#5 Ways Through Which Biotech Entrepreneurs are Going to Enhance Human Lives
The turn of the century has brought us formidable opponents - cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and depression being the scariest on the list
Let me guess, you have a comfortable academic career rolled out for you with a resume that is glittering with awards and publications. Yet, you find the tranquil academia to be a bit slow for your voracious appetite for action and challenges. You want to enrich mankind with your ideas and abilities and in the process quench your endless thirst for knowledge.
You are smart and hard-working, so I don't need to tell you what it takes to become a biotechnology entrepreneur. Nevertheless I am going to give you five more reasons to encourage you on this path and bring to your attention the need for independent thinkers and innovation.
In the 21st century with our ultra-fast communication systems, thriving science and technology and the average life expectancy of humans increasing from 40 to 71 years, surely mortality cannot be the most pressing problem. The brutal truth is that there has been a drastic causal change. In the 1900s it was common for people to die from pneumonia, tuberculosis, heart diseases and diphtheria. All these diseases have been controlled to varying degrees.
Nevertheless, the turn of the century has brought us formidable opponents: cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and depression being the scariest on the list. If you notice most of them are late-onset diseases which suddenly show up or intensifies in the later stages of life. So increase the average life-expectancy did we but in the bargain brought ourselves face to face with the emperors and empresses of all maladies. This is where gene therapy, during its introduction came with happy promises. Post its early towering success the accompanying nasty failures temporarily stalled its progress. The discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, considered the breakthrough of the 21st century has got this fluctuating field back its prestige. After the identification of its tremendous medical significance, the scientific twitterati can discuss little else. Active research in this area on how CRISPR/Cas9 can “snip” off human diseases is going on around the world and can surely make for an exciting new venture.
The global population is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050. The problem: the percentage of the world’s agricultural land is shrinking, the emission of greenhouse gases from agriculture has shot up to 24% threatening climate change, and pesticides, chemical fertilizers are ruining water bodies and aquatic life. This is not exactly what you want for a world striving for sustainable development. This is hardly something to sustain. In the quest for auxiliary ways to feed the world’s appetite, vertical farming is a close contender. In vertical farming the produce is grown in stacks. This is a high-on biotechnology method that uses artificial lighting, climate control tactics and hydroponics. Moreover, this strategy involves re-purposing urban spaces for cultivation eliminating the need to allot lands specially for farming. David Rosenberg, chief executive and co-founder of AeroFarms says that vertical farming takes half the amount of cultivation time with 95% less water, 50% less fertilizers and no pesticides. Now we are talking! With banking giant Goldman-Sachs showing interest in such concepts, this is certainly the next big thing in the agro revolution. More innovations in this area will promulgate sustainable development.
3. Animal Welfare
Let me put forward a few facts. Methane which has 25% greater global warming capacity than carbon dioxide forms 44% of the total emissions from the animal industry and 14.5% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Water recycled for livestock manure is responsible for 37% of the harmful chemicals polluting the world’s fresh water. Sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics that are used in meat processing has resulted in antibiotic contamination of water bodies leading to antibiotic resistance. Not to mention the number of zoonotic diseases like influenza and bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
And we don’t even want to get started on the animal cruelty statistics in abattoirs. According to the Humane Society, USA, 14 million cows were slaughtered for the purpose of human consumption in 2016. This is so much negative energy. It is of course absurd to ban non-vegetarian food. Let me quote Great Britain’s World War II supremo Sir Winston Churchill here, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." Now, doesn't that make sense? He made this proposition in 1931, today it is already a reality. Cultured meat is now seriously being considered as a possible alternative for raising and butchering whole animals for the purpose of food. A few cells may be retrieved painlessly from the animal and grown in laboratory conditions to produce meat. There are certainly some obstacles to this replacement. The most important is the use of foetal bovine serum (FBS) extensively in maintaining cell cultures. The origin of this serum is from a slaughtered pregnant cow, which is exactly the opposite of what we are aiming for here. This is one space that is in need for generous investment and research.
4. Data Security
A crucial aspect in scientific inquiry relates to the management of many bytes of data mainly pertaining to patients. Such volumes of patient data, which are generated during large, sensitive studies like human clinical trials, are prone to security breach. Blockchain technology, the basis for crypto-currencies is now being explored for use in maintaining patient data fidelity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already cleared a grant to Factom Inc. to conduct a pilot study to this effect. The primary takers for this up and coming concept is the pharmaceutical industry given their giant involvement in drug testing and clinical trials. Moreover with the 2013 Drug Supply Chain Security Act that ensures legitimacy in the drug supply, the pharma industry is bound to face the problem of extensive documentation and its protection. Though this is not big news yet, it already makes a lot of sense in the field of biotechnology. Existing biotechnology ventures do not just do genetic testing but also legitimately use the patient data for in-house research to contribute to medical knowledge. For research into current problems like obesity, diabetes and food intolerances information regarding the subjects pertaining to the study is used which needs to be guarded if the study is to comply with bioethics.
14 years have gone past since the euphoria of the Human Genome Project. Now, experts from the University of California predict that within the next decade human diseases will be cured by gene therapy. Genetic testing is using the vast knowledge of the human genome to warn people about a range of important problems from their health to sporting injuries. Revolutionary techniques like genome sequencing are making accurate predictions of disease prognosis and treatment strategies. Currently the high cost of sequencing is the main reason why scientists and doctors prefer referring it only if all other tests come out normal in a patient with obvious symptoms. Illumina, the world’s largest producers of DNA sequencers have promised that within the next decade the cost for sequencing the human genome will be down from $1000 to $100. Techniques like nanopore sequencing, where a single molecule of DNA can be sequenced will bring down this cost by many folds. Just this, can change the way medical diagnosis is done and prevent the incidence of diseases that have strong genetic implications. Why wait for other big giants to do that when all you need is the innovative thinking and the industry which you already have?
But there is much more to find. We still have not answered the questions, ‘If we have all this why are people still dying of AIDS and cancer?’, ‘Why is world hunger still a problem?’. The only answer to this will be to have more pro-active individuals in the world than consumers. Being an entrepreneur in the evolving field of biotechnology will help you do your part if not completely solve these issues.
Biotechnology is a paradoxical term, which pitches together the vital (bio) with the inanimate (technology). The technology is available in plenty. More of that vital force will equalize the ratio and do beautiful things.
Dr. Saleem Mohammed completed his PhD in Bioinformatics from the US and moved back to India to pursue his dream of pioneering in the field of biotechnology. He founded Xcode with a vision to bring India in the forefront of personal genomics. Previously, he worked as a Scientist in Gene Expression Technology at Monsanto, a biotechnology giant.