The Big Idea: Mapquest

The Big Idea: MapquestScience researchers typically work on tiny slivers of big problems—but their vision often goes well beyond any single project they’re currently tackling. We asked biomedical engineer Jenny Jiang, who studies immunology and cancer, to share her biggest idea. If she had all the money, time, and resources in the world, what would she most like to pursue in her field?

My big idea: If I had all the resources I needed, I would invent a detailed map of the human immune system that would show complex interactions between cells and molecules. It could be plotted as an “interaction network”—a map that shows how cells and soluble proteins are connected in specific ways.

Why is this such a big deal? Many human diseases—infections, cancer, cardiovascular diseases—are linked to the immune system. We could create a map of the healthy immune system, and then compare it to different disease models to find where the system has broken down. If we could map out those interactions, then we not only understand the causes of certain diseases, but we could also engineer targeted therapies.

How come we don’t have this already? It’s an incredibly complex problem—much more complicated than sequencing a genome, for example. That said, I predict that we’ll have a map like this in the next decade or two. It will require technology development in genomics, proteomics, and imaging.

What might we discover with a map like this? A map like this could help us find similarities among many diseases that seem unrelated, but that share similarities at the molecular or cellular level. For example, there are some diseases, like Type 1 diabetes, that cause a person to have an overactive immune system. There are others, like cancer, in which the immune system is suppressed. They may be flip sides of the same problem. With an immune system map, learning the cause of one of these problems might help us solve the opposite problem, too.

Photo credit: Jian at work in her lab in the Biomedical Engineering Building; Anna Donlan


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