By Kenneth G. Cooper
It is within our capability to reduce dramatically the long time and high cost of successful drug development for treating human disease. We can do so by adding to medical research the analysis of the elegantly complex, feedback-intensive systems of the human body—not just as a collection of components, but as systems. This is a new area of opportunity for system dynamics modeling to have a major impact on society.
Imagine…What if science had working simulation models of the feedback-intensive systems of the human body— a test-bed in which to study different diseases and rapidly test hundreds, thousands, of potential treatments and cures in advance of expensive human trials? What if we could simulate years of disease impact on the human system in a matter of minutes, thus enabling rapid searches for better solutions to complex disorders? What if that could cut drug development time by 10, 20, 30 percent? What if it could double or triple the success rate in finding effective treatments and cures for cancers, for autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders? It could transform medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. The savings in lives, suffering, and money would be enormous. We have the potential to accomplish that transformation and achieve those savings, through the collaboration of system dynamics modeling with medical research. This is an explicit call to do just that.
Why would system dynamics models be so helpful to understanding and finding cures for such intractable diseases and disorders as HIV, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s and cancers? Precisely because those disorders are systemic—they affect the whole system. Traditional reductionist research helps us understand the individual components better and better. But until we understand how the components work together and respond to diseases and treatments as a system, we are shooting perhaps not in the dark, but with very narrow blinders on, when searching for cures to humankind’s most difficult diseases.
Perhaps in the near future, rather than just pumping the body full of chemicals that aim to attack a disease, we could be influencing and improving the body’s own control mechanisms to help halt or cure disease. To do so will require a much better understanding of the human body’s system dynamics. System dynamics modeling has the potential to help integrate the separate “silos” that now dominate medical research, and enable rapid testing of treatments and cures for chronic systemic disorders that plague millions, and are such a high cost to society financially and in human suffering. Not long before his passing, Jay Forrester called this “one of the greatest new areas of opportunity for system dynamics impact.”
This is an invitation to medical researchers and SD modelers to join in this domain of work. If interested, see more discussion of what has been done and what could be done in the SD Society’s webinar video: