Can we ever cure cancer? How can we help people who urgently need an organ donation? When can we effectively combat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer or the Parkinson? These are some of the main questions that medicine will face in the future. In laboratories, researchers use cutting-edge technologies to unravel the biological mechanisms underlying serious diseases and develop new therapies to alleviate or completely eradicate diseases that are currently considered incurable.
Recent research has produced impressive results, for example, in the treatment of certain types of cancer. “With so-called CAR-T therapies, it is now possible to treat cancer patients with their own immune cells,” says Dr. Marianne De Backer, Director of Strategy, Business Development and Licensing of Bayer Pharmaceuticals, and a molecular biologist by training. “This is done by taking certain cells from the patient’s body, which are modified and then reinjected for treatment.” In this way, the patient receives a medicine adapted to his individual needs.
De Backer also sees great potential for development in gene therapy: “We have known for a long time that certain diseases are caused by genetic mutations. However, the novelty is that today we can sequence our genome for only 150 euros to predict the risk of developing a certain disease. In the near future, we will probably be able to predict cancer up to 10 years in advance using blood samples. “
Digitization as a factor for the advancement of medicine
Prof. Dr. Erwin Boettinger is Professor of Digital Health – Personalized Medicine at the Hasso Plattner Institute and the University of Potsdam, Germany, and Co-Director of the Hasso Plattner Institute for Digital Health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. For him, the key to the progress of medicine is in digitization, especially in the development of artificial intelligence: “In radiology or pathology, for example, we have already seen that algorithms can reliably detect cancer signals. These systems have already received approval for some cases. “
Marianne De Backer clearly sums up the importance of digitization for medical progress: “If we have a problem with our car, a warning light comes on on the dash. Then we solve it on our own or consult a specialist, such as a mechanic. of automobiles. In the future, we could foresee a similar scenario in the field of human health. Already today, the Apple Watch warns us of certain cardiological risks. Perhaps our bathroom mirror will detect signs of skin cancer one day. “
What seems like science fiction actually has the potential to revolutionize health. “I’m thinking, for example, of smart tools that patients can use to monitor their own health and collect data,” says Adib Jacob, president of the Pharmaceutical Division of Bayer in Latin America and Brazil. “By incorporating these data into medical practice, we can significantly shorten the process of taking a patient’s history to make a diagnosis.” With the advancement of nanotechnology, it is even conceivable that, in the future, nanosensors will be placed on the body to record and transmit important vital signals.
But research alone will not solve the medical challenges of the future. Health workers must be willing to collaborate and share data with each other. “We live in an era of biological and digital revolution, characterized by a high rate of innovation, but also by increasing complexity,” says De Backer. “No single company can take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. We need to work together. Collaboration is the key to success.”
The current Coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of working together: Global collaboration and open management of research data helped identify promising vaccine candidates in record time. “There have been rare times when industry and government have joined forces to rapidly bring drugs needed around the world to market,” Backer emphasizes.
More research collaboration
At Bayer, there are several models for fostering research collaboration. With “Leaps by Bayer”, for example, Bayer’s impact investing unit, the company is investing in solutions for some of today’s biggest challenges in the fields of health and agriculture. Small biotech and digital health startups are deliberately chosen as allies because they are often strong and innovative researchers in their fields.
However, they often lack the means to perform complex tests, manage approval procedures and distribute a medicine on a global scale. And that’s where strong allies come in like Bayer. “Ultimately, both parties – but especially the patients – benefit from the partnerships between Big Pharma and small biotech companies and digital health startups,” says De Backer. An example of this will be the arrival in Mexico of OneDrop, a digital platform for predictive, preventive and personalized self-care that will support people in the treatment of diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol.
For De Backer, there is no doubt that in the future digitization will have an even greater impact on the work of pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer: “Digital technology is increasingly used in the pharmaceutical industry and at all stages of our value chain. At the same time, more and more technology companies are entering the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors, breaking down barriers. This development will benefit consumers. patients “.
Adib Jacob cites the example of telecommunications: “For 100 years, the fixed network was the gold standard, but then profound changes associated with broadband communication emerged, posing challenges to the industry. We are currently witnessing a similar dividing line in the pharmaceutical industry: traditional pharmacological research is increasingly being strengthened by research approaches driven by digital technology. These are new challenges, but I have no doubt that companies are well prepared for them. “
Innovative research results, global collaboration and increasing digitization form the foundation of the medicine of the future. Work on this basis has already begun and has produced impressive results. “I have been a molecular biologist and biotechnologist for almost 30 years,” concludes Marianne De Backer. “I have witnessed many advances in modern medicine first-hand. However, I never dreamed that in 2020 we would have gotten as far as we have.”