Healthcare will be transformed in the age of big data and genetic analysis, according to Nobel laureates at the recent Global Young Scientists Summit 2020 in Singapore
The future of healthcare will be driven by big data and genetic analysis, improving patient outcomes but opening up new questions about data privacy and ethical considerations.
Speaking at the recent Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) 2020 in Singapore, several Nobel laureates made this assessment and added that scientists have to work with policymakers and the public to confront other rising challenges in the field, including growing distrust of vaccines and antibiotic resistance.
Big data, new questions
Professor Aaron Ciechanover, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, noted that the world is moving towards personalized medicine, with advances in genetic analysis enabling clinicians to stratify diseases at the molecular level and predict how different individuals might react to the same medicine.
“We are now in the process of being able to profile each of us at a reasonable price in a short time. This means that medicine is changing from being about the disease to being about the disease in the context of the patient. There won’t be a different drug for every single person, but we should be able to group patients for more customized treatments,” he explained.
Medical researchers can also use big data to ask and answer new questions. By collecting and analyzing health data from a large pool of patients using a particular drug, for example, researchers could determine if there are any correlations worth investigating.
“If we see that there are fewer instances of cancer among people who take metformin, a drug for diabetes, we could find out if people who have diabetes are less prone to cancer, or if metformin itself plays a part in the reduced cancer,” Professor Ciechanover said.
Other Nobel laureates added that greater insight into people’s genetic differences could aid in drug development, which typically takes years and costs millions to billions of dollars.
“In the past 20 years, we’ve seen several excellent drugs taken off the market because several patients with unusual genetics died after being treated with them,” said Professor Kurt Wüthrich, who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“Each time, this has meant the loss of millions of dollars and many people who did not have the benefit of being treated with those drugs. We can only hope that, with genetic analysis, we can pick out those few potential patients who should not be treated with the drugs. That is a very important line of progress,” he said.
Confronting new challenges
Disease prevention and diagnoses will also be revolutionized by the convergence of big data and artificial intelligence, said veteran scientist Professor Alex Matter, who has been called the father of targeted cancer therapies.
“The problem with treatment is that it’s too late. You want to prevent diseases before they occur. The growth of wearable technologies to collect health data continuously, and artificial intelligence programs to analyze it, are big steps towards that,” he said.
Furthermore, artificial intelligence trained with very large data sets will be able to diagnose diseases more quickly and accurately than medical personnel. “That will help to relieve the pressure on our busy, overworked doctors, and allow them to spend more time with their patients,” said Professor Matter.
The ability to collect and make use of people’s genetic and health information, however, is fraught with privacy concerns, he added. Electronic health records, for example, could help to ensure that patients receive the best treatment across different doctors and hospitals, but could also be exposed instantaneously and widely through cyberattacks or mistakes.
The greater availability of genetic data also poses ethical questions, said Professor Ciechanover. “If you get information about your genetics and vulnerability to certain diseases, are you obligated to tell your employer or insurance agent? Should you tell your children? Having such knowledge could also affect our psyche,” he explained.
He continued: “Beyond issues of genetic privacy, we also have to contend with the issue of gene editing. Technologies can be abused in a variety of ways.”
Science and society
Troubling trends in recent years have also demonstrated that scientific advances, no matter how significant, are not enough by themselves to improve healthcare, said Professor Alain Fischer, chair of experimental medicine at the Collège de France in Paris.
“Just look at vaccination, which is probably the most important contributor in the fight against disease over the past 200 years,” he said. “There have been many advances in the field of vaccines. Vaccinations against measles and tetanus alone have saved millions of lives. Even so, the degree of resistance against vaccinations is rising in several parts of the world.”
“To advance in medicine, we need to advance in science, but we also need to work on education and communicate health policy issues, so that the public understands and follows the right practices, whether it’s exercise for old people, getting vaccinations, or not smoking or drinking too much. This is at least as important as the science,” he stressed.
Professor Wüthrich summarized: “We have increased the average human lifespan, but not necessarily the span of life in which we are comfortable and healthy. That is the challenge that we have going forward.”
Organized by the National Research Foundation Singapore, the GYSS 2020 was the eighth edition of the annual event, which aims to provide a platform for conversations on science and research, technology innovation and global issues. It was held from January 14 to 17, and had the theme of “Advancing Science, Creating Technologies for a Better World”.
Over the four days, 325 outstanding young researchers and 16 distinguished scientists from around the world interacted with one another across 15 plenary lectures, panel discussions, small group discussions, site visits and dialogue sessions. The public also heard from the eminent scientists in forums hosted by local universities and schools.