Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology & Medicine at Singularity University in the US, Dr Tiffany Vora, talks about the progress of Digital Biology and the benefits of using innovative technological advancements like DNA manipulation to fight pandemics in developing countries.

Digital Biology is a framework that we use at Singularity University to empower everyone to understand the exponential advances in the life sciences and medicine that are grabbing headlines—and more importantly, are fundamentally changing the way people interact with the world around us and with our own bodies.

By thinking as a Digital Biologist, you realise that all life on Earth runs on the same, open-source programming language: DNA. The exponential drop in the cost of DNA sequencing—reading out each chemical “letter” in order—has driven the digitisation of biological information at an unprecedented scale. Through Digital Biology, anything that we can do to computer code, we can do to DNA. Want to move big chunks of DNA code around? That’s genetic engineering, and we’ve known how to do that since the 1970s. Want to debug DNA code, one “letter” a time? That’s gene editing, using techniques like CRISPR-Cas9. Want to write software for some new kind of life, from scratch? That’s synthetic biology. These and other fields are revolutionising healthcare, agriculture, and other industries.

The Digital Biology framework

The Digital Biology framework empowers advances in healthcare by viewing our bodies (and all living things) as programmable—or reprogrammable. Gene editing is just one powerful application of this mind-set. Let’s say you were born with one DNA “letter” out of the three billion “letters” in your genome (your source code) that gives you a disease such as sickle-cell anaemia. By “debugging” your genome for that one spot on the DNA, you could potentially erase your disease, and your children’s. Is such a thing easy? No. But it’s possible. There are thousands of experiments and trials going on in animals and in humans right now to explore these exciting possibilities.

Gene editing isn’t the only exciting application of Digital Biology in healthcare today. Think about programming bacteria or viruses to deliver medicines inside your body. Imagine reprogramming every mosquito on Earth so that no one will ever contract malaria, or Zika, or yellow fever, or dengue, ever again. How about personalised medication regimes tailored to your DNA and the DNA of all the bacteria and viruses and other non-human things that are important parts of your health, your microbiome? All these applications and more are becoming possible through Digital Biology.

Digital Biology and the African healthcare setting

I’m excited by the ongoing democratisation of exponential technologies like DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence (AI) because flexible, inexpensive technologies empower local solutions in Africa that harness African creativity and expertise.

For example, let’s say I’m a health worker in Africa and I need to rapidly diagnose a disease. Maybe I can’t send a sample out for DNA sequencing at a fancy lab somewhere in Europe or America because there are no passable roads or refrigeration. But if I have a handheld DNA sequencer, an internet connection, and some power, I can rapidly diagnose the infectious disease and identify the first line of treatment and containment. To me, that’s the power of local solutions and democratised technology.

Africa can advance the way it handles pandemics through mind-set shifts. By viewing the future with empowerment and optimism, Africans position themselves to embrace technologies for disease monitoring, prevention, treatment and cures. We talk about a “maker mind-set” in Silicon Valley. That’s a choice for us. In Africa, being a “maker”—solving your own problems—is just how things get done. That’s an incredibly empowering mind-set.

Monitoring and prevention of pandemics in Africa will be crucially enabled by technological solutions. Cheap sensors—including increasingly ubiquitous cell phones and smartphones—plus machine learning and analytics on anything from how people move around to what they eat to snapshots of local health challenges will result in real-time monitoring and perhaps prediction of diseases. Rapid identification will ideally lead to focused, local, effective responses, preventing an outbreak from progressing to a pandemic.

Treating and curing diseases in Africa are also poised to be revolutionised by exponential technologies. Whether we’re talking about breeding pest-resistant crops that are native to Africa (yes, pandemics in plants are a real challenge), programming our immune systems to search for and destroy HIV, or using gene editing to wipe out mosquito-borne diseases, the avenues opened by exponential technologies are vast. The technology-empowered distribution of vaccines, prophylactics, and—most importantly—information will all contribute to the prevention of disease in Africa, too.

Through global communities such as Singularity University, people with different experiences and expertise come together to find the moonshot solutions to Africa’s biggest problems—and those of the entire world. The possibilities are endless. To achieve real change, we need intentionality, creativity, inclusivity, local solutions, and the courage to define a positive future and then go after it.

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