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The lessons from COVID-19 stimulate multidisciplinary collaboration

In a recent review published in the journal Frontiers in scienceResearchers underline the need for multidisciplinary collaboration in medicine, especially in the areas of communicable diseases, precision/personalized medicine, systems medicine and data science, based on lessons learned from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Passing the test of COVID-19: Charting the new frontiers of medicine.  Image credits: Gorodenkoff / ShutterstockPassing the test of COVID-19: Charting the new frontiers of medicine. Image credits: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

Background

The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has led to a rethinking of disease concepts, emphasizing the complex interplay of physical characteristics, genetics, comorbid conditions, socioeconomic status, and exposure to the environment. Patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 exhibit variable susceptibility to infections and clinical outcomes, necessitating a coordinated healthcare and public health approach. A new understanding of health is needed, harmonizing biological systems and health-related exposures. Stakeholders and researchers should work together to improve understanding of the links between communicable and non-communicable diseases and to investigate molecular pathways in the context of environmental and socio-economic determinants of health.

About the review

In this review, researchers propose an interdisciplinary approach to medicine, integrating communicable diseases, systems medicine, personalized medicine, data science, and public health science, while using findings from the COVID-19 pandemic for health policy implementation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the number of medical and health science publications in general, but with differences between disciplines.  (A) Actual and expected publications in all medical and health sciences, and the percentage of all articles related to COVID-19, per year between 2016 and 2023. Overall, there was an increase of approximately 9% in the number of articles published during the 'COVID-19 years', during the period 2020-2022, compared to the volume that would have been expected based on the 2009-2019 trends.  Approximately 7% of all articles published in 2020–2022 addressed or contained references to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19.  After the increase in the number of medical and health science publications between 2020 and 2022, there was a decline in publication volume in 2023.  (B) Actual and expected publications in selected research areas per year between 2016 and 2023. (C) Difference between actual and expected publication numbers between 2020 and 2023 in selected research areas (expressed as a percentage of expected publications) and the share of all actual articles related related to COVID-19.  The 2008 Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC) was applied to identify publications in the field of “Medical and Health Sciences” within Dimensions (data up to January 1, 2024), using machine learning to identify publications in research fields to sort.  The expected publication numbers for 2020–2022 are calculated based on an exponential trend line based on the actual annual publication numbers of 2009–2019 in relevant fields.  To correct for the indexation lag of publications, an estimated total publication volume for 2023 has been used.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the number of medical and health science publications in general, but with differences between disciplines. (A) Actual and expected publications in all medical and health sciences, and the percentage of all articles related to COVID-19, by year between 2016 and 2023. Overall, there was an increase of approximately 9% in the number of articles published during the “COVID-19 years”, during the period 2020–2022, compared to the volume that would have been expected based on the 2009–2019 trends. About 7% of all articles published in 2020-2022 related to or contained references to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. After the increase in the number of medical and health science publications between 2020 and 2022, there was a decline in publication volume in 2023. (B) Actual and expected publications in selected research areas per year between 2016 and 2023. (C) Difference between actual and expected publication numbers between 2020 and 2023 in selected research areas (expressed as a percentage of expected publications) and the share of all actual articles that were COVID-19 related. The 2008 Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC) was applied to identify publications in the field of “Medical and Health Sciences” within Dimensions (data up to January 1, 2024), using machine learning to identify publications in research fields to sort. The expected publication numbers for 2020–2022 are calculated based on an exponential trend line based on the actual annual publication numbers of 2009–2019 in relevant fields. To correct for the indexation lag of publications, an estimated total publication volume for 2023 has been used.

New approaches to combating communicable diseases

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has greatly affected medical and health science research, accelerating advances in biomedical science. Vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, antimicrobials, mathematical models and multinational collaboration have changed the methods of controlling communicable diseases. Vaccines have helped reduce the public health and social disasters caused by infectious organisms such as SARS-CoV-2.

The comeback of tuberculosis (TB) and the high burden of malaria in low- and middle-income countries have refocused global attention on the fight against neglected diseases. A more comprehensive, global strategy is needed to prevent and alleviate the impact of future pandemics. New technologies, including synthetic biology, tools, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) constructs, and viral vectors, have accelerated vaccine development during the pandemic. There will continue to be large expenditures on future vaccines to limit virus transmission and immune evasion. Lessons from COVID-19 vaccine development will help shape new tactics to combat antimicrobial resistance (AMR), emerging infections, chronic infectious diseases and cancer.

Precision medicine applications for SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens

The pandemic has highlighted the need for individualized precision medicine as advances in omics-based technology and digital medicine improve clinical treatment and healthcare system resilience. Understanding host-virus interactions is critical to studying virus etiology, therapy, and prevention. Targeted treatments have been developed for susceptible individuals, such as nirmatrelvir/ritonavir and anti-SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies (mAbs).

However, identifying patients with post-acute COVID-19 will require precision medicine tools such as immunological profiling and machine learning. The complexity of chronic inflammatory diseases requires a new strategy that includes modern omics-based technologies and systems biology integration. The pandemic has also created new problems in the complicated interactions between commensal and pathogenic microorganisms, which directly and indirectly affect health. SARS-CoV-2, systemic inflammation, antiviral immune reactivity, and medications can all impact the gut microbiota, linking environmental exposures to health disparities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionized the vaccine development process. Before the pandemic, the development process involved successive phases of discovery, early development, and phase I-III clinical trials over a period of approximately fifteen years. For COVID-19 vaccines, new technologies, new immunity factors, and early government investments allowed all steps to establish safety and efficacy to be completed in parallel within ten months and with less financial risk for developers.

Leveraging digital medicine, artificial intelligence and innovative clinical trial designs

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for advanced analytical tools to interpret complex data, inform government, and gain vital scientific insights. Artificial intelligence and advanced computer analytics can support individualized responses to environmental toxins, allowing existing medical procedures to continue in a personalized manner.

Systems medicine can tailor existing and new tests and therapies to specific individuals while minimizing failures and side effects. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have emphasized artificial intelligence (AI), including research using AI to diagnose, evaluate prognosis, anticipate pandemic epidemiology, future research drugs and identify vaccination targets. Artificial neural networks will be crucial in finding new antiviral agents and therapeutic candidates in the future.

AI also benefits science by aggregating scientific articles, which is especially relevant to COVID-19 given the widespread availability of information. Telemedicine and digital therapeutics are critical to strengthening the healthcare system, reducing reliance on face-to-face interactions, reducing healthcare costs, improving health outcomes and improving the patient experience.

Based on the research results, the future of medical sciences lies in multidisciplinary collaboration to address complicated clinical, social and genetic connections. Creative partnerships, open science and patient-centricity are crucial for success. The pandemic underscored the importance of vaccinations, telemedicine and digital medicine for healthcare system resilience and patient care. New research methods, such as decentralized investigations, can improve evidence creation and decision-making. Promoting interdisciplinarity in future health sciences research requires multi-stakeholder engagement, coordination between agencies and funders, interdisciplinary participation in research programs, and unique cross-sector partnerships.

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