Diane Harbison

Diane HarbisonDecipher Analytics

Diane Harbison of Decipher Analytics tells us about the importance of the biotech sector in Scotland and its role in the fourth industrial revolution

We are in the fourth industrial revolution, typified by emerging technologies and facilitated by artificial and augmented intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, 3D printing and nanotechnology. These developments, combined with exceptional data processing power, storage capacity and nanotechnology will lead to transformative scientific achievements in all areas of our lives, but what does this wave of new technology mean for healthcare?

The ability to create artificial human tissues and organs may sound like a futuristic dream, but it is happening right now. Bioprinting is an additive manufacturing process; biomaterials such as cells and growth factors are combined to make tissue-like structures that imitate natural tissues. In order for this to happen, a material known as a bioink is needed to create tissues in layers – Biogelx is at the forefront of this exciting technology. Their synthetic peptide hydrogels mimic the extracellular matrix which supports cell growth, signalling and proliferation in our bodies. The team at Biogelx can reduce the stress that cells experience during the printing process.

We are still a long way off being able to print whole organs, but research is underway in different laboratories to print tissues from organs such as the liver. These bioprinted livers could be used in drug discovery to test drug safety, replacing animal models that are currently used. The challenge for this technology is around increasing the size of the tissue that can be grown. The UK is making a significant investment in this field. The Medical Research Council, part of UK research and Innovation, increased its investment into regenerative medicine research by 80% – spending £50M in 2014/15. Scotland’s researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for regenerative medicine are at the forefront of this research. Professor David Hay is leading a project to develop 3D implantable liver organoids to treat chronic liver disease.

The human genome can be considered as the instruction manual for building a person. The Human Genome Project was an international scientific research project with the goal of determining the sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome (DNA) at a cost of $3bn. Since the project was completed the cost of sequencing has reduced considerably. Affordable sequencing means that Dame Sally Davies’ ambition of spreading the “genetic dream” to as many people as possible is starting to become a reality.

The substantial reduction in gene sequencing costs has transformed work in genetics, making experiments that weren’t possible before feasible. Cancer patients can have their tumour sequenced, allowing clinicians to determine if there are specific mutations that drive their Cancer and allow the cells to grow (proliferate).  Selected drugs can then be used accurately target this.

Precision Medicine’ is now being used in the treatment of melanoma. A biopsy sample of a tumour will be sequenced to see if the cancer cells have a BRAF mutation. Drugs that target the BRAF protein (BRAF inhibitors) or the MEK proteins (MEK inhibitors) aren’t likely to work in people whose melanomas have a normal BRAF gene. If a patient has a BRAF mutation and needs targeted therapy, they will get both a BRAF inhibitor and a MEK inhibitor, as combining these drugs often works better than either one alone.

In Scotland, Bioclavis is leveraging the proprietary genomic platform developed by BioSpyder, which can analyse large patient groups with customizable biomarker panels quickly and inexpensively.

For my own company,  Decipher Analytics, the explosion of health-related data makes this is a very exciting time to be part of the life sciences ecosystem in Scotland. In drug discovery and medicine the pool of big data is larger than ever and grows larger each day with next generation sequencing, electronic health records, digital pathology and imaging data contributing to the amount of information for academia and industry to access and data mine. Big data gives clinicians, researchers and patients’ the ability to make more accurate clinical decisions that will inform more effective treatment for patients and ultimately save money.

Decipher Analytics aims to build a series of disease specific data, integrating data from diverse sources; genetic and sequence information from patient biopsy samples, imaging, histological data, and clinical data from electronic patient records to create a resource for patients, charities, clinicians and the research community

These new data sets will become an important resource for generating life-changing information to be by doctors, researchers and their patients, enabling better stratification of patients for precision medicine clinical trials while also facilitating the rapid development of companion diagnostics and enabling biomarker discovery.

Large data subsets can be used within precision medicine to make informed decisions about developing new medicines; identifying biomarkers, discovering companion diagnostics, or enabling the stratification of patients for clinical trials. The amount of data generated requires the development of tools and capabilities that allow us to integrate multiple data types and identify commonalities in disease specific data sets.

Previously, big data solutions and implementations were built to address very specific individual challenges – meaning that data sets were not integrated. Data integration has become a major priority to deliver a more holistic view of patients and their treatment.

Product development is becoming increasingly data driven with a move towards in-silico analysis of big data to generate and share new insights in real time. To support further research, a unified data system (i.e. a Data Commons) that provides sharing of genomic, imaging and clinical data, and a comprehensive knowledge system that centralises, standardises and makes accessible high-quality data is needed.

Industry 4.0 is an exciting prospect. In Scotland, with the strength of our academic institutes, the innovative SMEs that are part of our ecosystem and the support that can be provided from our enterprise agencies and UKRI, we are poised to capitalise on all of the opportunities afforded by this next industrial revolution.