The world of bioengineering is seeing such dramatic change that it can feel as though science fiction is becoming reality.
Can you envisage a future in which chemotherapy is no longer routinely needed to treat cancer? When, instead, we will manipulate the body’s own cells to heal itself? I can. And I feel confident that such treatments will be in regular use within the next five to ten years.
These are exciting times to be working in bioengineering. We are now at the point where our ability to change the physical make-up and behaviour of cells is leading to remarkable innovations in health treatments, food production and so much more. From reprogramming our immune systems to producing kilos of edible meat synthetically, I believe that the interface between biology and engineering is where we will see the most dramatic scientific progress in the next decade.
With such huge opportunities also come a host of ethical questions. Biomedical engineers are on the edge of advances that previous generations of scientists could only have dreamed of. But what do we do about them?
I’m a biomedical engineer for a product development and technology consulting firm. I joined Cambridge Consultants in 2017 as a new graduate, having studied biomedical engineering at the University of Glasgow. Mine was only the third year that the university had offered this subject to undergraduates and there were just 35 of us on my course. This career choice seemed unusual back then but it vividly reflects the evolving situation in life sciences today – the intake now is around 100 students per year, on a par with the numbers studying mechanical engineering. Like a lot of youngsters with good science A levels, I had initially considered a career in medicine. Then I discovered that I could become an engineer working with live products. Once a niche field, bioengineering is now set for centre stage. As my fellow bioengineers look seriously at the prospect of creating a full ecosystem on Mars, I truly believe that this branch of science is the space exploration of the 21st century.
Since I joined Cambridge Consultants four years ago, I have worked on several projects that have opened my eyes to the potential of this field. In one notable project, the company was commissioned by a small start-up to see if it is possible to use DNA as a data storage system akin to flash memory. The science behind this made sense. DNA is tiny but stable – so could it be used to record and store vast amounts of information for industrial systems, or even the average consumer?
I have never forgotten the thrill of seeing the whole of Wikipedia condensed to a few drops of DNA in a test tube. It is fair to say the project has been an outstanding success so far. Its potential is literally life-changing: the world expends a shocking amount of energy on computing and data storage. By engineering the biological potential of DNA to store information, we can make such a difference to all our futures.
Another project we are working on, called PureSentry, is also a gamechanger. It is aimed at making gene therapy for conditions like cancer far less expensive and inaccessible. We know that it is now possible to treat cancer by extracting cells from the body’s own immune system, altering them to attack the cancer and re-introducing them into the body. However, the cost – up to £500,000 per patient – is prohibitive. A substantial percentage of this expense goes on the difficulties of culturing the cells outside the body, so we worked in-house on a way to make the process quicker, safer and cleaner. PureSentry is a monitor that combines our engineering knowledge of fluidics, optics and AI to observe cell cultures in real time, spotting contaminants instantly.
In this way, our inexpensive piece of bioengineering kit could make gene therapy far more widely accessible. It is no exaggeration to say that I foresee a time, within the next decade, when cancer patients will not have to go through chemo or radiotherapy in order to be cured of their disease.
Another project, with huge implications for oncology and other serious health conditions, is called CellPreserve. This aims to extend the life of cells in a liquid biopsy so that far better diagnoses can be achieved. Again, this project is centred around the intersection between biology and engineering. The team created a piece of kit that can manipulate a liquid biopsy so that an individual cell could be kept alive and monitored for up to 14 days. This opens the door to earlier and more accurate diagnoses, as well as better treatments, for patients.
As part of my job, I have been encouraged to take part in all sorts of forums that debate the bigger picture around the future of biomedical engineering. I believe that the implications for what we’re able to do now aren’t just scientific, but also ethical and political. Discussions between policy-makers, teachers, technologists and thought leaders are becoming more commonplace, which has opened my eyes to how I should view my day-to-day work as a bioengineer.
Take agriculture, for example. We now live in a world where it is technically possible to grow a whole kilo of edible meat from a single cubic centimetre of pork. What does that mean for the world’s farmers, our environment and our health – not to mention climate change?
I believe it is important for scientists to raise their heads from their microscopes and keep a steady eye on the bigger picture. Bioengineering may soon mean we’re able to grow food in space and colonise another planet. But what does that mean for our treatment of the planet we currently occupy?
And with gene and cell therapy already saving lives in the fields of cancer and other rare diseases, where are we going with the genetic manipulation of the human body? Will we soon be growing whole human organs for transplant? Will it become possible to create a designer baby with, say, an immunity to certain illnesses or – more problematically – a world-beating sporting ability? Could wealthy people one day be able to pay to change their own cells to become healthier or more intelligent? During this rapid time of growth in the biotechnology sector, it is crucial that regulatory bodies evolve alongside the furthering of education in bioengineering to allow these technologies to be forged responsibly.
This may all sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these dilemmas are already front and centre in the biotech world. How we address them is one of the biggest questions facing science, and the world in general, today. I am honoured to be a part of that debate, but we cannot assume that technologists alone can provide all the answers.