says Doug. “Where traditional biology is hypothesis driven, systems biology (a sub-field of biological technology), is data-driven. The notion is that biology is so complex it’s kind of vain to think you can formulate hypotheses based on single observations. With a data driven mindset you use the data available to turn what’s there into a computational model.”
Unlike most traditional biologists, bioengineers don’t study just one piece of a natural puzzle at a time—rather, they take all those pieces and plug them into a network of 1’s and 0’s. The computer takes over from there, rearranging the whole thing into a predictive picture.
To illustrate, imagine you’ve been living with a life-threatening cancer. Once recognized, doctors might only have one round of treatment to fight the disease effectively, and the odds of killing all the cancer before it kills you are about as good with any one drug as they are with another. Hopefully, your doc’s got good intuition, and chooses the right one. I repeat: hopefully.
Doug is working to reduce this kind of uncertainty. In his office at MIT, many of the tidy stacks of paper on his desk contain data that will someday be used to help doctors of the future make better decisions about what their patients need based on each one’s unique physiology, not just their ailments. “People would tell you you’re crazy if you said you wanted a treatment that’s specific to your own genetic makeup, but creating that kind of system is exactly what we want to do,” says Doug.
While computational models of living cell behavior have already been successfully applied to the unnatural environment of a petri dish, Doug and a team of researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital recently completed the first ever attempt to apply systems biology “in vivo,” that is, in a living animal. In March, they successfully modeled (predicted) the behavior of mouse intestinal cells in the presence of the natural chemical TNF (tumor necrosis factor). Knowing how the thousands of proteins inside cells will behave in a dish is one thing, but adding the involvement of a body’s own complex chemistry is a huge step towards creating better, more predictive therapies in the medical field.
“Organisms don’t behave according to laws, like particles do in physics; you can’t ever predict with certainty what’s going to happen when a drug or bacteria is introduced into an animal or human body,” says Doug. “But my work is focused on improving those odds, and we can do that now that molecular biology has isolated for us all the basic elements of life. So now what we can do is think like an engineer and build things—computer models and tangible products—from those parts.”
“The best science is going to be when both biology and technology are working together,” he says.
Just like some human couples, whose differences make them a perfect pair, the disparate fields of biology and engineering have only just recently grown up enough to benefit from each other in similar ways.
“As technology in the 20th century was influenced by chemistry and physics, in the 21st century it’s going to be influenced by biology. That may sound philosophical on a high level, but it really is that profound.”
For Doug, the profundity of his scientific work doesn’t end at the cell or the human level. As intrigued as he is by natural phenomena, Doug also directs his time and attention at MIT to exploring the holy mysteries. Doug is a faculty advisor for MIT’s Graduate Christian Fellowship and frequently councils students as they grapple with issues of science and faith. “I think as a Christian, you have to treat the biological sciences as real, because they are. Evolution happens. As a scientist, you have to work a little harder to reconcile what the Bible says with what science has shown us, and get used to being viewed as kind of the ‘crazy uncle’ by colleagues”
Crazy uncle doesn’t mean mad scientist—although, as Doug might tell you, having something of a split personality certainly holds a few academic advantages…