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It’s not often you get to chat with an individual versed in the biotechnology and biosciences sector. So when I recently received a few moments aside with Next Biosciences’s CEO Kim Hulett, I asked the important questions.
How is medical technology changing the face of the world for humans? What is South Africa’s place in the global medical technology race? How far out are we from seeing actual super heroes?
You know, the important questions.
Jokes aside though, we caught up with Kim Hulett prior to SingularityU Cape Town Chapter’s Future of Health event, to pick her and her team’s brain about the future of health in South Africa, the ethics of tinkering with biological footprints, and the growing scientific industry of human betterment.
What is biotechnology and bioscience?
As esoteric as these terms might be, they are markedly distinct.
While biotechnology “is simply technology based on biology”, bioscience “deals with the biological aspects of living organisms, i.e. the scientific disciplines that study life through living things”, Hulett explains.
Both are nonetheless driving the advancements in health we’re seeing today, from increasing food production, to “recombinant gene technologies”. But such a vague sentence doesn’t mean much to the average consumer.
Said advancements will be vast and sweeping in the coming years, signalling a complete shift in how we think about ourselves and our world. Ultimately, breakthroughs in bioscience and biotechnology could be the biggest change maker in our world since we discovered fire.
Super humans, designer babies and Sickle Cell Disease
Next Biosciences primarily focuses on human reproductive health, including technologies that allow human beings to selectively screen embryos, and “allows you to select genetically healthy embryos for implantation and thus reduce the risk of miscarriage or having a baby with a serious genetic condition” among others.
Other technologies allows for blood screening, effectively allowing doctors to observe foetal chromosomal abnormalities from as early as 10 weeks. But this is just the beginning of the fields’ scope. While screening embryos is one option, complete gene editing is another potential field, thanks to the likes of CRISPR.
Hulett explains that the latter is effectively a copy-paste-erase tool for DNA. Diseases’ “genetic blueprints” can be viewed as simple blemishes on a worksheet, which can be proofread and simply erased or tinkered.
“In principle, CRISPR makes it possible to repair any genetic error and there have already been some amazing pre-clinical breakthroughs for diseases such as Sickle Cell Disease and Retinitis Pigmentosa,” she adds.
‘The future of designer babies is still unclear, but the scientific community needs to be cautious and consider the consequences of our actions’
The benefits here are clear. Diseases could be erased from DNA. Gene editing could also, someday, result in “super humans” devoid of illness or weakness. “Designer babies” with predetermined traits and physical features, are another possibility.
But that’s all it is for now — a possibility.
“While it may be theoretically possible to engineer some desired traits in humans (where the genetic change can be directly related to a specific biological outcome), germline engineering, or the genetic manipulation of eggs, sperm or early embryos is restricted or banned in most countries and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future,” Hulett reveals.
“The truth is, we still do not know enough about many diseases and biological processes (such as aging) to even consider attempting to edit these for beneficial reasons.
“The future of designer babies is still unclear, but the scientific community needs to be cautious and consider the consequences of our actions,” she warns.
This doesn’t quite mean we’ll be able to cultivate Hashim Amlas, Beyonces, or even Steve Jobs directly from birth. Life experience — that is, experience to environmental components — will still need to play a part in designer babies’ development.
“Abilities such as sporting prowess would have both biological and environmental components – even if the genes are present, what the child is exposed to in terms of nutrition and other stimuli can cause genes to be ‘turned on’ or ‘turn off’,” Hulett notes.
South Africa and its role in furthering the field
Designer babies is a term straight out of a Hollywood movie, and might be best suited for similar affluent regions, but what is South Africa’s role in all of this? We asked Hulett, as a CEO of a South African company pioneering the space.
“South Africa spends less than 1% of its GDP on research and development. Compared to the USA (above 3%) and the EU (2.5%), we do not invest enough in support of research, and biomedical research is not an exception,” she notes, bemoaning the lack of investment in the space.
Although the overall price of genome sequencing is tanking, the technology remains well out of reach of the average African.
‘Healthcare challenges are exacerbated in South Africa owing to a lack of resources’
“Healthcare challenges are exacerbated in South Africa owing to a lack of resources — we are still struggling to provide primary healthcare to millions of people,” she adds.
“However, considering the advancement of healthcare in developed countries and in the private sector in SA, it does allow us to create and employ cost-effective solutions to the broader population and in some instances even leapfrog certain technologies.”
More affordable tech is available in South Africa though.
Health-tracking wearables are gaining traction in Africa, with a 24% sales boom forecast for the MEA region in 2017. This can only be beneficial to those on the continent.
“Sensors and wearables engage us to be more consciously aware and thus affects our behaviour. Lifestyle changes are more important than drugs. Mobile devices are becoming medical devices enabling remote monitoring by doctors. There are so many mobile apps to monitor and measure, with your cellphone even being able to diagnose,” Hulett adds.
“Having this electronic data accessible on your cellphone empowers you to become the CEO of your own health which engages you in owning and knowing your data and thereby taking control your health. Your doctor then becomes your partner in managing your health.”
2017 and beyond
As for the future of health at large, Hulett is hopeful that the world will see a host of new advancements in the coming decade.
Immune therapy for cancer, stem cell replacement therapy, and “point-of-care, instant, genomic sequencing and diagnosis for inherited disease, infectious disease and cancer” are just three that excite her.
“Biotechnology and biosciences are driving medical advances for disease prevention and cure. It is helping us to better understand our bodies and diseases affecting us, thus improving health and longevity. That is why people should care,” she concludes.
Memeburn is SingularityU Cape Town and Johannesburg Chapters’ official media partner.
Feature image: Tom Bullock via Flickr (CC 2.0, resized)