Comment: Medical research doesn’t have the numbers

By Staff Writers
Thursday, 09 February, 2012


By Professor Douglas Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

I would like to paint a picture of the increasing importance of mathematics in a modern medical research institute and to leave you in no doubt to as to the challenges we face over the next 20 years in an area of traditional strength unless we can markedly increase the pool of mathematicians, computational scientists and mathematically literate biologists who decide to use their skills to tackle biological problems generally and medical research problems specifically.

To do this let me introduce the Institute that I head, the Walter And Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

The institute is located in Parkville, in the middle of a major medical research precinct. We are located opposite the University of Melbourne and are surrounded by three major teaching hospitals (the Royal Melbourne, the Royal Women’s and the Royal Children’s Hospitals).

We are a relatively large institute – we have around 60 laboratory heads – and approximately 500 academic research staff who work in three major areas: cancer, infectious disease and immune and inflammatory diseases.

To state the obvious, we are a very traditional organisation in the heartland of a medical research precinct and work on mainstream areas of medical research – yet over the past 25 years we have seen a transformation.

In 1985 we opened a new building in which we had not planned for the IT revolution. We had no computer centre, no conduits for data cables and no one with a mathematics background.

Last year we opened a new building, which doubled our size. Of course we have a modern IT centre, but we also have a wonderful division of bioinformatics – a focus for the use of mathematics in biology – which now houses four laboratory heads and around 40 staff.

In addition we have another 20 mathematicians embedded within other divisions. This represents approximately 12 per cent of our scientific staff. In my lab of eight researchers, I have three bioinformaticians and am looking to recruit more.

Bioinformatics permeates every single aspect of my institute, from genomics, genetics, cell imaging, epidemiology, human cancer research, Tasmanian devil cancer research, cancer treatment, personalised medicine, infectious disease, drug discovery and development. I cannot overstate its importance.

Is what we have sufficient for our needs? Resoundingly no.

I would estimate within five years, one in five of our staff will be ‘dry’ bioinformatics-lab based as against traditional biology wet-lab based. To fill this need we will need to hire another 40 mathematicians.

This is a major challenge, but compared with other like organisations, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is in a comparatively strong position. In 1997, the previous director and the current president of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Suzanne Cory, convinced Professor Terry Speed, one of the best bioinformaticians in the world, to spend half his time at the University of California, Berkeley (where he was then based), and half his time in Melbourne.

This has been a resounding success and Terry has been a magnet for talented mathematicians, both in Australia and overseas, wanting work in the biological sciences.

There are probably only a handful of medical research institutes and university departments with meaningful bioinformatics programs in Australia. However, almost every one has listed bioinformatics as their single greatest strategic need.

I sit on the scientific advisory boards of medical research institutes in most states and the dearth of bioinformatics expertise is the number one issue vexing directors. Most medical research institutes and university departments do not have a single faculty level bioinformatician.

I would conservatively estimate that in the major medical research institutes and university departments focused on biomedical research we currently need an additional 800 bioinformaticians of various levels of seniority.

What do we need to do meet this challenge in the biomedical sector?

---PB---

We obviously need a steady stream of talented high school students electing to study mathematics at university.

We have to redouble our effort to solve the gender equity problem that afflicts every aspect of research. With bioinformaticians such as scarce resource we can not afford to disenfranchise half our talented graduates.

We must ensure the funding system for bioinformatics serves our needs in 2012, rather than being trapped in a 1960s mentality that does not deliver what Australians expect – that when the taxpayer money is being invested, the best researchers will be funded irrespective of where they work. Let me expand a little on this final point.

It has taken more than a decade for the idea that mathematics has a role in biology to permeate the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Those from non-traditional biological or medical backgrounds (such as mathematics, computer science and chemistry), all essential ingredients in 21st century science, still find it exceptionally difficult to obtain funding from the NHMRC. The NHMRC still has no fund or plan to build or fund bioinformatics capacity.

This state of affairs is compounded by Australian Research Council (ARC) policy. The ARC would be the natural source of funding for many of those individuals from non-traditional biological and medical research areas.

The ARC will certainly fund bioinformaticians and computer scientists when they work in universities; however, because of arcane funding rules, if those same bioinformaticians move to a medical research institute affiliated with a university or the oncology department on a major hospital, they would have to give up their funding, even though they are doing exactly the same research. Surely in 2012, we can do better than this.

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has the dual mission of making discoveries that shape the way scientists view the world and using those discoveries to improve disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

The success of our mission and the mission of the biomedical research community more generally is absolutely dependent on the outcomes of this forum – a secure future for mathematics in Australia.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute’s ‘Maths for the future: keep Australia competitive’ forum on Wednesday 8 February.

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