Biotechnology is one of the most cutting-edge sectors in which radical breakthroughs occur. It seems that every couple of months, something comes roaring out of the field that captivates the imagination of the public, conjuring images of a future in which biotechnology can vastly improve the quality of life for all.
However, not all of the developments in biotechnology seem to make it into the media cycle, even though progress within the field is continuously marching forward. Many of the recent developments in the field of biotechnology are not only exciting but have the potential to completely change how the world around us functions.
Biotechnology has always had a profound impact on humanity at large. Mankind has been dabbling in biotechnology for thousands of years, with the discovery of crop cultivation and the domestication of animals being early examples. This fascination with biotechnological advancements to make life easier for all and significantly extend the life span of human beings has only compounded over time.
The healthcare field has perhaps been the largest beneficiary of the discoveries biotechnology makes, and as a result, the fields of oncology, neurology, immunology, infectious diseases, and regenerative medicine are among the main drivers of biotech research and development. This driving force has made biotechnology into a booming business, with biotech-developed drugs accounting for about 21% of the global demand for pharmaceuticals as far back as 2012.
In the last decade the advent of biotechnologies with the ability to convert any blood type into the universal donor type O, 3D printers capable of printing human organs, non-invasive techniques for monitoring fetal genetic abnormalities, and the now infamous CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique have inspired a serious influx of interested investors into biotechnologies.
One only needs to look at the story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes to see how hungry investors are to get in on the ground floor of the next industry disrupting iteration of biotechnology. While Theranos fell well short of its promises to provide technology that was capable of running tests with only a few drops of blood, the company was still valued at $9 billion all before it even had working prototypes to showcase.
While investors are now warier due to the failure of Theranos and the moral and ethical morass that is the pair of CRISPR-edited babies that were produced in China, there is still seemingly no roof on investment opportunities when it comes to biotechnology.
Nanotechnology is poised to revolutionize the world of neurology, promising to make huge strides in regards to brain repair and augmentation. The biotechnological applications of nanotechnology and nanoengineering might one day allow for brain-machine interfaces and neuroprosthetics. This could have the potential to completely alter not just the healthcare field but just about every tech business in the world today. These fledgling technologies need wealthy benefactors, and it seems that there is no shortage of investors that see the potential in biotechnology.
Another interesting development in biotechnology is affecting not only the technologies that are produced but how those technologies are developed in the first place. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are proving to be far more than just buzzwords used by tech startups, but they are becoming a vital part of the ability to make groundbreaking biotechnological discoveries at a much higher rate than ever before. AI and ML are being used to great effect in diagnostics, as de facto lab assistants, and to discover new drugs.
With the wealth of data that is available to scientists around the globe, they are relying more on AI and ML to help with data analysis tasks and parse huge lakes of experiment and testing data to quickly point out what is and isn’t working, allowing for progress to be made at a much faster pace.
One of the largest issues facing new biotechnology-driven medical devices is that there is difficulty is getting new iterations into the hands of consumers. This is largely due to the long cycle of approvals that are currently part of medical device development. This puts an unfortunate damper on the ability to roll out new biotech-driven devices that can make the lives of healthcare professionals easier and improve patient outcomes.
Bureaucracy just isn’t able to keep up with how AI and ML are affecting scientists’ ability to develop new technologies and treatments. Despite the progress in the biotechnology field that AI and ML make possible, their true potential may never be fully realized unless the approval process is streamlined.
The idea that AI and ML might be hamstrung doesn’t sit poorly with everyone, however, as there are many who call into question the ethical and moral implications of relying too heavily on them. The argument against AI and ML is basically that these technologies do not feel as humans do. Therefore, they will be neither benevolent or malevolent in nature — but they may prioritize efficiency in achieving a goal without consideration of moral or ethical boundaries that may be crossed in the pursuit. While this inherent ambivalence can be helpful to avoid bias in a medical setting when diagnosing a patient, it can cause problems.
However, as AI and ML continue to be useful in biotechnological research, it will become more important to align their intelligence capabilities with human goals, overseeing their progress to ensure that it remains as beneficial as possible.
The security of biotechnology has become a major concern in recent years — and for good reason. People are already fairly distrustful of new technology, especially after so many recent massive data breaches have affected some of the largest corporations in the world, putting literal billions of users’ information at risk. AI’s ability to verify information and identify risks is advancing to keep up with security demands; however, there will always be risk involved when valuable data is available.
While having personal and financial information compromised in a breach is bad enough, biotechnological advancements have added even more important and user-specific personal data into the mix in the form of genetic information. With the rise of companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, consumers are now more than willing to send off their genetic data in the hopes of finding out about their history or about potential hidden medical risks that they might encounter later in life.
Consumers’ genetic information is now a commodity, and as more genetic information is stored and shared digitally, cybersecurity personnel will have to make sure that DNA sequencing can be used only by those with authorized access and that data is completely secure, lest they lose consumer confidence.
One very real and dangerous threat that could be realized with the theft of huge swathes of information is an enhanced ability to create potent and effective bioweapons. Additionally, genetic information could be used to track individuals or lead to discrimination based on private medical records. Though it is unlikely that the worst-case scenario occurs and the world becomes a dystopia in which your genetic code dictates what you can and cannot do in life, it is still important to recognize the risks that biotechnological developments can pose and actively work to avoid them.
Biotechnology has opened and will continue to open many doors for humanity as a whole. Despite the issues that arise when biotechnology is seen as a business or the ethics of using AI and ML to further scientific research, biotechnology overall is creating a more advanced world. As long as those in the biotechnology field go forward carefully, recognizing all the potential pitfalls that could occur regarding security and ethics, the future looks incredibly bright for biotechnological developments.