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HealthHow genomics is shaping the future of medicine

With so much coverage of the global Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, it is easy to forget that we are living in extraordinary medical times. Advances in medicine are perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement; according to the University of Oxford’s World in Data website, the average global life expectancy rose from 45.7 in 1950 to 72.4 in 2019.  Health poverty remains a problem, of course, but as worldwide technological developments continue apace, the medical...
Mark LomasFebruary 15, 202210 min
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GenomicsGenomic sequences visualization graph/Shutterstock

With so much coverage of the global Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, it is easy to forget that we are living in extraordinary medical times. Advances in medicine are perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement; according to the University of Oxford’s World in Data website, the average global life expectancy rose from 45.7 in 1950 to 72.4 in 2019. 

Health poverty remains a problem, of course, but as worldwide technological developments continue apace, the medical sphere has been a grateful recipient of many innovations: from how patients consult their doctors to data and analytics-enabled continuous care and the way information is shared. As highlighted by Expo 2020’s recent session At the Speed of Life: The Future of Faster and Safer Medical Innovations, there is much to be positive about. 

The medical landscape is now shifting from the general to the personal. Genomics — the study of genes — is among the technological advances that could revolutionize how doctors approach treating and, more importantly, preventing disease. 

“Genomics allows us to understand that although people are exposed to the same risk factors, not everyone develops the same disease,” Dr Raghib Ali, principal investigator at the NYU Abu Dhabi’s Public Health Research Centre, explains. 

“It will allow us to identify which individuals are most at-risk to develop certain illnesses. Using this information will enable us to target certain members of the population.”

In 2003, the Human Genome Project attracted significant media attention, as it sequenced a person’s entire genetic makeup for the first time. The potential that presents from a medical perspective is enormous. As of now, the surface has only been scratched, according to Dr Walid Al-Zaher, chief research officer at UAE-based G42 Healthcare. 

Genomics
Dr Walid Al-Zaher, chief research officer at Abu Dhabi-based G42 Healthcare.

“Genomics is the next evolution of medicine,” Dr Al Zaher says. “Everything in life is personalized. Medicine is the most important thing which should be personalized, but isn’t. 

We currently have a one-size-fits-all approach to drugs, but everyone is different. Having personalized medicine is disruptive to everything. A cancer drug which works in most people will not work in everyone. But technologies are advancing very fast and this is exciting.” 

Genomics and the depth of information it provides feeds into the current global thirst for data which, as is the case in the tech industry, gets at the heart of current medical debate. With data more available and accessible than ever, every medical stakeholder from hospitals to pharmaceutical companies are looking to leverage it in the most effective way. 

Professor John Fraser, director of the Critical Care Research Group in Australia, suggests that “data is the new oil — it will empower us and get us further”. Dr Al-Zaher agrees: “The future of medicine is data — the future of everything now is data.”

He adds: “Whoever is going to invest in analysis and AI, to understand and act upon how to disrupt healthcare — this is where the future is going.”

But despite the tide shifting to a data-centric approach, Dr Anton Decker, president, Mayo Clinic International, urges caution, reminding healthcare professionals not to lose sight of the importance of forging human connections. 

“Medicine is moving at the speed of light and technology is making it so much more convenient,” Dr Decker says. “The biggest driver is the ability to share data; we saw this with the development of the Covid vaccine. 

“But we shouldn’t forget the human aspect at the heart of all of this. We must continue to treat patients as a whole, and remember to pay attention to their psychological and overall wellbeing. Still, there has never been a more exciting time to be alive.” 

Buy-in from the public on matters of health is vital, as evidenced by the largely successful roll-out of the Covid vaccine worldwide. While technology connects and enables effective data-sharing, it can also facilitate the rapid spread of misinformation, which remains a major challenge for medical professionals. 

Transparency and trust are vita, as Dr Walid points out. Dr Ali of NYU Abu Dhabi stresses need for the public to have confidence in medics. 

“If people don’t trust you, whether you are a doctor or a scientist, they are not going to take the vaccine,” he says. “And trust is going to be critical to realizing the potential of these new technologies we’ve mentioned.

“To democratize data and allow people to have access is essential. An influencer who has no science background can say things without facts — this will always exist. Scientist… have a responsibility to intervene with those who have less scientific knowledge.” 

• Watch the ‘At The Speed of Life’ session at Expo 2020 here.

Mark Lomas

Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.

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