Press Release

A Culture of Collaboration to Ignite Discovery in Medicine

Steve Kay spurs team science to change the landscape of health, as head of convergent research initiatives at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Wayne Lewis January 09, 2024
Photo of Steve Kay
Steve Kay, PhD, head of convergent research initiatives and University and Provost Professor of Neurology, Biomedical Engineering and Quantitative Computational Biology, Keck School of Medicine of USC

Sometimes igniting discovery in medicine takes a little bit of creative matchmaking.

That was the plan when more than 100 researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering convened for a daylong meeting last year. In place of slideshows and prepared talks was a stripped-down setup borrowing from a somewhat less scholarly tradition — speed dating, that is.

In this case, the match to be made was between complex problems in human health and the latest advances in big data and artificial intelligence. As engineers from USC Viterbi and the USC Information Sciences Institute cycled through informal conversations with medical practitioners and investigators, new cross-disciplinary team-ups began to bud.

“The ideas have been boiling over, just from that one day of introductions,” said Steve Kay, PhD, the Keck School of Medicine’s head of convergent research initiatives, newly appointed as of Jan. 1, 2024. “It was very efficient to rotate these tables of clinicians and biomedical researchers with USC’s data science and machine-learning community. They were able to ask basic questions of each other, and step back to see how sophisticated computational methods might be used to benefit patients.”

The speed dating event was the brainchild of Kay, University and Provost Professor of Neurology, Biomedical Engineering and Quantitative Computational Biology at USC, and Mahta Moghaddam, USC Viterbi’s director of research initiatives and William M. Hogue Professor of Electrical Engineering. Kay and Moghaddam worked closely with the event’s faculty co-chairs, computer scientist Yolanda Gil of USC Viterbi and neuroscientist Paul Thompson of the Keck School,  to ensure broad participation across the two schools. Among the projects to arise is an effort to apply algorithms in search of early clues about Alzheimer’s disease risk that may be hidden in people’s use of language over time.

There is an incredible complexity now in our understanding of how biological systems work,” he said. “At the Keck School, we see this as requiring us, on pretty much every level, to embrace domains of knowledge that have normally existed outside the sphere of biomedical research.

Two events of this sort have been held so far, each on a different topic. But expect more to follow, as Kay fulfills his charge to drive interdisciplinary collaboration at the Keck School, whether it’s within the health sciences, across the larger USC community, with other universities, or with partners in industry and at government agencies.

“There is an incredible complexity now in our understanding of how biological systems work,” he said. “At the Keck School, we see this as requiring us, on pretty much every level, to embrace domains of knowledge that have normally existed outside the sphere of biomedical research. We have strengths at our school, at USC and here in Los Angeles that create the chance to devise solutions for the biggest challenges in health with alliances representing the vanguard of disparate areas.”

The meaning — and power — of convergence

The phrase “convergent research” represents a distinct flavor of collaboration across fields. The special ingredient is a mission-driven focus. While it complements the curiosity-driven, grassroots scientific alliances that spring up all the time at the Keck School of Medicine and USC at large, convergence is built through a more systematic approach.

“We are going to intentionally build a system that lowers the barriers to entry and incentivizes our busy faculty and trainees to reach across the aisle,” Kay said. “For, say, the new assistant professor in cardiology seeking to connect with experts in physics or device design, it’ll be much more efficient if we have baked convergence into the Keck School’s culture, so that it’s embraced and actively sought after.”

Kay’s own background is steeped in the ethic of convergence. He holds appointments at the Keck School and USC Viterbi, as well as the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences (where he formerly served as dean). He is also the inaugural director of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, which unites researchers from across those academic units, and has been special adviser to the Keck School’s dean since 2016.

On the one hand, Kay is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and fellow of the Royal Society known for groundbreaking studies into the circadian rhythms of the daily biological clock. On the other, he has co-founded biotech companies tackling conditions including cancer.

“I’ve experienced firsthand how engaging with colleagues outside of my own disciplinary ‘kitchen’ can enhance the reach of my work,” he said. “Seeing, for example, how my own science could make a difference in cancer care also inspired me to develop a more purposeful approach to building these types of bridges.”

Opportunities for impact abound

Kay identifies several factors that position the Keck School for real-world impact through convergent research. First among them is committed leadership, as evinced by the goal to double the school’s research in the next seven to 10 years, articulated and spearheaded by Dean Carolyn Meltzer, May S. and John H. Hooval, M.D., Dean’s Chair and professor of radiology,  and supported by President Carol Folt’s “moonshot” to transform health sciences.

A key enabler of that ambition, a forthcoming building dubbed the Discovery and Translational Hub, is envisioned as a major boon to convergent research. Kay, who co-led planning of the facility, notes that lab spaces will be tailored to their occupants, largely from an expected wave of new professorial hires.

“We want to build it in a way that reflects the ethos of convergence and its power to bring impact to unmet medical need,” he said. “We can build a biomedical research enterprise in a legacy-free way. Instead of recruiting faculty who align with the chapters of a medical textbook, we can recruit faculty in clusters, where they interact with each other and build team science right into that environment.”

The university itself offers a rich pool of potential collaborators across its wide-ranging set of academic units.

“There’s a great deal of low-hanging fruit in how expertise from the different schools at USC can be sewn together,” Kay said.

Location means a lot as well. The Los Angeles area is a fast-growing hotbed for biomedical research. And the Keck School’s affiliation with the L.A. County Department of Public Health and the school’s manifold connections to the local community present the chance to move from breakthrough to application in a way that brings widespread benefits.

“The idea is, for example, to not only collaborate on cell therapies with experts in disciplines such as synthetic biology, but also combine that with improvements in engineering processes that make those therapies cheaper and more accessible,” Kay said.  “We carry forward our history of delivering medical care to underserved populations into our vision for the future of biomedical research. And that vision is impact for all.”

How convergence happens

Support earmarked for interdisciplinary investigations is one straightforward, tried-and-true way to promote convergent work. And indeed, annual pilot funding for such collaborations from the Keck School dean’s office is a key puzzle piece in a larger picture that includes internal grants from the USC Office of Research and Innovation.

Philanthropy furnishes essential resources for convergence. Trojan alumni such as entrepreneurs Ming Hsieh and Daniel Epstein have led the charge with gifts for projects connecting scientists and engineers from different fields or institutions to address major health challenges. In a recent example of such forward-looking giving, USC Trustee Shelly Nemirovsky and her husband, Ofer, established at USC the Nemirovsky Engineering and Medicine Opportunity Prize, which underwrites early-stage research at the intersection of those disciplines.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have donors prepared to step up and recognize that we need these kinds of cross-school collaborations,” Kay said.

He also points to the need for opportunities to gather faculty across disciplines, such as the “speed dating” between engineering and medicine. Keeping the format fresh helps maintain momentum.

“We have to constantly reinvent the kind of venues we use to connect people,” he said. “These platforms build familiarity, build trust and satisfy curiosity. It really helps our different communities understand the magnitude of difference they can make working together.”

Fortunately, there are numerous areas ripe for combining with medical science. Machine learning and data science offer analytic techniques to match the complexity of the interactions among genetic heritance, environmental exposure and serious disease. They also open the possibility of increasing health equity and personalizing care.

“We envision moving from cloudy correlations between a genetic signal and disease risk to a rich, well-described understanding of an individual’s risk,” Kay said. “From there, we can look at how to develop treatments specifically for that individual.”

Convergence with synthetic biology make solutions that sound like science fiction start to seem achievable: using miniscule nanoparticles to create entirely new features for immune cells that turn them into highly efficient cancer killers, or transforming transplantation with lab-grown kidneys. (Both are under development through collaborations involving the Keck School.)

The effort to mate synthetic biology and medicine is also one early proving ground for collaborations capitalizing on Los Angeles’ bioscience muscle. Exciting prospects are on the horizon thanks to researchers at USC, UCLA and Caltech who are currently looking at ways they can join forces to tackle major medical challenges.

“It’s L.A.’s time in the life sciences,” Kay said. “Let’s innovate together and change the future of health in a coastal megacity.”

Learn more about research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.