Silicon Valley is obsessed with biology.
It is being hailed as the next big technological revolution, to rival the recent computing one. We are now automating biological experiments, finding ways to reprogram cells and viruses, and even 3D-printing organs.
So it was unsurprising that health and biotechnology were the focus of many innovative projects to come out of Singularity University, a summer programme based in the heart of the Valley.
I spent three months among 80 scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world, tasked with searching for solutions to some of humanity’s toughest challenges.
My team project, Mitera, had three main aims:
- To create a non-invasive test to diagnose non-communicable disease at an early stage, starting with breast, lung, gastric and pancreatic cancer.
- To reduce false positives in population screening by creating a test that could be carried out frequently and fit into daily life – like brushing your teeth.
- To provide a personal biomarker profile to define an individual’s ‘normal’ values rather relying, as we do now, on values based on population statistics. We were aware of many new mRNA and microRNA biomarkers of disease being discovered in the blood that could provide the basis for an entirely new diagnostic test.
We were faced with three big challenges, but the principal challenge was to make it non-invasive.
At Singularity University, the teams are multi-disciplinary which means we count as ‘experts’ in our own field but a ‘novice’ in someone else’s. In my team, for example, there was me, a quantum physicist, a serial entrepreneur, an expert in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and a design thinker with business development expertise.
When trying to create new solutions, the novices often bring the best insights. They suggest ideas that the expert, biased by knowledge, would not have considered – and that sometimes actually work.
It was a novice that first suggested using saliva. My impulse was to dismiss the idea as impossible. I knew that although saliva could be used to test for some hormones such as cortisol, it was not routinely used in clinical practice. But a quick search revealed a whole field of salivary diagnostics. Hundreds of new biomarkers of systemic diseases have been discovered in saliva.
The concentrations, however, are tiny – which is where our quantum physicist came in. We ended up designing a nanosensor capable of detecting a single molecule of a biomarker in just a drop of saliva.
The device could be used on a weekly basis, by dabbing the drop of saliva on the sensor placed by your bed or in your bathroom. The information would be sent straight to the Cloud and interpreted in the context of the user’s historical trends. If a marker repeatedly gave cause for concern over a period of few weeks – reducing the chance of false positives – then a doctor would be alerted and the person brought in for review.
The toughest problem we faced was whether this kind of device would be welcome in people’s homes. Health and disease information is so emotionally charged that people tend to dislike engaging with it on a regular basis.
In training to be a doctor I am very aware of this, but Singularity University has also taught me to question the status quo. I’m not alone. Google X announced a new project this week: a wearable health monitor that plans to diagnose diseases by sensing the location of ‘cancer-detecting’ nanoparticles injected into the bloodstream. While developments such as this are still far in the future and may possibly never materialise, I hope that as we become empowered by technology to take control of our own health, we will start to be less fearful.