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V CRG Symposium. "Systems Biology: A Cell in the Computer?"

V CRG Symposium. "Systems Biology: A Cell in the Computer?"V CRG Symposium. "Systems Biology: A Cell in the Computer?"

15/12/2006 16/12/2006
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V CRG Symposium. "Systems Biology: A Cell in the Computer?"

Dr. Aiguader 88, Barcelona, Spain


Scientists have been in a quandary about definitions of Systems Biology for the past few years. These range from collections of physiological data with quantified molecular parts lists (e.g. genes, expression levels, localizations) to abstract mathematical modelling of biological processes. The scale at which Systems Biology focuses is also a matter of contention: A tiny protein can be a complicated biological system (we still don’t know how it folds) as is obviously an entire ecosystem with thousands of species. In any case "Systems Biology" certainly aims at a quantitative understanding of biological systems to an extent that one is able to predict systemic features and with the hope to rational design and modify their behaviour. This applies to any system comprising biological components that is more than the mere sum of its components, or, in other words, the addition of the individual components results in systemic properties that could not be predicted by considering the components individually.

What do we hope to accomplish in modern Systems Biology approaches? It starts with standardised data collection, archiving and management. Proper Integration of the data allows comparative evaluation, orthogonal to the common aspect on isolated subsystems (comparative genomics would fall into this already). A next step would be the idealized reconstruction of the experimental situation close to reality (if the cell is represented as a circle, models become almost perfect). This is the preposition for studying the internal consistency of concepts and allows a more global interpretation of the experimental data. An important component is the ability to generalize from the experimental setup (that is often limited) to the system under study, which includes testing of the consequences. Even more, we expect to extrapolate to concepts that are inaccessible to current experimentation and hope to arrive at novel concepts that are not deducible from the details.

Obvious applications of Systems Biology are in the field of Medicine. At the moment, the way medicine works is by using very similar drugs and treatments for everyone. We are all aware of the multibillion losses that Pharmaceutical companies have suffered in the last years due to the commercialization of drugs that, although beneficial for a large part of the population are harmful for certain groups of people. Treatment of diseases today remains still to a large extent the same as when aspirin was discovered. Essentially either serendipitously or through the identification of putative targets in basic research a massive screening is done (helped nowadays by computers), and candidate drugs are then tested on different systems to assess their toxicity and potency. Drugs that pass this stage are then validated by very costly medical trails involving thousands of patients. All this procedure is very costly and inefficient and it is based on the assumption that human diseases can be cured with a single drug. However, it is quite obvious that the majority of us will not die because of a single faulty gene, but because of the combination of many small alterations on different genes (multifactorial diseases) combined with our life style. Multifactorial diseases are hard to treat since they involve more than one gene product in an organism, often working in different cellular pathways. Thus we need first to be able to understand in a quantitative way how a complex biological system operates, to be able to tackle the variations of human response to drug treatment, or multifactorial diseases. This is precisely the main aim of Systems Biology.

In this symposium we have invited top experts in the fields from Europe and the USA to cover and review all aspects of systems biology, ranging from the design of new processes in biological systems to the implications of systems biology for human health.