Just a few years ago, you would not likely see molecular biologists team with physicists and computer scientists to treat, say, heart disease. But in the new field of molecular systems biology, they are natural allies — and their combined expertise might bring new breakthroughs in treating a whole host of medical conditions.

Molecular systems biology seeks to understand life on the nanoscale — incredibly small divisions on a microscopic level. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A nanosecond is one billionth of a second.

“Molecular systems biology is a new way at looking at the human condition, incorporating concepts from the fields of molecular biology, physics and information theory to understand and treat important diseases like heart failure and cancer,” said John Robinson, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in UAB’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. “In essence, we’re expanding the scope of a traditional biomedical researcher by looking at a given problem using the techniques and approaches that came with the development of the digital computer.”

Robinson published his study of the role of a protein central to heart failure in the Oct. 28 issue of the journal Physics Review Letters.

“The heart contains thousands of copies of a protein complex called troponin that basically operates as tiny computer. Troponin is a switch that regulates the contraction and relaxation of the heart, allowing blood to be pumped to the body,” said Robinson.

“This study shows that nano-computers like troponin are subject to special constraints that limit their performance. Knowing these constraints allows us to understand why their design is successful and should help us understand why the design fails in disease,” he said.

Robinson says human cells have to do a lot of information processing, just as computers do. Cells are, in fact, computers. He says it makes sense to approach this kind of problem — how do the body’s nano-components process information — by asking the same kinds of questions computer scientists ask when designing a computer.

“Computer scientists and physicists already have great insight into nanotechnology, and we’re finding that many of the body’s components function in very similar ways to today’s computers,” Robinson said. “In this new molecular systems biology field, we’re not asking the question of how something like the heart works, but instead we’re asking why it is designed the way it is.”

Robinson hopes this approach will give additional insight into what medicine can do in the event that a system such as the heart fails.

“Understanding why parts of the heart do what they do could be a truly important step in the development of new technologies to repair a heart that has failed,” he said.