Advances in net­work sci­ence to map the com­plexity of human cells promises to offer sig­nif­i­cant new resources for health pro­fes­sionals striving to cure dis­ease, according to a new paper coau­thored by Albert-​​László Barabási, a world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist at North­eastern University.

The paper, pub­lished in the Jan­uary issue of Nature Reviews Genetics, presents the first major overview of the cur­rent state of net­work med­i­cine and what lies ahead in taking a network-​​based approach to iden­ti­fying and bat­tling disease.

I really think the future of med­i­cine will, to a cer­tain degree, depend on obtaining and under­standing the dia­gram that con­trols the inter­ac­tions between the mol­e­cules in the cell,” said Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics and director of Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research (CCNR). The study advances Northeastern’s research mis­sion to solve soci­etal issues, with a focus on global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

Under­standing cel­lular net­works could help iden­tify new dis­ease genes and path­ways, and reveal the bio­log­ical sig­nif­i­cance of muta­tions asso­ci­ated with dis­ease, according to the paper. As a result, better disease-​​targeting drugs could be devel­oped, while bio­markers could improve how dis­eases are clas­si­fied and how cel­lular net­works rav­aged by dis­ease are monitored.

Barabási said this network-​​based approach com­pares to how a mechanic fixes a car. For instance, a car’s power failure could stem from a faulty bat­tery, a broken cable or a blown fuse. So the mechanic first turns to the wiring dia­gram of the car to iden­tify the cause of the problem.

In order to fix a car problem, you need to have a map of the net­work, and in a way, this is not dif­ferent for dis­eases,” Barabási said. “You need to find and under­stand the under­lying net­work behind the dis­ease, and that will even­tu­ally lead to a cure.”

The paper fol­lows up on a 2004 article Barabási coau­thored for the same journal, which explored net­work biology and the inner work­ings of human cells. That paper is the second-​​most cited article in the his­tory of the journal. Since then, net­work sci­en­tists have improved their grasp on the laws that govern net­works and started applying that knowl­edge in sig­nif­i­cant ways, such as facil­i­tating new treat­ments for disease.

How­ever, Barabási said it would take time for med­ical advances to catch up.

The thinking behind it is this: the cell is like a map of Boston,” Barabási explained. “What is hap­pening now is that we’ve started to simply find the neigh­bor­hood where indi­vidual dis­eases are, so we are starting to be able to asso­ciate cer­tain regions of the cell with par­tic­ular diseases.”

Barabási, the lead author, col­lab­o­rated on the paper with Natali Gul­bahce, a former post­doc­toral research fellow at CCNR, and Joseph Loscalzo, chair of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Depart­ment of Med­i­cine and a pro­fessor at Har­vard Med­ical School.

View selected pub­li­ca­tions of Albert-​​László Barabási in IRis, Northeastern’s dig­ital archive.