Future of BioSciences

The future of biosciences: four scenarios for 2020 and beyond

-Paul Schoemaker and Michael Tomczyk

In the coming years, the convergence of genomics, proteomics, stem cell research, regenerative medicine, bioinformatics, nanotechnology and other life science technologies will pose significant opportunities and challenges in every sector of society. Remarkable achievements in molecular science and other areas of medicine have ushered in a ‘new age of medicine’. Biomedical solutions are making it possible to eradicate or control most diseases, extend longevity, and improve the quality of life.

Some of these technologies will be ‘wildly successful’ while others will fall far short of expectations. Some will be welcomed by the public, and others will be rejected. If successful, new therapies will come from analysis and manipulation at the molecular level of organs, tissues, cells, genes and proteins and from the convergence of biomedicine/systems biology and information technology, telecommunications and nano technologies. We would also expect new types of sensors, implants, drug delivery systems and artificial organs; and improved diagnostics to detect communicable diseases before symptoms appear.

New forms of personalised care and customised medicine would also be enabled. If unsuccessful, stem cell research, tissue engineering and therapeutic cloning could be restrained by public policy; drug recalls could slow the regulatory process. Gene therapy may not be available before 2020 and even if gene therapy ‘works’, a stunning failure could introduce unintended mutations or other consequences, and smother genetic research. If a lethal virus or bacteria is resistant to known cures, we could see unprecedented pandemic diseases; weaponised diseases in the hands of bioterrorists could likewise wreak havoc worldwide. Decision makers need to consider how biosciences will influence health insurance, pensions, privacy laws and governance.

Scenarios can be influenced by many forces and events, such as an economic downturn, changes in population demographics, the pace of innovation, enabling technologies such as supercomputers, et. al. Scenario building in a complex environment requires a systems approach. With so many variables in play, and countless ‘possibilities’ available, a sense-making framework is needed to conceptualise the key cause and effect relationships in the biosciences. The Bio Sciences research team has created an ‘influence diagram’ for each scenario that shows driving forces and consequences, implement regulations, and plan for the transforming effects on long term care, life insurance, agriculture, consumer products, industrial processes and much more.

We also have the emerging field of printing of bio-parts and it is growing increasingly ambitious by the day.

Reproduced by permission of William and Phyllis Mack Institute for Innovation Management

Paul Schoemaker and Michael Tomczyk copyright (c) 2010, William and Phyllis Mack Institute for Innovation Management, The Future of BioSciences: Four Scenarios for 2020 and Beyond

Our perspective

The 20th century witnessed massive improvement in life expectancy around the world from 31 years to around 67 years. Though, education, sanitation and housing also contributed, the improvement was largely led by healthcare and breakthrough in biosciences. Advances in biosciences are the topic of much discussion not only for life extension, but also for ‘quality of life’ enhancement using genetics, regeneration and machine solutions. Moreover, the promise of bioscience lies beyond healthcare to industries as diverse as agriculture, chemical, textiles, paper and energy.

One thing we know for sure—we all need to pay attention to what happens in the life sciences because the implications are enormous, for all of us. Indeed, biosciences may offer a very successful professional life in the decades ahead. Some of the emerging technologies in biosciences:

Whole Genome Scanning: for personalised medicine

Nanotechnology: for developing sensors to monitor changes within a cell, rapid diagnostics, new means of targeted drug delivery and new therapeutics.

Implantable sensors: for monitoring the health and in some cases, alert or even respond to changing conditions within the body.

Vaccine Technology: for cheaper and safer vaccines.

Synthetic Biology: to custom build organisms for industrial applications

Computer-based drug development: to cut the cost of drug development and accelerate the process.

We also know that biosciences are a highly multi-disciplinary domain now – medicine, engineering, governance, technology, insurance, agriculture, chemistry and chemical processes, material science. However, the knowledge of the human body and biological processes and organ will remain at the core of biosciences. In some ways, a strong foundation in biology till class XII is a very smart career move for the long term, even if one does not have to study medicine. But are our children serious about studying biology, let alone studying medicine?

How do we turn the tide and better prepare students for careers in biosciences? It’s a multi-layered problem, but has to be addressed early in the education process by schools to trigger students’ interest in biology and help them develop the foundational skills needed to pursue careers in biosciences.

Specifically, learning biology can be made more effective and interesting by using some of the following strategies:

  1. Start from general and then move on to specific
  2. Study about things that are near or can be seen and then things that are far or cannot be seen.
  3. While studying any living organism, proceed from outside the body of the organism to inside it, the parts, their functions and how does everything add up and make the organism suitable for its surroundings.
  4. Living samples or live-like model of the subject under study make biology more interesting.
  5. Some comparative study between organisms makes the understanding better and helps children see the diversity, step by step evolution from single cell to multi-cellular complex organisms and the greater pattern of evolution and classification of organisms.
  6. While studying the non-living surroundings, move from simple to complex ideas. For example water > rain > water-cycle > flood and draughts > pollution, etc.
  7. Children should study the nonliving elements in our surrounding such as air, water etc., and then the interaction between these elements. How changes in one effects the changes in others, and how humans are changing the surroundings, for both good and worse.
  8. Studying the interaction between living and non-living and seeing the big picture that non-living things fulfill the needs of living things; that organisms adapt to changes in the environment so as to make the best use of available resources needs to be highlighted.
  9. While learning about a biological process, try to enumerate the conditions that are required, its importance to the human body/organism and how the process/principle can be applied in real life.
  10. Watching news and reading science magazines and books (and there are many interesting books now) help children learn biology, see biology happening in everyday life and relate it to what they already know, make them curious to learn about what is happening or what could happen in the future.
  11. Put the knowledge of biology to test in your children’s daily activities. For example, after playing a sport or running, discuss about the processes that are happening in the body, what is making the heart beat faster, and how and what made the muscles move and ache? On seeing a bee on a flower, discuss about what the bee is doing and how such a small creature is essential for life on earth.
  12. Children often find terms in biology to be complicated and difficult to spell. This makes them not only afraid, but also makes them memorise strange names, which they do not understand. Most terms in biology have their roots in Latin and have prefix and suffix. Identifying the prefixes, suffixes and the Latin root that composes the terms will greatly help in spelling the word and also in grasping the meaning of the word. For example, photosynthesis is made up of two words photo and synthesis, where photo = light and synthesis = create, that is, the process that creates food in presence of light. Going through the Latin prefixes and suffixes would be a playful thing too.

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