Biotech is an area of technology that affects all of us in some way or other. It’s an area that I’ve grown increasingly interested in over the last couple of years as its innovations feel more and more like stories from the realm of science fiction.
There are completely new ways to create food or even to replicate human organs. It is now relatively easy to “design” DNA patterns. Moreover, perhaps the most exciting advance of all is a revolutionary way to provide medical tests, completely avoiding the need for a physical laboratory, which will have an incredible effect on improving the medical treatment of people worldwide.
First, we had 2D printers that printed copy using ink onto paper, or occasionally other items (like screen-printing for shirts). Then engineers created the 3D printer. Suddenly we are able to create entire 3D objects, often “printing” a near-perfect replica of the original item (depending on what material is used in the printing process). People now “print” everything from engine parts to replica guns.
Of course, you do not use ink in your 3D printer. You vary the “ingredient” depending on your needs. One unusual application of the 3D printer was to “print” bars of chocolate that are perfectly edible.
Now Modern Meadow has taken printing one stage further, with its bioprinter, designed to “print” artificial raw meat. This is, of course, bioprinting part of a living creature – a completely new level of advancement!
To enable this to happen, scientists collect stem cells from animals via a biopsy. These stem cells can replicate themselves. Once there are enough of the cells they are placed in a biocartridge, effectively they are a form of “bioink”.
Once the meat has printed, to whatever shape want, it fuses to become living tissue.
Why is This Important
Modern Meadow believes that they have a way to solve the world’s food shortage problem. Although 3D printed food obviously costs a fortune now, like all technology the costs will greatly diminish as it becomes more established. Ultimately, this might be a cost-effective way to help the parts of the world that currently suffer from a lack of food and malnutrition. Imagine the possibilities once this technology becomes affordable enough for people to use in the drought-stricken parts of Africa.
Will synthetic meatloaf join the mobile phone as a technology from the original Star Trek that has eventually made it into the real world?
Let us continue with the theme of products made using 3D printers. There are already replacement body parts created using the equipment. To date, these are really just a quick and easy way to make artificial parts that do not include any body tissue – just like any other artificial limb. The most common use has been using 3D printers to produce titanium replacement hip joints.
An obvious extension to the creation of 3D-printed meat, though, is the creation of 3D-printed organs, using human tissue as the ink, to use for transplant purposes. So far, most of the scientific trials have been with animal organs, but it was only a matter of time before tests advanced to creating human organs.
There have previously been a number of successful experiments involving the creation of organs for rats and mice.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, have come one stage further, though, with the “printing” of a prototype human outer ear. Among the materials used for the ear are hydrogel (to create the ear-shape), cells that grow to form cartilage, and silver nanoparticles to form an antenna.
Why is This Important
Of course, there are many things to consider before governments permit scientists to regularly create human organs. It is very important to ensure the public can distinguish between the very real possibilities of this technology and the fictional work of Doctor Frankenstein creating his monster.
There is one clear difference between creating 3D-printed meat and creating 3D-printed organs. Once the meat is created, its growth process is over, and people eat it. In the case of the organs, surgeons need to be able to transfer them into a human body and they will continue to “live”.
This will definitely be a topic that will keep the sociologists and ethics lawyers in work for some time, as they ponder just how far we are happy to let scientists advance this area.
CRISPR began as a self-defence mechanism for bacteria, essentially, a way to self-vaccinate against invading viruses and plasmids. However, scientists have now retooled the CRISPR-Cas9 system into a more globally viable technology. The genetic code of nearly any species can be modified, and now that means for more than simply self-protection.
CRISPR is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – definitely a reason to use the abbreviated term, and correctly pronounce it as crisper! The exciting thing about the CRISPR/Cas9 system is that scientists now use it for genome editing. Genomes are the genetic material of organisms. The human genome consists of 3.2 billion nucleotide pairs and the order of these nucleotides gives each of us our individual genetic code.
In simple terms, we each have our own individualised genes. Our genes are made up of our DNA. Our DNA, in turn, is made up of chromosomes (23 pairs per person), and our chromosomes each consist of four nucleotides. Therefore, at its heart, CRISPR is a system that can be used to alter the basic elements of our DNA.
Why is This Important
The ability to use CRISPR for genome engineering will revolutionise genetic analysis by providing a targeted mutagen. Scientists now have the ability to precisely modify the DNA of virtually any organism. This gene editing could be used to bestow genetic advantages that previously took large amounts of evolutionary time or complex genetic breeding strategies to acquire.
There is a new technology known as microfluidics, that uses tiny networks of tubes on microchips to pump minute quantities of air, blood, nutrients and bacteria through, and which, are lined with human cells. In many ways they mimic silicon chips, except it is biological chemicals that are being pushed around trace quantities of human organs.
Why were these organs on chips invented? They exist mainly as an alternative way to test pharmaceuticals, without having to experiment on live animals.
Researchers started a company called Emulate in 2014, which is now performing pre-clinical testing with pharmaceutical companies.
Obviously, although these chips are at a micro level, there is a need to replicate the structure of organs on the chip – with great precision. They, for instance, can emulate the patterns of breathing.
Why is This Important
There are many problems inherent in the pharmaceutical research programs. Using animals for testing is very much a topic of concern in recent years, and does nothing for a company’s image (there are numerous books and films bases on the premise of things going wrong). Just as the microchip revolutionised the information industries, Organs-on-Chips has the potential to completely change how the pharmaceutical industry operates, making testing substantially cheaper, less controversial and easier.
For years when we have had medical issues we have given various types of samples to our doctor, which have been sent away to a lab for analysis. Often we have waited for days in nervous anticipation for the results, hoping for the best, fearing for the worst. The further down the queue you are at the lab, the longer your sample takes to be processed, the longer you go through the agonising wait.
QuantuMDx has changed this normal pattern, with the invention of their Q-POC Handheld Laboratory. This is literally a portable laboratory that can be held in a physician’s hand.
How does this work? Your doctor will place your sample into a disease-specific cartridge, which is then inserted into the handheld reader. He or she simply presses a ‘Go’ button and waits for an analysis, which will only take 10-15 minutes. It can quickly detect the DNA signature of not only any diseases it detects but also the specific strain within your blood sample. It can even suggest which drugs should be used to fight whatever disease or infection the diagnosis finds.
Imagine, you can have a medical analysis while you wait at the surgery – or if you do leave, the prognosis will be known before you reach home. Medical staff can start treatment virtually straight away. Apart from anything else, this minimises the risk of infection. The equipment is expected to sell for approximately $1500, and the tests only cost $5-$15, depending on what they are looking for.
Why is This Important
This has real potential to change the health of people worldwide. With such a rapid turn-around, treatment of illnesses and diseases will begin so much quicker, which obviously increases the chances of a successful result.
With the relatively cheap price for these units, along with affordable tests, there is real potential for patients who would not have had tests before to receive affordable and good treatment now. As the devices are completely mobile, they can even be used in remote regions that would never have had the opportunity for medical tests before.
The QuantuMDx Q-POC is set to revolutionise our medical diagnostics and, therefore, treatment. This is a chance for a revolutionary change in the wellbeing of people worldwide.