Written by Robert England, PhD | Uppsala
on April 07, 2021

I’m looking at the world from the vantage point of Easter 2021. And yes, there is hope of resurrection. People are playing tennis in Regent’s Park in London. Football games are opening up to fans - carefully. People are hoping to visit a pub again soon. Concerts might actually have live audiences. I have a ticket to see Pearl Jam in Hyde Park in June – I might actually be able to use it.

What do we have to thank for this renewed, long-lost sense of optimism? Is it social distancing? Most probably. The wearing of masks and staying at home? Definitely a huge contribution. What about the several vaccines against COVID-19? An emphatic YES.

The giant, historic achievement of the development and roll-out of the vaccines against COVID-19 will allow people all around the world, when fully vaccinated, to once again live a full life, throwing their arms and embracing each other wholeheartedly. Birth rates in the US are down from 4% to as much as 30% (depending on the specific state) since the pandemic. Perhaps our new-found freedom could drive a very necessary baby boom.

I would be a liar if I told you that the stoic social restraint of the past year hasn’t affected me. I hope that you will admit the same. It’s evident in the rise in mental stress, financial distress, daily tristesse, and general ennui that we have been hit hard, and some people have been hit very hard indeed. My sympathy to you if you or your family have been struck by the pandemic.

The role of science in vaccines and medicine

There is a clear link between our ability to control our fate, and our mutual well-being. The COVID-19 vaccine is the most recent and concrete example. It has shown that, when called upon, the scientific global community has the ability to cooperate and accelerate beyond the usual limits that we (understandably) place upon ourselves in the form of checks and balances, to ensure the safe and careful introduction of new solutions. Having said that, the new vaccines went through all the normal clinical trials, albeit at record speed. 

The prerequisite for success seems to be that we are in agreement that we need to work together, and create a working environment where that is possible and where barriers are down. And looking at our global agenda, there is so much more that remains to be fixed. Your shortlist of global challenges may be different from mine, but might include (in no particular order):

  • Cancer
  • Rare diseases
  • Infectious diseases
  • Poverty and inequality
  • Climate change

We don’t (yet) have the technological equivalent of vaccines for all of these. But we do have many nascent technologies where the application of sound science could very well bring solutions to fruition.

Science creating advancements

Here are some prime examples of currently ongoing envelope-pushing work.

In a start-up in Denmark, they have developed their idea to take a biopsy of tumour cells from a cancer patient. The cells are cultured outside the body in 3D micro-tumours in their thousands. It’s then a straightforward matter to test a range of cytotoxic drugs on these micro-tumours to identify which one works best on that specific patient. We’re struggling to find a search-friendly name for it, and at the moment we think it’s ‘functional precision oncology’.  (Interestingly, 15% of all Google searches have never been done before. There is therefore every opportunity for the company to build a position in this area.) A major challenge is to get their solution recognised and incorporated into clinical routine in hospitals around the world, so that more cancer treatments work right first time.

We have the honour of supporting one of the first companies in the world to use genomic data from large populations to identify the genes that code for rare diseases – diseases whose genetic origins are today partially or completely unmapped. If you imagine that a genome for a single person is about the size of a set of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and the genetic defects around half a dozen typos, you may get a feel for the enormity of the task of pinpointing these rare mutations.

We are also supporting a company founded by Ed Southern, the inventor of the microarray and the Southern blot, that exists to help pathologists and clinical geneticists identify the genetic causes of cancer, rare disease and cytogenetic diseases. 

Also in the genomics space, we are working with a company to help them change the existing healthcare paradigm. Adverse drug reactions are currently the world’s sixth biggest killer, but the use of genomic technologies to guide treatment selection could help to change this staggering statistic. The use of predictive genomics could also be used to assess patient risks for common diseases and ensure those most at risk receive extra monitoring or can take preventative action. 

Companies are cooperating to create the world’s first Augmented Reality Microscope (ARM). Pathologists, our current human source of tumour detection, can now train microscopes to detect tumours by applying the principles of deep learning. The rate of automated early detection of cancer is already very close to the capabilities of human-only pathologists. The potential impact on global health is also huge when you consider that the ARM can be applied to the detection of infectious diseases such as Malaria.

In the streets of Manila, Dhaka, and in hundreds of cities around the world, people are born and grow up homeless and beyond the reach of welfare. Among them are individuals whose potential is so great, that despite these disadvantages, they manage to get an education, some even becoming doctors or lawyers. 

Some of the most important technologies to support disadvantaged people focus on the empowerment of women. Women are naturally committed to improve the future of their children. The key technologies are micro-loans to support them and their enterprises, access to clean water, and the opportunity for women and their children to get an education.

What COVID taught us

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with concerted and focused effort, we can achieve feats beyond our wildest dreams. The climate dilemma, and its seemingly inextricable coupling to our global model for economic growth, is perhaps our greatest common challenge. We need to continually improve living standards as have markedly been achieved from Bangladesh to China, but now we must improve them sustainably. Some of the answers certainly lie in science and technology, aided by judicious global policies.

Science is first and foremost a method to study nature and society with rigour. Its alliance with technology has served mankind over the past five centuries. Now we need a concerted global effort to direct science, technology and policy to determine our common fate. 

We must not waste this crisis; we must learn from it. Our response to the pandemic proved that positive change, powered by science, is wholly possible.

Read more from Robert

Related article: Science communication is in trouble


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