In our previous post in this series (see the OODA Special Report: Executive’s Guide To the Revolution in Biology) we reviewed some fundamentals in biological science and engineering we recommend all executives and investors be familiar with. In this post we dive into concepts centered around the impact of bioengineering on human health.
The necessity of enhancing health outcomes and managing expenses within the healthcare system is clear. However, the methods to attain these goals, which are straightforward in theory but challenging in practice, are less obvious. Considering that healthcare accounts for almost 20% of the U.S. GDP, the potential economic benefits of bioengineering are significant. It holds the promise not only to elevate the quality of healthcare but also to make it more cost-effective, potentially exerting a substantial positive influence on the broader economy.
Business leaders also have practical reasons to keep an eye on the field of bioengineering. On a tactical front, it’s important for them to monitor how bioengineering might affect the workforce. Businesses could gain a competitive edge by finding superior methods to care for their employees, whether through choosing optimal health insurance plans or implementing bioengineered employee benefits.
Some bioengineering topics to track include advances being made to extending useful/productive life, the potential power coming from insights into human cell knowledge, genetic testing, biohacking, nootropics, the application of ways to edit the genome to human health, and new drug discovery.
Extending Useful, Productive Life
Extending useful, productive life is the goal of healthcare. It includes the maintenance or improvement of health via the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, recovery, or cure of disease, illness, injury, and other physical and mental impairments in people.
Healthcare is personal to everyone and has always been a subject front of mind to most. But with a global pandemic fresh on our minds, healthcare is now an even bigger part of our personal lives and business decisions. The many topics around healthcare in the COVID-19 pandemic, including issues of prevention, treatment, vaccines, is shedding light on the overall healthcare system in ways that we believe will add more impetus for all to invest more in biological sciences and healthcare solutions.
This is a broad topic, but key subjects to track include breakthroughs in:
- Molecular Diagnostics
- Genetic Testing
- Gene Therapies
- Instrumentation and Analysis
- Targeted Therapeutics
Tracking this topic also requires understanding of how the digital revolution is impacting the business of healthcare (for more on that see: the OODA Special Report on Digital Transformation in the Health Care Sector). Many related topics are examined below.
Human Cell Atlas
Cells are the building blocks of life and the place where all the action really is. But in many ways, research into what happens in the cell has really just begun. We know stuff occurs there but in so many cases do not know where or how or when in the dynamic living cell the key actions are sparked, or which cells in what part of the body take an action. Technology today has advanced to the point where we can make significant progress in knowing what is really happening if we pull together all the right data. This is the thrust of the Human Cell Atlas project, a global activity bringing together 1000’s of researchers into one of the most ambitious efforts in the history of biology.
The project intends to catalog all of the estimated 37 trillion cells that make up a human body, then data on what genes are active in each cells will be brought together into a more comprehensive may than has ever been built. If successful, this project will knit together information on how cells organize into tissues, how they communicate, how they work together, and how they fail. Research into these topics is already producing promising results in helping match patients to the right treatments. We expect far more in the very near future.
One use case of this type of approach is that being brought to market by Ligandal, where databases of every tissue type contain insights that enable targeting by precision medicine.
Genetic testing encompasses a broad range of tests associated with the genome. The most famous is the now old fashioned DNA test that can tell if some evidence came from a person or help find a person from matches to relatives. But genetic testing can now do far more. Over 1,000 different types of genetic testing are in routine use now. These tests all look at your genes. Genetic testing can identify increased risks of health problems, changes in chromosomes, genes or proteins and can help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. Testing can also help assess optimal responses to treatments. Genetic tests can screen newborn babies for certain treatable conditions. Genetic testing systems are advancing in ways that are significantly reducing their costs and making the testing systems more mobile. All indications are that these tests will be so low cost and so comprehensive soon that everyone will be able to afford them.
Biohacking is a movement of people who want to use science to be the best they can be. It flows from a realization that what we eat and drink can alter our state (through changing our internal chemistry and also through epigenetics). Biohackers generally use tools to measure food and beverage inputs and test the effect of different tweaks to their mental performance. In many cases, biohacking is primarily eating in ways nutritionists recommend, like having plenty of vegetables, drinking plenty of water, avoiding foods polluted with horrid things like pesticides or hormones or, perhaps worse of all, sugar.
The word Nootropic was coined in 1972 to mean mind-bending. It is used now to mean supplements that can improve brain function. Nootropics, which are sometimes called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, are supplements that are believed to improve cognitive function like memory, creativity or motivation. Research into nootropics is inconclusive at best, and it can be very hard to know if results claimed by nootropics users are placebo effects or real. However, the sale of Nootropics is now measured in billions of dollars per year. Some Nootropics are pharmaceutical drugs (like central nervous system stimulants) that can have serious side effects. Other Nootropics are commonly known and used, including coffee/caffeine, ginseng, turmeric, ginkgo biloba and concoctions like Bulletproof Coffee (a mix of coffee, oils and butter).
New Drug Discovery and Production
The landscape of modern drug discovery is rapidly evolving, driven by significant advancements in biological sciences and technology. One of the most notable trends is the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and genomics. This fusion is opening new avenues for personalized medicine and predictive healthcare. AI-powered genomic health personalization and prediction are becoming viable techniques, enabling more tailored treatments and better estimation of health outcomes based on individual genetic variations.
AI is being used to identify new drug candidates and design mutation-proof vaccines and therapies. For instance, MIT researchers have employed deep learning to discover a new class of antibiotics effective against drug-resistant bacteria. This approach not only identifies potential drug candidates but also provides insights into their mechanism of action, which could guide the development of even more effective drugs in the future.
Biosciences are making significant strides in the production of pharmaceuticals, particularly through the application of synthetic biology. The biopharma industry is undergoing rapid growth, driven by innovations such as immunotherapies, antibody-drug conjugates, and gene and cell therapies. One example of notable advancement is in diabetes treatment, where researchers have engineered human kidney cells (HEK-293) to function like pancreatic β-cells, which are responsible for insulin synthesis. These engineered cells can sense blood glucose levels and secrete insulin, offering a potential therapy for diabetes. This innovative approach indicates that cells could be reprogrammed to perform specific functions, such as glucose control, and produced in a manner that is easy, cost-effective, and in compliance with pharmaceutical manufacturing standards. Drug research has also been accelerated (in terms of both discovery and production) by smart technology and machine learning.. This is evident in the development of drugs like aducanumab for Alzheimer’s disease.
The trend towards personalized biotechnology is growing, where medical professionals use genetics to identify medical risks and develop unique, tailor-made health solutions, perhaps targeted to specific tissues of the body. This approach, including therapies like CAR T-cell therapy for leukemia, targets medical issues at their molecular and genetic level.
CRISPR is a powerful method that enables researchers to manipulate the genome. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Sounds pretty scientific doesn’t it? It could have been called anything, but Francisco Mojica picked that and since he was the first to begin work on this critical topic (and the first to notice how bacteria use CRISPR for immune defense) he got to call it whatever he wanted. Whatever it is called, it is now considered one of the most important discoveries of the century.
What’s the big deal around CRISPR? Its discovery led researchers to realize how processes in bacteria splice up the DNA of certain invading virus DNA and then use them as an immune system. Study of this allowed researchers to replicate the methods and do their own gene editing.
This has kicked off a massive flood of research into CRISPR related technologies, some of which are already showing promising results. Watch this space for innovations that may one day address and mitigate inheritable diseases. Other research may create new ways to produce drugs from bacteria. Other research may produce super-food crops or organisms that capture sunlight and produce energy and much higher levels than any plant today. Really the sky is the limit here.
CRISPR technology is also producing its share of ethics concern. Now that we have this almost magical cut-and-paste tool for genomes, what limits should we have regarding its use on people? Should parents or countries be able to select traits for newborn? Gene edited babies have already been born. This news shocked the community in November 2018. A researcher in China claimed to have altered embryos to remove a gene thought to give predisposition to HIV, Smallpox and Cholera. The disclosures provoked an international outcry over ethics violations.
There are other means of altering the genome, including the use of specialized designer virus treatments to cure hereditary diseases. These treatments are currently very expensive but prices will probably drop over time.
The next post in this series will continue this examination of major topics in bioengineering but will focus on developments that are reaching far beyond healthcare, including the production of materials and even the extraction of minerals.
Related Technology Trends
Technology Convergence and Market Disruption: Rapid advancements in technology are changing market dynamics and user expectations. See: Disruptive and Exponential Technologies.
The New Tech Trinity: Artificial Intelligence, BioTech, Quantum Tech: Will make monumental shifts in the world. This new Tech Trinity will redefine our economy, both threaten and fortify our national security, and revolutionize our intelligence community. None of us are ready for this. This convergence requires a deepened commitment to foresight and preparation and planning on a level that is not occurring anywhere. The New Tech Trinity.
The Revolution in Biology: This post provides an overview of key thrusts of the transformation underway in biology and offers seven topics business leaders should consider when updating business strategy to optimize opportunity because of these changes. For more see: The Executive’s Guide To The Revolution in Biology
Quantum Computing and Quantum Sensemaking: Quantum Computing, Quantum Security and Quantum Sensing insights to drive your decision-making process. Quantum Computing and Quantum Security
AI Discipline Interdependence: There are concerns about uncontrolled AI growth, with many experts calling for robust AI governance. Both positive and negative impacts of AI need assessment. See: Using AI for Competitive Advantage in Business.