An Introduction to Systems Medicine


Systems thinking is a new paradigm shift in our approach to dealing with problems. Systems thinking places more emphasis on the connection between different objects across the same or different networks, unlike the more conventional reductionist approach. Unlike the current approach of dealing with the parts of a system to know about the system as a whole, systems approach is based on a new thinking wherein,

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts”

The difference in the whole and the sum of its parts are the properties which hold true for the system, but not for the parts. Such properties have aptly been termed emergent properties. Let my words not paint a picture of systems thinking as involving systems

The Web of Life

bound to each other in a hierarchical order. On the contrary, the very rationale of systems thinking lies in the overlapping systems with blurred boundaries.

“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole”.

Werner Heisenberg

The following video describes how the core biological processes are defined by networks of interactions, and these networks in turn can interacting with each other as well, either within a given cell, between cells in a given tissue, or between organs in a complex organism. By organizing the vast array of molecular phenotypes into networks that define the functional units within and between tissues, links to physiological states can be made, thereby providing a direct path for molecular biology to impact clinical medicine.

Here is another video in which Leroy Hood, co-founder of the Institute of Systems Biology, shares his opinions on how systems approaches to medicine along with better visualization techniques and computational tools to interpret the enormous biological data would revolutionize medicine in the next 10 to 20 years. He envisions a future where each patient would surrounded by a virtual data cloud of billion of data points generated from all the omics technologies combined. Such a medicine would be predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory (P4). You can read my earlier posts on the meaning of P4 and the technical challenges to it, if you haven’t seen them before.

If this post has made you wonder about how the upcoming, holistic systems approach is better than the current, reductionist approach and would like to read more, I suggest you to start with this beautiful book by Fritjof Capra, titled  The Web of Life (I am mid-way into the book). Fritjof Capra is himself one of the pioneers of systems thinking. The book tracks the rise of systems thinking amidst the clutter of reductionist thinking.

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