Biosensors, Biophotonics, Biomaterials and Nanotechnology: From Convergence to Cash
Feb. 20, 2002
A version of this article originally appeared anonymously on June, 2001, in the BioAlberta newsletter, and was reproduced on the website of Strategic Health Innovations (SHI). Dr. Deonandan was its primary author, with contributions from the staff of SHI. The present revised version is presented with Dr. Deonandan’s permission.
Historically, the practice of science has been conducted by single-minded practitioners, isolated on disparate islands of investigation. Pockets of specialists would engage in the furious development of their individual “-ologies”, rarely peering up from their work to consider the advances being made in sister disciplines. Biologists of the last century restricted themselves to the observation of the natural living world, while physicists were content to frolic in their garden of forces and attractions. But no more. The islands are crashing together into a raw volcanic archipelago called biotechnology.
Already, we are witnessing strange marriages between engineers and tissue culturalists, robotocists and surgeons, and between geneticists and quantum physicists. Industry gurus have taken to calling this trend of partnerships and interdisciplinary cooperation, convergence, though the word seems insufficient to fully convey the true extent of amalgamation and interrelationship. Biotechnology convergence is allowing the separate streams of science to once more run together into a torrent of knowledge. At the end of June 2000, 283 convergent products were in trials, most intended to treat cancer, infectious diseases and neurological disorders(1). Not surprisingly, the valuation of some leading biotech companies, in terms of research dollars and stock values, tripled from 1998-2000 (1).
Canada is in a position to capitalize on this area of explosive growth, both financially and in terms of social impact.
According to the Canadian consulting firm Strategic Health Innovations, author of the first comprehensive international study of the converging biotechnology industry and Canada’s role in its evolution, some of the more exciting convergent developments include advances in biosensors, biomaterials, biophotonics and nanotechnology. A decade ago, all of these were unknown sciences whose underlying concepts were relegated to the realms of fanciful science-fiction. Today, these sectors are on the cutting edge of scientific advancement.
In the world of biosensing, Canadian companies like SensorChem and Sensium Technologies are paving the way by blending expertise in biochemistry and computer technology to create a powerful new generation of medical diagnostic and information processing tools. Future biosensor developments include the eventual creation of a “laboratory on a microchip”, which will allow a patient’s DNA to interact with a computer chip, providing almost instantaneous therapeutic prognoses tailor-made for that patient.
The world of biomaterials has seen the cooperation of microcellular specialists and tissue culturalists with materials engineers. This science’s applications are impressive to be sure, as biomaterials are critical in any device that must operate adjacent to living tissue, such as subcutaneous drug delivery systems and artificial organs. The burgeoning public awareness of the importance of stem cell research has brought much attention to the biomaterials sector, since stem cells provide a convenient basis for the controlled differentiation of tissue toward an industrial or therapeutic purpose.
The University of Alberta’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is a leader in the nation at new discoveries contributing to this field. Most recently, the department’s Dr. Hasan Uludag has identified a way of delivering proteins directly to the bones that need them–a discovery which may lead to new ways of treating osteoporosis.
Because biomaterials can be considered the construction medium for various devices, they readily lend themselves to convergence with other emerging technologies, such as genomics and nanotechnology. Advances in genomics are resulting in cleaner, more accurately targeted drugs and other biological products. According to Strategic Health Innovations, biomaterials are likely to play a widening role in the refinement of such targeting (2).
Biomaterials will also be pertinent to the customization of therapies for an individual. A scenario in which tiny synthetic biomaterials containing the appropriate treatments are fabricated for a specified patient and directed to the required site by molecular motors, may be realized within the next twenty years. On a macroscale, biomaterials are being employed for the development of artificial and hybrid tissues and organs. Already, Dr. Michael Sefton of the University of Toronto is leading a global effort to create the first artificial heart, while Dr. Ron Worton’s team from the University of Ottawa has made significant a discovery relating to the use of stem cells to treat neuromuscular disease (2).
Biophotonics is one area of the convergent biotechnologies that has leapt straight from the pages of science fiction novels. Biophotonics involves the response of biological tissues to the presence of light. It is the direct progeny of the marriage between biology and physics, and it will change the world in no uncertain terms.
In the biophotonics realm, therapies range from photodynamics, the employment of light-activated drugs for the selective destruction of cancers, to the use of microwave lasers to directly affect tumorous masses.
While the biophotonics technologies will probably be in pervasive everyday use soon, nanotechnology is still several years from producing viable consumer products and ubiquitous therapies. Nanotechnology involves the emerging line of microscopic robots intended for effecting repairs from inside tissues. Resulting from the collision of electrical engineering with biochemistry, information technology and mechanics, nanotechnology is the ultimate realization of the convergent vision. Through its ethic, sufferers of a number of disorders will one day enjoy the influx of an army of tiny medical robots tailor-designed to soothe each patient’s individual ailments at the molecular level. The University of Toronto, pioneered by Dr. Doug Perovic, will offer the world’s first undergraduate program in nanoengineering in 2001-2002; such is the prevailing faith in the power and importance of this technology.
These innovative disciplines are exciting in their newness and promising for their potential to address heretofore untreatable ills. Moreover, they are seductive for the oceans of wealth they potentially represent. Strategic Health Innovations predicts that these four sciences alone will account for trillions of dollars in global market value in only a few years. (2)
The promise of both financial reward and the precise treatment of a host of diseases has propelled our scientists toward an ethic of convergence which will change much of our world for the better. According to Chabursky, “the convergence of biotechnology with other sciences will lead to significant improvements in the delivery of healthcare in this century.” We are in the midst of a revolution.
- Ernst & Young. Convergence: The Biotechnology Industry Report.
- Strategic Health Innovations. Emerging Convergent Biohealth Technologies – Global Perspectives and Canadian Strengths: A Report Prepared for Industry Canada, March 30, 2001.