The year 2020 ushered in a new period of science and technology — but what does that mean? In this blog, we discuss how technology and science intersected, and what that could mean for the future, specifically in healthcare.
As I sat through my son’s high school baccalaureate and graduation ceremonies in the spring of 2021, my mind wandered back to the start of his senior year.
During the summer and spring that preceded it, he had lived through history and his experiences as a senior would make history too. They’d be shaped by an unseen yet highly contagious virus. He would have to wear a mask all day at school, socially distance and practice band outside. He would have to quarantine, forego homecoming and see a planned church mission trip to India canceled.
The global pandemic of 2020 had profound impacts on our families, communities, our country and the world.
At the same time, a silver lining appeared: Not since we conquered polio, have we seen the discussion of science in daily life so prominently. We witnessed novel technology with messenger RNA (mRNA) emerge and go mainstream, fueling the development of our COVID-19 vaccines. We also saw scientific collaboration thrive on a global scale, powered by a decade of investment in cloud technology.
2020 Impacts to Science and Tech
By many accounts, 2020 became a year of science. Front-line workers focused on treating and healing those with COVID-19 and people in life sciences working on a vaccine were the main news. Science topics not widely discussed in public were becoming more common as were the concepts and challenging science behind them.
COVID-19 vaccine development helped spotlight the intersection of life sciences work and technology. As the FDA gave its emergency use authorization (EUA) for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, it became clear a once theoretical treatment model using mRNA had become mainstream. For this to happen, two sectors of our economy – molecular and genomic research and information technology – had to interweave.
Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) and foundational research in RNA interference (RNAi). Among many, we can credit Fire and Mello’s RNAi research as it helped the scientific community understand gene silencing and specifically more detailed pathways in the central dogma of molecular biology – transcription and translation.
As we developed a better understanding of the biological processes, we had to leverage technology to test and validate this understanding. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) allowed research groups to process and read sequences of RNA in hours, not days or weeks.
Sequencing instruments also enabled research groups to rapidly-produce on-demand genetic sequences to then run animal experiments using them. Significant cloud computing resources were allocated and applied to model transcription processes in silica. Finally, materials sciences research modeled and developed microscopic fat droplets (nano lipids) to package RNA and effectively deliver it for translation.
Using these tools and technology, Moderna was able to rapidly model and develop its own COVID-19 vaccine candidate. In fact, using the computer science concept of an “operating system,” Moderna treated mRNA drug candidates as “programs” and ran them in their discovery space.
Business Technology for the Healthcare World
Additional technology solutions designed to foster collaboration and information sharing also played a part. High-speed internet connections enabled real-time audio and video collaboration with Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx and the like.
Team collaboration tools, leveraging concepts like activity stream communication helped teams collaborate in real-time – sharing, whiteboarding and reviewing results in a virtual space. Attended bots also played a part, as information could be ‘searched’ with a simple, natural language query. Finally, cloud storage supported both saving and sharing of large sequence datasets.
With the success of RNA based COVID-19 vaccine and the mRNA technology supporting it, some have speculated we will see a dramatic rise in translational gene therapies. Certainly, venture funding rushed into the life sciences sector in 2020, and I believe this will drive growth in gene therapy investigational new drug (IND) filings through 2021 and 2022.
The year 2020 helped bring science onto the global stage and into full public view. Through the pandemic, we’ve seen that science is designed to question itself, thoroughly following the scientific method through each critical step. Theories are many, facts are few.
Science is also filled with hope. We’ve seen that global collaboration can rally and work out a therapy to combat a global viral threat. Global collaboration, advanced understanding of genomics and significant advancement in cloud technology helped develop a vaccine in less than one year.
Although I’ve seen the impacts of COVID-19 firsthand and up-close, I’ve been energized and my passion for science and education reignited. I’ve had more non-work conversations in the last six months about DNA, RNA and the central dogma than I have in my undergraduate molecular genetics class in the mid-1990s. A church friend even confided that he took the COVID-19 vaccine after talking with me about the underlying science.
As a society, our attention span may be short. We may soon forget masks, social distancing and quarantining. We may also see 2020 fade into memory as we return to more normal travel, vacations and community events. What may remain, however, is an enhanced appreciation of life sciences and technology. Perhaps 2020 is the year we awoke to the importance of both.