Biotechnology Breakthroughs


FORMER SEN. EDGARDO J. ANGARA

Sen. Angara was the longest serving senator in the post-EDSA Senate. Described by the late President Corazon Aquino as “the face of decent Philippine politics abroad,” he is also considered by many as the father of healthcare for authoring the National Health Insurance Act (PhilHealth) and the Senior Citizens Act, among the many landmark laws he has authored.

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Earlier this year, the MIT Technology Review released its annual list of Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies as a selection of articles. One of the articles was about technologies that help reverse paralysis, particularly by using electronic devices as a “neural bypass” to the damaged communication pathways between the brain and other parts of the body like arms and legs.

Recent bioengineering research conducted in Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio was cited in particular. In said research, a quadriplegic man regained some movement in his limbs through a system that included a small and thin brain implant that could record and wirelessly relay neuro transmissions to fine electrodes connected to the muscles of the man’s arm and hand.

Some believe that the same technology—if (or when) it is perfected—could also be used to reverse blindness through microchips implanted directly on people’s eyes, or even restore memories lost due to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been estimated however that such “neural prosthetics” are still 10 to 15 years away from being commercially available.

Another item included in MIT Technology Review’s Top10 list was a cell atlas, described by the science and technology magazine as “Biology’s next mega-project”—with the previous being the human genome project that mapped human DNA.

The cell atlas project, which started just this year, aims to catalogue all the 37.2 trillion cells that make up the human body, and possibly “map” all their functions. Scientists and researchers want to come up with such a comprehensive picture of the cellular makeup of people to gain even more sophisticated insight on how diseases can be cured or how an individual’s health can be generally improved.

Some of the world’s leading universities and research institutions are heavily involved, including the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University and the UK’s WellcomeTrust Sanger Institute. In October 2016, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerbergand his wife Priscilla donated around US$600 million to establish a “BioHub” in California where researchers and companies can work on creating the “Facebook for Human Cells.”

Cutting-edge biotechnologies are bringing this dream to reality. Techniques in “cellular microfluidics” can now allow scientists to trap individual cells into tiny droplets of oil so that each can be studied in isolation of each other. Faster and cheaper gene sequencers—such as the ones utilized against the Ebola outbreak which ended last year—are making it possible to identify which genes are active in certain cells. Such technology, when coupled with new tagging or “staining” methods, is also helping scientists to identify where certain cells end up within a human organ based on their genetic activity.

Some estimate that the cell atlas won’t be completed until 2022 at the earliest. But even today, the gene-sequencing and tagging technology being used for the cell atlas has already given way to other breakthroughs.

For one, doctors can now detect cancer cells by administering liquid, bloodstream based biopsies, as opposed to traditional biopsies where tissue samples are needed. Identified by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as among this year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies, these liquid biopsies are making it possible for doctors to directly monitor the spread of cancer cells, instead of rely on patient’s symptoms to detect the disease’s progression in a patient’s body.

More sophisticated gene therapies, another top breakthrough technology identified by the MIT Technology Review, are also being rolled out, particularly against rare diseases caused by defects in single genes. Researchers are now working on finding gene therapies for afflictions caused by multiple genes, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and even heart failure.

These are only some of the biotechnology breakthroughs that our health professionals and government leaders should study, monitor, and analyze to see how they can be rolled out across the country in the quickest time possible.