Edwards is the Henry Ford of molecular biology. Impatient with the
progress that science has made in exploring the human genetic map,
this 37-year-old researcher is devising ways of automating the process
to know more, faster.
Edwards likens our
quest to comprehend biology and disease to trying to understand the contents
of a dark room in which the light is shining on only one corner. "Thousands
of scientists are peering into the lit corner, studying phenomena about
which we are already aware,š says Edwards. "But what genome science
has done over the past five years is, in essence, to turn on the floodlights
in the room. This has revealed that practically all scientists have been
working on what amounts to one fifth of the story."
"In my mind,
this is a humbling realization. No engineer could understand how a machine
works if presented with 100,000 parts and directions for only 20,000 of
them. It is presumptuous of us, as medical researchers, to pretend we
can explain complex diseases with a similarly limited understanding of
the human machine. It is clearly time to plough into the unknown."
To accomplish this,
Edwards argues that scientists must change their approach. "At present,
an average of at least five researchers focus on any particular gene,
trying to unlock its intricate secrets. But this őhypothesis-driven approach,‚
which has guided science over the past 50 years, will not be able to finish
the job. There simply aren‚t 500,000 scientists available. So we have
to develop methods that allow us to do thousands of experiments at once."
Edwards is focused
on an emerging area called "structural proteomics" His goal
is to explain the functions of the body‚s protein machines by determining
their three-dimensional structure. To do this, his team takes old-style
biochemical methods, which were honed on individual proteins, and tries
to apply them to thousands of proteins at one time. Currently, the group
can determine the structure of 10 to 50 proteins a year, but aims for
500 or 1,000 a year in three or four years. "We hope to complete
the job by the year 2010."
At times, he sounds
like a productivity-driven CEO, keenly aware of the need to succeed. "It‚s
a race, and Canada needs to invest to win that race. From a business point
of view, 80,000 proteins represent a lot of intellectual property."
in his paper-strewn office in a tank top and bare feet, plays the role
of the iconoclast far more comfortably than that of the executive. It‚s
a role suiting his particular brand of science, which hovers on the fringes
of biomolecular research.
is ultimately discovering how to conduct traditional experiments better
and a thousand times faster, is viewed with some suspicion because, unlike
traditional research, it doesn‚t set out to prove a particular hypothesis.
"With science like this, we‚ll get there faster, but not as elegantly,š
Edwards shrugs. "I guess the underlying hypothesis is that, after
10 years, this style of research will have done more to understand human
biology than any other."
The scale and scope
of the research depends on many collaborators from within several U of
T departments and from the teaching hospitals affiliated with the university.
Edwards says that working at U of T and its health sciences complex is
absolutely essential for his work. "In terms of competition, being
at this university is unique because it has excellence in many areas,
not just medicine, but also chemistry, biology, engineering, and computer
science. It‚s a rare combination, and we must capitalize on it."