David Lynn

New facts of life

The study of life -- from its origins on earth to the future of human health -- is at the center of Emory's strategic initiatives.

Ever look up at the stars and wonder: "Are we alone?" These days you also might look around Emory for an answer, beginning with how the Computational and Life Sciences (CLS) strategic initiative may be redefining life.

"Ultimately what we're asking is whether life is an inherent property of matter," says David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology. Lynn's statement sounds simple, but its implications are huge. Did life arise on earth from exceptional circumstances? Or does life ordinarily emerge from matter? If the latter, life is likely abundant in the universe. Moreover, alternative forms of life might not just be discovered in outer space but also here on earth.

By alternative forms of life, we mean not just the DNA-RNA complex common to protozoans and humans, but life biochemically structured in different ways. After all, if life emerges naturally from matter, why should it have developed so singularly in the DNA-RNA form that is so visible here on earth?

Could "shadow bio-systems" also exist here on earth? Possibly so, explains Lynn. Perhaps they'll be discovered in remote subterranean areas or at the bottom of the oceans, though conceivably also all around us, given that significant portions of the biosphere remain relatively unmapped. Moreover, tantalizing evidence for the emergence of life may exist under our very noses -- or, rather, behind them. Amyloid formations in the brain, a source of Alzheimer's disease, may illustrate the self-assembly of pre-biotic structures necessary as a condition for life.

Transformative analytical power

Not just the origins, but life processes themselves are being analyzed in new ways in the Computational and Life Sciences strategic initiative. Consider the power packed into the combination of those two words: "computational" and "life." We've seen digitization transform entire industries from telecommunication to entertainment. The same is happening across academic fields and dramatically in the life sciences. Digitization allows scholars to analyze life processes at an amazing new level of microscopic intricacy as well as macroscopic synthesis. For instance, a faculty member recruited under the initiative, professor of mathematics and computer science Alessandro Veneziani, is developing models of blood flow to help physicians treat strokes. Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics and biology, is seeking to model the fundamental ways in which living organisms process information and adapt to their environment. The fact that faculty in mathematics, computer science, and physics are making such contributions to the life sciences and medicine shows the exciting multidisciplinary range of the CLS initiative.

"The CLS has been a tremendous return on investment," says Vaidy Sunderam, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Computer Science and the initiative's director. Funding for CLS, he reports, has been recouped 10-fold in new grants. Not to mention the tremendous student interest in new courses and a new doctoral track in biomedical informatics. Computational methods are key to the future of life-altering technologies as well as new ways of practicing health care developed by another strategic initiative, Predictive Health and Society.

Changing the health care paradigm

Emory currently populates the first two Google pages on the topic of predictive health. That's the result of the strategic plan identifying at the start of the new millennium a hitherto relatively unexplored field that may transform health care in the coming century.

The very success of the predictive health initiative now makes it difficult to recall how bold it was at the time. "It literally was courageous," says Michelle Lampl, one of the leaders of the initiative and professor of anthropology and director of the Emory Center for the Study of Human Health. "The initiative was huge," adds Greg Martin, professor of medicine and director of Predictive Health's Center for Health Discovery and Well Being.

The goal of the initiative was nothing less than to promote a paradigm shift. "From disease care to health care" was the goal announced by the strategic plan. You might call it a revision of the Hippocratic Oath: from "do no harm" to "do good." As Martin describes it, the predictive health vision was "nothing short of radical" in trying to move the medical system from a disease focus to a health focus. Of course, all of this depends on understanding what health is and how to advance it.

Research in the initiative focused on new and proactive definitions of health. Multiple investigations included discovering optimal biomarkers and determining practical interventions to preserve, enhance, and prolong health. The Center for Health Discovery and Well Being led the way in this pioneering research effort. Unlike other big medical research initiatives typically focused on the genome or discrete diseases, investigators from all schools at Emory developed a richly holistic portrait of more than 700 people, capturing phenotypic, behavioral, and environmental information. "The breadth of the Emory predictive-health data base," says Martin, "is unmatched anywhere."

Harnessing that data to advance health was the second big part of the initiative. The center documented through its innovative Health Partners programs that relatively small, day-to-day changes in behavior over time add up to significant improvements in health and well-being. Key to the success of this program is the concept of partnership -- patients are no longer passive. Instead, they learn about their health, work with a Health Partner to develop practical programs and realizable goals, and take responsibility for their own health.

The significance of this approach for education, says Lampl, has been "explosive." Leading the way in this area, Lampl has helped transform the experience of Emory College students, beginning with a mandatory class for freshman to the new Center for the Study of Human Health. The ramifications are rippling out from the classroom to the dorms and even back home to the families of students. The predictive health initiative is providing a foundation for students to achieve deeper self-understanding and ownership of their health. The study of biology, anthropology, and history, among other fields, all intersect in helping students to understand their family's health history and habits and how health is construed in a variety of cultures. This individualization of health care is critical, Lampl says. It not only promotes individual ownership of one's health but also appreciation of the variety of ways to be healthy. "There are many pathways for the body," she says, "and Emory is a pioneer in mapping these."

From individual to global

Last fall, President Wagner addressed a global gathering of bioethicists in Rome. Speaking in his capacity as vice chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, Wagner laid out how bioethics is not only intrinsically interdisciplinary but also international. "Just as complex scientific and ethical questions do not recognize traditional academic and professional boundaries," Wagner noted, "neither do they stop at international borders. The rapid globalization of research has not only new boundaries for collaboration, but also new challenges and concerns."

Acting on some of those concerns, Emory professor Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec received a call from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy last fall in the wake of the Ebola outbreak to discuss how to forecast the next big pandemic, using dengue virus as a case study. Recruited through Emory's strategic plan to the college's Department of Environmental Sciences and the Global Health Institute, Vazquez-Prokopec is one of a growing number of faculty addressing health and disease through multidisciplinary perspectives that combine the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities. Vazquez-Prokopec studies how rapid urbanization around the globe is leading to the emergence and spreading of new diseases as well as the virulent re-emergence of old diseases. With research projects in the United States, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, and Peru, he envisions Emory one day taking a prominent role within a network of global health laboratories stationed around the planet to detect and help contain disease outbreaks.

Whether it's the origins of life or its future, the strategic plan has enabled Emory to become a globally recognized center for the life sciences and pioneering health care.