Novel technology is bringing many opportunities and disruptions. These offer possibilities that could change our lives, from what public services are offered to how we move around the world.
The Government Office for Science’s Emerging Technology Programme helps government think about how potential new technologies may affect policy choices. The Programme scans for and assesses novel technologies emerging from all areas of science and engineering. Medicine is one area in which many important new technologies have been identified. This is the first in a series of blog posts that covers some of the innovative and exciting technologies the scan has brought to our attention.
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Medicine’s New Frontier in Technology
The UK is a global leader in medical technologies and has recently made some significant commitments to technological advances that will help reshape healthcare and offer us all a healthier future. The UK has signalled its commitment to remaining a world leader with ventures such as the 100 000 Genomes Project, the Organ-on-a-Chip Technologies Network, and a Life Sciences Sector Deal. Below are three emerging technologies identified by GOS’ Emerging Technology Scan that could change how we practise medicine in the UK.
From beating hearts to breathing lungs, organs-on-a-chip may become some of the hottest new tools for biomedical research. Scientists have created working models for a range of organs, including the liver, the kidneys, and even an eye – complete with blinking eyelid. Researchers intend to use these devices to model disease and facilitate drug development, replacing animal testing and carrying out personalised medicine in a more effective way. For example, rather than use generic cell lines to study the effects of drugs, doctors in the future could use cells from the patient to test how they would react to different treatment options. This would allow more targeted and effective therapies. The technology is still in its infancy, but what was once inconceivable – risk-free biomedical testing on living human organs – has moved a step closer.
Vaccines teach the immune system to recognise antigens – proteins on the surface of a pathogen – and develop an immune response to them. They do this by either delivering a dead or weakened form of the pathogen, or just its associated antigens, into the body. A new kind of vaccine may fundamentally change that. Genomic vaccines comprise DNA or RNA that encode the target antigens directly. Once injected, the genetic material enters cells and causes the production of the antigens, triggering the desired immune response. Genomic vaccines offer many advantages: they are quicker to manufacture than traditional vaccines and can be produced rapidly when a more virulent strain of a virus like Zika or Ebola suddenly emerges. A single such vaccine can include code for multiple antigens, protecting a person from several diseases, and they can be readily changed if a pathogen mutates. Worldwide, clinical trials are underway for avian flu, Zika, Ebola, hepatitis C, HIV, and some cancers. These vaccines may change the way we tackle infectious diseases.
A major goal of cancer research is to detect cancers at an early stage – before symptoms are apparent – when treating them is likely to be easier and more successful. Liquid biopsies promise to do just that. Liquid biopsies use advanced gene sequencing technologies to detect cancer DNA in blood samples. They are currently used to aid in treatment decisions for those already diagnosed with certain types of cancer, but they have potential far beyond that. Traditional tissue biopsies do not examine the whole tumour, and so may miss cells with more dangerous mutations. In principle, liquid biopsy can detect the full spectrum of mutations and so indicate if more aggressive treatment is necessary. In future, they may provide a simple screening test for early diagnosis of cancer in people who seem perfectly healthy. While it is still early days for liquid biopsies, researchers are hopeful that they will fulfil their potential – and usher in an era of personalised cancer treatment.