At the second annual “Implementing Systems Biology” conference in September in Boston, Steve Naylor, a professor of genomics and genetics at Boston University School of Medicine who helped organize the IBC-sponsored conference, posed an ostensibly simple question: Does it really even matter if the scientific community agrees to a standard definition of what systems biology means?
As with many questions, it depends whom you ask. Don Halbert, the director of genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics at Abbott Laboratories, told the eclectic group of attendees that, as far as big pharma is concerned, defining the concept of systems biology is irrelevant. What matters, he says, is whether combining data from various sources to model biological systems can actually make drug discovery more productive. From a more cynical perspective, he adds that throwing the term around is potentially useful as a means of rattling the corporate coffers for additional funding.
Jeff Peterson, on the other hand, countered that from an engineering viewpoint, establishing a consensus for what constitutes computational systems biology would serve the purpose of getting everyone on the same page. “A definition is useful to help determine who’s doing what,” says Peterson, a chemical engineer by training who spent stints as a manager at General Electric and Abbott South Africa. In general, he adds, “If you can’t model it, you don’t understand it.”
But the analogy with engineering only goes so far, said Michael French, chief business officer for Entelos. Unlike in the physical sciences, where scientists understand the components of the system and attempt to model its behavior on the basis of how those components interact, in the life sciences researchers understand the phenotypic behavior of the system — not the underlying components. “It’s a whole different approach to modeling,” he says.
Other presentations at the conference provided evidence that biologists are making advances in understanding the fundamental actors of biology in an engineering sense, and how to use those in simulations. Mirit Aladjem, a researcher at the NCI, spoke about her lab’s approach to codifying bioregulatory networks in terms easily understood mathematically [see following story], and Richard Petti, marketing intelligence director for The Math Works, maker of the ubiquitous MatLab engineering software, says his company is developing a program designed specifically for modeling biological systems. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the scientific community can decide on a standard defintion of systems biology — the general concept is catching on.
—John S. MacNeil