Life Science Technology Megatrends Shaping Our Future
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Thirty to forty years from now, we may look back on today as the early years of what may well be regarded as the “century of biology”. Over the last few decades, Agilent and previously as Hewlett-Packard, have helped to define and enable a number of technology and market waves (Figure 1). These include test and measurement, electronics and computers, chemical analysis, communications and the internet – all four of these waves are rooted in the physical sciences and engineering. The next two waves of precision medicine and cellular manufacturing are rooted in biology and the life sciences.
Megatrends are overarching trends, ones that seed and embrace multiple market and technology developments. These trends already exist in our world today but are going to be even more important in the years to come. Here are three technology megatrends that I believe will be highly significant to our future.
DNA sequence information – a keystone of biology
In the last decade, the total number of DNA bases sequenced has increased by more than six orders of magnitude, and this trend will continue. But this megatrend is not about sequencing per se, it is centered in what this vast amount of sequence information is enabling in terms of new applications and increasing need for better multi-omic cellular analysis technologies. The availability of DNA sequence information is accelerating our ability to understand biological pathways, as well as fueling precision medicine. Once we can read DNA, we are in a position to make targeted changes in the DNA sequence and thereby edit DNA. As such, sequence information enables cellular reprograming (the next megatrend). In addition, sequence information is enabling entirely new fields such as the microbiome and metagenomics. Although we think of ourselves as mostly human, we now know that our human bodies contain 100 times more microbial cells than human cells, and that these microbial cells represent more than 10,000 different microbial species in and on each of us. In spite of the fact that we are still in the early days of the microbiome – its importance to maintaining our health and preventing disease is clear.
Cellular reprogramming is exploding
Cellular reprogramming is transforming our imagination in many different industries, even in ones where we don’t often strongly associate biology. One key area of cellular reprograming is CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. These are segments of prokaryotic DNA that play a key role in bacterial immune systems. Recently, scientists have figured out how to harness that capability to make permanent modifications in the DNA of all organisms. Part of the reason why CRISPR has been adopted so quickly is that such extensive sequence information is known, but it is also a technology that is markedly faster, more efficient and easier to use than previous gene editing methods. And so, in just the last 5 years, 10,000s of laboratories all around the world – whether they are academic, government, or industrial research – have rapidly adopted this technology. One of the areas that has been especially enhanced is basic research and understanding the role of different genes. For example, in model organisms CRISPR enables researchers to do much more efficient gene knockouts and thereby determine their functional significance. Cellular reprogramming goes beyond gene editing, it also includes stem cells and is a very important component of regenerative medicine. This is a field poised to transform healthcare, where research is advancing rapidly in using stem cell technology, hybrid systems and bionics to enable capabilities that were previously, never thought possible
Data science and the internet of things are making our world smarter
We experience the benefits of data science and device connectivity every day in our consumer life and now, these technologies are starting to find their way into improving our day-to-day lives in the analytical and clinical laboratories. This trend is impacting not only to the science, but also to the economics of the lab in terms of lab productivity and operational efficiency. It starts with smarter instruments – instruments where real time analysis of the sample and the instrument data based on actual use is used to improve performance, utilization, and speed. From smarter instruments, we get smarter workflows, integrated solutions accessible to all user levels, with real time monitored use, error avoidance, and reagent workflow tracking. From smarter workflows to smarter laboratories with real-time optimized instrument utilization, predictive maintenance and failure, enabling fewer unexpected downtimes and faster repairs when something does go wrong. Then perhaps, most importantly, to smarter connected global laboratories. Now we are not only transforming the user experience, but we are also enabling high performance, productive and efficient, global laboratory operations, partnership, and collaboration. We know how important the ability to share science globally beyond boundaries is to the advancement of research.
In summary, what a very exciting time it is with these new technologies and disruptive innovations in this century of biology. We have come a long way, but biology is much more complex than the physical sciences and there is still so much that we do not yet understand. It just makes me wonder what our world will be like a half a century from now when we think about life sciences and biology.
Darlene Solomon is Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Agilent Technologies