Medicine isn’t engineering

Elon Musk has been a role model of mine since high school; he has managed to unfalteringly push the limits of practical application, at least commercially, of engineering and applied science. I first read of his design of electric cars when I was asked to design a poster of a ‘cool’ car during a summer course at LSU between 10th and 11th grade. Since then, his list of achievements has grown, and his success in his endeavors is uncanny. PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX? Whenever I see a magazine interview with him, I usually read.

Musk recently gave a TED talk that I thought had several interesting points, the gist of which related to his driving, goal-oriented philosophy: you should see a goal, use the basic principles of physics, and work towards it bottom up.

Again, I admire Musk. I must, however, disagree with his statements. Most of my professional life has been based around biological sciences. His model is absolutely perfect when it comes to grand ideas of human self-preservation through interplanetary travel or reduction of carbon-containing gasses in the atmosphere through alternative energy sources and transport modes. These are engineering-based concepts; light can be harvested, cars can be powered, objects can be put into orbit.

However, you simply cannot apply his philosophies and emerge successful in cell culture, drug design, tissue transplantation, etc. Life sciences are so complex it takes the collective effort of the scientific community to move forward. It took 50 years from the discovery of DNA structure and function before we had sequenced the human genome – an effort which in itself was spread out across several institutions. While we are rapidly discovering new technologies, the proper integration of our discoveries is complex and demanding. Data collection and the like take time – decades, even (at the very least, you are limited by the metabolism of the organism you are studying).

On the flip side of this is another one of my role models – Craig Venter. I started looking into Venter’s work when I became interested in the field of synthetic biology. Venter has championed the field since his departure from the sequencing of the human genome. His group has engineered an entirely artificial genome among other astounding feats. However, these efforts, while still almost working with a bottom-up approach, were based on the knowledge of the collective scientific community, and have not amounted to any significant application as of yet (the potential is enormous and frighteningly amazing, but still unrealized).

My point is that when it comes to life sciences and medicine, a more expansive and thorough approach must be taken because of the very nature of the beast. It is one thing to dream of tissue-construct organ transplants; it is another to actually see that technology through to a patient with all of its risks and difficulties of application.

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