Erik Gatenholm is the CEO and co-founder of BICO, a leading bio convergence company.
There has been much talk about “Industry 4.0,” a term referring to the fourth technological revolution in manufacturing. In the span of 200 years, the world has gone from bulky steam engines to manually intensive assembly lines and now to fully automated factories enabled by big data, IoT and artificial intelligence.
Similarly within healthcare, there have been multiple revolutions, from accidental discoveries like penicillin to early X-rays, modern pharmaceuticals and now genome sequencing and personalized medicine.
This next revolution, “Health 4.0,” will be enabled by the convergence of artificial intelligence, biology, robots and nanotechnology and will unlock new tools to fight infectious diseases, detect and treat cancer, and produce 3D bioprinted human organs.
The enabling technologies behind these breakthroughs can be broken down into four next-generation technology ecosystems: tissue engineering, diagnostics, multi-omics and cell line development.
One of the most exciting fields being developed right now is tissue engineering: the ability to fabricate and analyze human cells and organoids in a lab. This includes human tissue models and 3D bioprinting, which allow for the precise arrangement of multicellular constructs that replicate how human tissue functions in our body. In the short term, this technology can reduce animal testing by creating physiologically relevant tissue to test new drugs and cosmetics on. In the long term, this technology will hopefully enable the printing of human organs that can be transplanted into patients, enabling the treatment of previously incurable diseases.
As we’ve seen with the early difficulties combatting Covid-19, our healthcare systems are only as strong as our ability to track diseases. Whether it’s for an infectious disease or cancer, doctors and public health officials need better diagnostics for both high-throughput as well as point-of-care settings. In the case of Covid-19, our response was significantly crippled by a lack of both of these diagnostic tools. Labs that were supposed to be “high-throughput” were still relying entirely on manual processes instead of advanced dispensing systems and software that enables automated workflows, leading to week-long wait times for test results. When it came to the availability of point-of-care tests, it took more than a year to scale the capacity of rapid, disposable and affordable diagnostics due to a shortage of microfluidic devices, a key technology enabler.
The ability to analyze and understand the genetics that drive our biology is key in fighting many of the severe diseases we face. While the Human Genome Project took more than 13 years and a billion dollars to sequence the first human genome, companies like Illumina are now able to do it in less than a day for around $600. Their subsidiary Grail has recently introduced a genomic-based test that can detect up to 50 types of early cancers. Such breakthroughs and others in healthcare are enabled by software-driven automated workflows for technologies like single-cell isolation, liquid handling, library preparation and others.
Cell Line Development
The next generation of drugs and treatments are being developed using live cells from complex multicellular organisms derived from living human, animal or plant cells. These new drugs, such as biologics or cell and gene therapies, are changing the ways we treat diseases that have plagued humans for centuries including cancer, diabetes, arthritis and others. Unfortunately, these drugs are much more difficult to produce due to the live cell aspect of their production. In order to develop these breakthrough treatments, drug developers need to prove and validate that each treatment is identical and as efficacious as the others. This is done through single-cell sorters, advanced imaging systems and bioreactors to assure each cell line was derived from a single cell and to provide the best possible growth conditions for these cells.
All in all, these four next-generation technology ecosystems can unlock many healthcare treatments that sounded like science fiction just a generation ago. However in order to realize these breakthroughs a few key obstacles need to be overcome. Firstly, governments need to provide sustained research funding for healthcare technologies, not just during a pandemic or other major health crisis. Secondly, private companies from across these ecosystems need to work together to converge these technologies. Lastly, we need to provide more scholarships and STEM programs to encourage students to pursue careers in life sciences to help develop these exciting technologies.
If we can overcome these obstacles, patients who struggle with previously incurable diseases will find treatment, public health officials will be able to better track and combat pandemics, and much more. By continuing to drive research and development into these fields from both public, private and academic sources, we will be able to fully realize the promises of Health 4.0 and truly create the future of health.