Visions: Zlatko Trajanoski, Director of the Biocenter, Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria

On the importance of interdisciplinary research, embracing data science, and finding your niche.

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Zlatko Trajanoski is Professor for Bioinformatics and head of the Institute of Bioinformatics at the Biocenter, Medical University of Innsbruck. Research in his laboratory focuses on deciphering tumor–immune cell interaction using computational and experimental approaches with the ultimate goal to enable precision immuno-oncology.

The Biocenter at the Medical University of Innsbruck was established in 2006 with the goal to become a leading institution for biomedical research in Western Austria. In 2012, 11 spatially dispersed institutes moved to a central location providing state-of-the-art infrastructure and core facilities that enable interdisciplinary biomedical research. Currently, the Biocenter hosts 30 principal investigators and 200 researchers and support staff. The Biocenter is the major hub for the bachelor and master programs in Molecular Medicine, and is supporting the undergraduate program of Medicine as well as the main PhD program at the Medical University of Innsbruck. The major research focus is on molecular and cellular mechanisms of human diseases including cancer, infectious diseases, neurological disorders, and rare diseases.

Similar to other institutions, as a result of the changes in both the research environment and society, the Biocenter at the Medical University of Innsbruck is facing major challenges that require conceptual and organizational adaptations in teaching and research. In particular, interdisciplinary wet-lab training as well as computational skills are of utmost importance in order to tackle grand challenges in medicine.  

Breaking research silos

Given the ever increasing amount of information in basic and clinical sciences and the development of novel molecular and cellular tools, it is necessary to train researchers in specific domains in order to be able to address questions using state-of-the-art or cutting-edge technologies. Such in-depth training in specific disciplines has led to remarkable progress and novel discoveries. However, at the same time it promotes the building of research silos with limited interaction between them when solving complex biomedical problems necessitates work across research areas.

A recent example that an interdisciplinary approach can lead to ground-breaking discoveries is cancer immunology. For three decades a large proportion of the cancer research efforts in academia and industry was directed towards the development of targeted agents, and a number of alterations affecting protein-coding genes in tumours were identified, which subsequently led to the development of numerous anticancer drugs approved by the regulatory agencies worldwide. However, the benefit for individual patients with advanced and/or metastatic solid cancers was modest. Major improvements were made only recently with the development of cancer immunotherapy, holding the promise to be the first systemic therapy with curative potential in a number of advanced and metastatic solid cancers. Thus, the focus shifted from considering cancer as a genetic disease to being also an immunological one. Moreover, additional aspects like the impact of the gut microbiota on the response to cancer immunotherapy imply that microbiologists can considerably contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms of resistance to immunotherapy and ultimately increase the number of patients that would benefit.

To break down the research silos a new generation of scientists is required. Although thorough training of undergraduate and graduate students in a specific discipline will remain the core component in the existing curricula, transdisciplinary courses, rotations in thematically distant labs, and seminar series with broad coverage of the scientific areas should be encouraged and actively supported by institutions and individual principal investigators. As all knowledge is interconnected, breaking down research silos will eventually lead to novel discoveries.

Embracing data science

Towards the end of the last century, scholars predicted the dusk of life sciences and the dawn of information sciences. We are now witnessing an amalgamation of molecular life sciences and data science, largely driven by the development of technologies for comprehensive and quantitative characterization of molecules and cells, such as sequencing technologies (including single-cell sequencing), mass-spectrometric profiling of proteins and metabolites, multiplexed tissue imaging, or live imaging microscopy. Analyses of the large datasets generated by these technologies used to be a domain of computer scientists and software engineers who could develop programs and administer hardware. Democratization of data science driven by ever increasing computational power and the availability of easy-to-use open-access software packages, enables now biologists not only to generate the data but also to analyze the data, generate new hypotheses, and then test them experimentally.

Moreover, given the availability of public data sets including comprehensive molecular and clinical data from tens of thousands patients, it is of utmost importance to embrace data science in order to extract information from the big data and ultimately provide knowledge. Beyond the data analytical techniques, we also have to adopt conceptual approaches developed by engineers and data scientists. For example, as in many cases the available data to analyze a complex system (e.g. an electronic circuit in engineering or cell in biology) is sparse, systematic perturbations (e.g. using white noise as input in engineering or treating cells with stimuli or inhibitors) are necessary to generate sufficient data in order to be able to extract information. Hence, beyond training in using computational tools, students would tremendously benefit from teaching of mathematical modelling and simulation techniques.

Therefore, at the Medical University of Innsbruck we are currently adapting undergraduate and graduate curricula in order to train a generation of scientists that will be comfortable with the use of both the laboratory mouse and the computer mouse. Basic and advanced courses in computational biology and digital medicine (including artificial intelligence) are being offered as well as on-site training in computational analyses and with fellow bioinformaticians.

Where is the niche?

Junior principal investigators in general, and the new generation of junior principal investigators embracing interdisciplinary research, are facing additional challenges as they cannot keep up with the fast technological developments due to the limited financial resources that are available for setting up and maintaining cutting-edge instrumentation and establishing novel techniques. Hence, identification of a research niche where an important contribution can be made is the preferred choice. Yet, easy to say but difficult to master, the right choice of a niche where competitive research can be carried out depends on a number of factors. Previous experience, available expertise, advice from board members of senior researchers, available resources like a unique collection of samples, cellular or mouse models, or current trends can contribute to the definition of the research focus. A piece of advice to junior faculty members is to be open-minded, to critically reflect on one’s own achievements and failures, and to be courageous to redirect focus. As previously elaborated, all knowledge is interconnected and a niche can arise quickly in an area that seemed distant.

Zlatko Trajanoski

Photo credits: Medical University of Innsbruck

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