Bioconvergence is a transdisciplinary field in which researchers from various scientific disciplines in areas such as medicine, nanotechnology and biology work closely together and across usual silos, to create significant breakthroughs in the development of new medical treatments. Several rare, hereditary diseases and chronic disorders that today have few or no treatment options may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to the use of bioconvergence as a model for scientific collaboration.
This is evident in Boston city’s dynamic life sciences ecosystem, which is packed with companies, research institutes and organisations that have already integrated bioconvergence as an approach and a method.
One example is Intellia Therapeutics, which specialises in genetic diseases. Earlier this year, Intellia presented a solution to the disease ATTR amyloidosis, which results due to a genetic defect. With one simple treatment, one expects to soon be able to cure the disease.
The treatment is based on the CRISPR/Cas9 system, the now well-known cut-and-paste tool for changing gene sequences. The gene-editing tool and gene therapy are delivered directly and intravenously into the patient’s liver cells in a harmless capsule of fatty acids. This is the first time that genetic changes have been made directly in the cells of a living person. That fact alone is completely revolutionary.
Intellia uses bioconvergence in its approach to innovation, research and product development, and the new treatment has therefore been developed by a team of experts from a wide range of disciplines.
The gene sequence to be inserted to repair the patient’s cells has been identified and designed by bioinformatics scientists, with the help of databases using artificial intelligence. Molecular biologists ensure that the CRISPR guide and the Cas9 enzyme are in stable and functional form. Nanotechnologists are developing the biomaterial in the lipid capsule in which the system is delivered.
Intellia’s new technology can probably be used to cure countless other serious genetic diseases. In December 2021, it published results showing that the same type of treatment can help in relation to the disease HAE (hereditary angioedema).
Another Boston based company, Moderna, has developed its COVID-19 RNA vaccine through bioconvergence. The extremely rapid development was the result of a cross-sectoral collaboration between bioinformatics, virologists and medical technologists.
A bioconvergence approach meant that researchers in biology, chemistry and nanotechnology could together create the lipid nanoparticles in which the drug, in this case the RNA vaccine, is delivered. At the same time, bioinformatics and molecular biologists worked intensely to develop and prepare a wide range of gene sequences that quickly matched the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.
At the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, researchers, product developers and businessmen with roots in both the academic world and industry work side-by-side to solve challenges in areas such as biodiagnostic technology, immunological materials, living cell devices, synthetic biology, predictive bioanalysis, 3D organ development and molecular robotics.
Several discoveries at Wyss Institute have revolutionised drug development. For example, the development of hydrogels, which ensure efficient and safe delivery of drugs to a specific treatment site in the patient, without the drug having to pass through the digestive system first in the form of pills. The dosage is thus more precise and the medicine works as locally as possible. Hydrogels are extremely beneficial for the treatment of tumors.
Boston’s successful experience with bioconvergence is an excellent inspiration for the actors in the Omani ecosystem who work with research and development and the innovative solutions to the health challenges of the future.
By bringing together Omani academic researchers from different disciplines, industry researchers, engineers with experience in product development and business developers, a solid foundation can be formed for accelerating scientific discoveries with commercial potential.
Research successes should not only be measured by the traditional academic parameters but should also include IP rights, concluded business alliances, licensing agreements, spinouts and new technologies.
Such an approach will help Oman in fulfilling the objectives laid down in Oman Vision 2040 such as building an effective national system that nurtures scientific research, innovation and creativity to build a knowledge-based economy and society and building technology-driven medical systems and services in the country.
There is huge potential for the Omani healthcare sector to be inspired by the bioconvergence model. One of the biggest challenges lies, among other things, in a comprehensive culture and mindset change as well as in the establishment of the right structures that support cross-sectoral cooperation.
The key to success lies in interdisciplinary collaboration around well-defined strategic challenges and strong partnerships.
(The writer Syed Adil Abbas is an MBA graduate from Cardiff Metropolitan University (UK). He is currently based in Muscat and has over 20 years of international experience working with the public and private sectors in the Middle East, Far East, Africa and India.)