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Stanford ChEM-H: Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health


John Todd
May 15 2014

Given a year to mature, the Institute for Chemical Biology is relaunching under a new name that better reflects its vision of bringing Stanford's unique interdisciplinary culture to bear at a new frontier of chemistry.


Last summer Stanford launched the Institute for Chemical Biology as a joint venture of the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences with the goal of encouraging interdisciplinary research and training at a new frontier of chemistry, that of human health. Given a year to mature, the institute is relaunching under a new name that better reflects this vision: Stanford ChEM-H.

Stanford Report spoke with the institute's director, Chaitan Khosla (the Wells H. Rauser and Harold M. Petiprin Professor in the School of Engineering and professor of chemistry), about the new name, his goals for the ChEM-H and the challenge of bridging the worlds of chemistry and biology.

ChEM-H is an unusual term. What does it represent?

The term ChEM-H has two meanings. In one, it is shorthand for an emerging interdisciplinary area of chemistry that this institute will support; that is, using the principles and tools of chemistry to better understand and advance human health. It is also an acronym for the fields that will need to come together for us to be successful (Chemistry, Engineering and Medicine for Human health).

Stanford is in a unique position to bring those fields together in a meaningful way. We have strong schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences, all within walking distance. We are also very close to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where researchers can visualize individual molecules of life and their interactions in unprecedented atomic detail.

You've talked about a new frontier in chemistry. What do you mean by that?

The core value of chemistry remains timeless, even to a high school student. Chemistry is the science that makes new forms of matter and measures its properties at an atomic level. That said, I see the field of chemistry as being at an inflection point analogous to a period of time immediately after the transistor was invented. As mathematicians started to recognize the capabilities of this device, the field of computer science emerged.

In a similar way, the human genome project has created a resource that opens the door to understanding human biology in the language of chemistry. Up to this point, the impact of chemistry on our world has been profound – all the synthetic products we use in our daily lives are a result of chemical ingenuity. This, of course, includes a vast majority of medicines that society has come to rely upon so heavily. I predict that the emerging frontier between chemistry and human biology will challenge future generations of chemists and molecular engineers to elevate their design, synthetic and analytical skills to new heights. In turn, these pursuits will fundamentally alter our understanding of who we are as a species and as individuals.

What prompted this push to bring together chemistry, biology, engineering and medicine?

Back in 1987 my colleague Arthur Kornberg wrote an insightful piece for Biochemistry in which he talked about chemistry as the universal language, but said, "Unfortunately, the full use of this language to understand life processes is hindered by a gulf that separates chemistry from biology."

I would say that very little has changed in the past 25 years. Chemists and biologists do not speak the same language. To the extent they engage each other in academia and industry, they do so on a need-to-know basis. This hinders the two communities from fully exploiting each other's tools and thought processes. It also unnecessarily compartmentalizes the most important foundational knowledge base of modern healthcare.  

During this same time period, engineers have started to focus their problem-solving skills on the grand challenges of medicine. Twenty-five years ago, when I interviewed for the position of assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at Stanford, my senior colleagues found it amusing that an engineer could be so hooked on molecular biology. Today, biomolecular engineers embrace chemistry with gusto, as they seek out more and more powerful tools to enhance the efficiency of their design-build-test cycles at an atomic level.        

At the core of ChEM-H is rethinking the way that chemists, biologists, engineers and clinicians are educated. I envision a new breed of physician-scientist-engineers who would make Arthur proud through their facility with the languages of biology and chemistry. They will identify important challenges in human health with the eyes of a clinician. And they will think like engineers, as they harness tools from chemistry and biology to drive toward fundamentally grounded yet resource-efficient solutions to these problems. 

To someone who doesn't know the field, ChEM-H sounds a bit like biochemistry. How are they different?

ChEM-H provides an invaluable sense of purpose to chemistry as the field orients itself toward human biology. Because the emphasis is on humans, and because of the unique ethical and practical challenges associated with studying humans, the engagement of molecular engineers and clinicians is essential in ChEM-H.  

Biochemists have generally studied the molecular basis of life in test tubes or by using surrogate organisms that are easily maintained in a lab, such as plants, bacteria, yeast, flies or worms. Much of what is learned applies to humans, but the focus has not traditionally been specific to humans or human health.

Look ahead 10 years. What will Stanford ChEM-H have achieved?  

ChEM-H will have created a flourishing community of researchers who are advancing the frontiers of human health from a chemical and engineering perspective. Some of these scientists will be new faculty recruits, in partnership with the schools of Medicine, Humanities & Sciences, and Engineering. Others may be highly accomplished and entrepreneurial chemists from industry, who are motivated to collaborate with Stanford's biologists and clinicians on projects where a well-designed molecular tool can blaze a trail from the bench to the bedside. The ability of ChEM-H to connect existing faculty from Stanford and SLAC's physical, chemical and biomedical communities via seed grant programs will also pay off handsomely.

The power of ChEM-H lies in the fact that it does not seek to displace or compete with Stanford's awesome disciplinary strengths in chemistry, biology, engineering and medicine. Rather, the institute aspires to strengthen these disciplines by expanding their intellectual boundaries and helping them attract the kinds of students who aspire to reinvent the health care industry from the ground floor upward. These researchers will speak chemistry, love to tinker on a length-scale a million times tinier than the width of a human hair, and only show deference to the laws of thermodynamics. Their achievements will define ChEM-H more profoundly than any words can.

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