Detecting signs of skin cancer in the bathroom mirror
The field of medicine is currently experiencing an incredible surge in innovation, driven by groundbreaking new biological discoveries, a digital revolution and a growing willingness to collaborate in research globally. What can patients expect for the future?
Will we someday be able to cure cancer? How can we help people who urgently need a donor organ? When will we be able to effectively fight neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's? These are some of the major questions that the field of medicine will face in the future. In laboratories, researchers are using innovative technologies to decode the biological mechanisms underlying severe diseases and develop new therapies to alleviate or completely eradicate conditions that are currently considered incurable.
Recent research has yielded impressive results, for example, in the treatment of certain cancers. "With so-called CAR-T therapies, it is now possible to treat cancer patients with their own immune cells," says Dr. Marianne De Backer, Head of Strategy, Business Development & Licensing at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, and a molecular biologist by training. "This works by taking certain cells from the patient's body, modifying and then re-injecting for treatment." This way, the patient receives a drug that is tailored to his or her individual needs.
De Backer also sees great development potential in gene therapy: "We have known for some time that certain diseases are caused by genetic mutations. What is new, however, is that today we can have our genome sequenced for as little as 150 Euros in order to predict the risk of developing a certain disease. In near future, we will probably be able to predict cancer up to 10 years in advance using blood samples."
Digitization as a driver of medical progress
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 in New York. For him a key to medical progress lies in digitization, especially in the development of artificial intelligence: "In radiology or pathology, for example, we can already see that algorithms can reliably detect signs of cancer. These systems have already received approval for some cases."
Marianne De Backer vividly sums up the importance of digitization for medical progress: "If we have a problem with our car, a warning light appears. Then we solve the problem ourselves or consult an expert such as a car mechanic. In future, we could imagine a similar scenario in the field of human health. Already today, the Apple Watch warns us about certain cardiological risks. Maybe our bathroom mirror will detect signs of skin cancer someday."
What sounds like science fiction actually has the potential to revolutionize healthcare. "I'm thinking, for example, of smart tools that patients can use to monitor their own health and collect data" says Erwin Boettinger. "By incorporating this data into medical practice we can significantly shorten the process of taking a patient's medical history and making a diagnosis." As nanotechnology advances, it is even imaginable that in the future nano sensors will be placed in the body to record and transmit important vital signs.
But research alone will not tackle the medical challenges of the future. Players in the healthcare field must be willing to collaborate and share data with one another. "We are living in an age of biological and digital revolution, characterized by a high rate of innovation, but also by growing complexity," says De Backer. "No one company can single-handedly take advantage of the opportunities arising thereby . We need to work together. Collaboration is the key to success."
The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of working together: Global collaboration and the open handling of research data have helped to identify promising vaccine candidates in record time. "Rarely before have industry and government joined forces to quickly bring drugs to the market that are needed worldwide," De Backer emphasizes.
More collaboration in research
At Bayer, there are various models to foster collaboration in research. With "Leaps by Bayer," for example, Bayer's impact investment unit, the company is investing in solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges in health and agriculture. Smaller biotech and digital health startups are deliberately chosen as partners because they are often very innovative and strong researchers in their fields.
At the same time, they usually lack the means to conduct complex testing, manage approval procedures and globally distribute a drug. This is where strong partners like Bayer come in. "Ultimately, both parties – but especially patients – benefit from partnerships between large pharmaceutical companies and small biotechs and digital health startups," says De Backer.
For her there is no doubt that digitization will have an even greater impact on the work of pharmaceutical companies like Bayer in the future: "More and more digital technology is being used in the pharmaceutical industry, and at all stages of our value chain. At the same time, more and more tech companies are entering the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors, blurring the boundaries. This development will benefit patients."
Erwin Boettinger points to the example of telecommunications: "For 100 years, the landline network was the golden standard, but then profound changes associated with broadband communication came in, posing challenges for the industry. We are currently observing a similar watershed moment in the pharmaceutical industry: Traditional drug research is now increasingly being enhanced by digitally driven research approaches. These are new challenges, but I'm sure companies are well-prepared for them."
Innovative research achievements, global collaboration and increasing digitization build the foundation for medicine of the future. Work on this foundation has begun and has already yielded impressive results. "I have been a molecular biologist and biotechnologist for almost 30 years," Marianne De Backer concludes. "I have experienced many developments in modern medicine firsthand. Nevertheless, I would never have dreamed that in 2020 we would be as far as we are today."