Breakthroughs are made almost daily in the field of biotechnology. Steve Jobs once said, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning just like the digital one was.” Innovators around the world are currently realizing the sentiment expressed in his statement, and the products covered here represent just a few examples.
The phenomenal decrease in the cost of DNA sequencing is making it more accessible to people worldwide. While the cost may be relatively low, people still have to go to hospitals or learn how to operate the tabletop DNA sequencing kits. However, Oxford Nanopore Technologies a company based out of the United Kingdom is making sure that all one needs is $1000 and a computer.
The MinION is a compact DNA sequencer that can connect to your USB port, and it uses a new technology called nanopore sequencing. In the traditional approach, long strands of DNA had to be minced and all the fragments had to be sequenced. Nanopore sequencing is capable of handling long strands, thus eliminating a painstaking process. It also helps the development of sequencers that are cheaper and more compact.
The user places pre-treated samples into a small port. An enzyme then unzips the DNA and feeds one end into a pore – a set of proteins arranged in a ring. An ionic current is passed through the pore, and the DNA bases that are present in the pore interrupt the current. Depending on the distinctive interruptions caused by groups of base pairs, the software can determine the sequence of the DNA.
In a novel way, MinION is continuing the DNA sequencing revolution that promises personalized healthcare for all.
Tissue engineering has also been in headlines recently for the rapid progress in developing artificial organs. A significant advancement in the field is the availability of 3D printers that can print out living tissue.
California-based medical research company Organvo is developing a printer called Novogen MMX Bioprinter to print livers. The livers are capable of surviving for 40 days, which is a significant improvement over the 48-hour lifespan from 2D cultures.
Two syringes are filled with bio-ink, the first with parenchymal cells and the second with non-parenchymal cells. Software determines the position in which each syringe needs to be placed to generate mold, and, once generated, the cells in the molds fuse and form the complex matrix of liver tissue.
The work is similar to research done at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom where engineers and scientists developed a 3D printer to print living cells. They had to ensure that the pressure with which the cells were dispensed was gentle enough to avoid killing them and that the applied shear stress would not rupture the membrane.
Such advances in tissue printing will help the 120,000+ patients on waitlists for organ transplants. If the technology improves, it has applications in skin grafts as well, according to research being conducted at Wake Forest University. As technology continues to advance worldwide, one can be sure to see more such breakthroughs in the coming years.
The above products are just a few of the many advances that are pushing the boundaries of human technological prowess. The new innovations are making an impact on the world and are changing the way we view medicine. With the current rate of progress, it is exciting to think how far the healthcare revolution will take us within the next few years and beyond.