LIFE SCIENCES: THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE OF BIOLOGY
Life sciences include all those scientific disciplines that study living organisms – microbes, plants, animals and humans – in all possible ways. Since the discovery of the role of DNA in the middle of the last century, our biological knowledge has seen a dramatic increase, absorbing over 60% of the world’s scientific research funds. The core disciplines are biology and medicine, and they are supported by chemistry, physics and mathematical sciences.
Biology, which is the core science of the field, is divided into numerous disciplines such as genetics, zoology, genomics, ecology, immunology and neurobiology. The combination of biology with other sciences has created additional interdisciplinary disciplines such as biotechnology, bioinformatics and systems biology. The charm of biology is that it opens a window of knowledge from which we can not only delve into the detailed knowledge of every living organism, every cell and every single function but also look at the interconnectedness of all life forms on the planet.
What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is the most prominent component of the life sciences. Simply put, biotechnology is a toolbox that leverages our understanding of the natural sciences to create solutions for many of our world's problems. We use biotechnology to grow food to feed our families and to make medicines and vaccines to fight diseases. We are even turning to biotechnology to find alternatives to fossil-based fuels for a cleaner, healthier planet.
Biotechnology is grounded in the pure biological sciences of genetics, microbiology, animal cell cultures, molecular biology, embryology and cell biology. The discoveries of biotechnology are intimately entwined in the life sciences industry sectors for development in agricultural biotechnology, biomanufacturing, human health, precision medicine and medical devices and diagnostics. For example, biomedical researchers use their understanding of genes, cells and proteins to pinpoint the differences between diseased and healthy cells. Once they discover how diseased cells are altered, researchers can more easily develop new medical diagnostics, devices and therapies to treat diseases and chronic conditions.
Digital health, or digital healthcare, is a broad, multidisciplinary concept that includes concepts from an intersection between technology and healthcare. Digital health applies a digital transformation to the healthcare field, incorporating software, hardware and services. Under its umbrella, digital health includes mobile health (mHealth) apps, electronic health records (EHRs), electronic medical records (EMRs), wearable devices, telehealth and telemedicine, as well as personalized medicine.
Stakeholders in the digital health field include patients, practitioners, researchers, application developers, and medical device manufacturers and distributors. Digital healthcare plays an increasingly important role in healthcare today.
Terms related to digital health include health information technology (health IT), healthcare tools, health analytics, healthcare informatics, hospital IT and medical technology.
The application of information and communications technology to provide digital health interventions to prevent disease and improve quality of life isn't a new concept. However, in the face of global concerns -- related to aging, child illness and mortality, epidemics and pandemics, high costs, and the effects of poverty and racial discrimination on access to healthcare -- digital health platforms, health systems and related technology continue to grow in importance and to evolve.
According to Deloitte Insights, digital health employs more than just technologies and tools; it also views "radically interoperable data, artificial intelligence (AI), and open, secure platforms as central to the promise of more consumer-focused, prevention-oriented care."
Advances in AI, big data, robotics and machine learning continue to bring about major changes in digital healthcare. Also, alternations in the digital healthcare landscape continue developments in ingestible sensors, robotic caregivers, and devices and apps to monitor patients remotely.
Examples of digital health technology
Digital health innovations are designed to help save time, boost accuracy and efficiency, and combine technologies in ways that are new to healthcare. These innovations can meld medicine and the internet of things, mHealth and IoT, medicine and augmented reality (AR), and blockchain and EMRs.
The internet of medical things (IoMT) refers to the combination of medical devices and applications connecting to health IT systems that use networking technologies. IoT use cases range from telemedicine technology to improve communication between patients and doctors, to decreasing the potential for exposure to contagious diseases and to various smart sensor technologies that can collect data at the user level. For example, demand for telehealth services rose as a result of COVID-19, with a greater number of providers relying on technology to deliver virtual services to patients.
Innovative IoT applications in healthcare continue to emerge. Cleveland Clinic ranked smartphone-based pacemaker devices as a top innovation for 2021. Using a mobile app, smartphone-connected pacemaker devices can be designed to securely and wirelessly transmit data to a patient's network, giving patients better insight into the health data from the pacemakers and transmitting the health information to their physicians.
MHealth, including wearables, apps and mobile technology that provide access to health care support and monitoring, is experiencing growth, particularly for helping manage long-term, chronic conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rise in demand for personal health monitoring via wearables, which straddle the line between consumer and medical devices. Vendors of wearable devices added features for heart rate variability, pulse oximeters, electrocardiography and continuous glucose monitoring.
Another significant application is blockchain-based EMRs, which aim to reduce the time needed to access patient information while improving data quality and interoperability. Blockchain's benefits -- access security, data privacy and scalability -- are attractive in digital healthcare.
Using AI in healthcare applications can augment human decision-making by automating and speeding up previously labour-intensive tasks. Many hospitals, for example, use AI-based patient monitoring tools to collect and treat patients based on real-time reports. In medical imaging, the use of AI can reduce the number of clicks needed to perform a task and determine the next steps based on context. Another AI application, digital twins, can be used to model medical devices and patients and show how devices would work under actual conditions.
AR, which integrates digital information with the user's environment in real-time, is applicable in patient and doctor education, surgical visualization and disease simulation.
Big data -- which draws information from all these health systems and applications -- poses both benefits and challenges. The amount of data is massive and continues to proliferate.