Biotechnology is 'learning'—and will 'learn' even more—how to develop new technologies that improve our lives from cells and biomolecular processes. These auspicious words were pronounced by Hayat Sindi, the Chief Advisor for Science, Technology and Innovation to the President of the Islamic Development Bank, on 3 November at the opening of her Medal Lecture, at TWAS Fifteenth General Conference.
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the event, hosted by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in collaboration with the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), was organized in an all-virtual mode from 1–4 November.
TWAS Medals are prestigious recognitions that TWAS Fellows receive for their outstanding accomplishments in science. Sindi, one of the most influential Arab scientists ever, was awarded the Medal exceptionally—as she is not a TWAS Fellow—in recognition of her achievements in biotechnology and her leading, inspirational role as a woman scientist, who puts innovation to the service of the developing world and promotes science education.
She graduated in pharmacology from King’s College London, in 1995, and five years later was the first woman from the Arab States of the Persian Gulf to obtain a PhD in biotechnology from the University of Cambridge.
Her entrepreneurial spirit combined with a brilliant mind brought her to file nine patents for a machine that uses the effects of light and ultrasound in the early detection of breast cancer.
Equally relevant, in 2011, she launched “i2", the Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity that aims at empowering the next generation of innovators through fellowships, training and mentorships. And in 2018, she contributed to the launch of the "Engage" platform—the first digital hub of its kind for the developing world—aimed to accelerate economic and social progress in the developing world through science, technology and innovation.
Her Medal Lecture was indeed focused on the power of biotechnology for the betterment of all the people.
"As a scientist, I believe that through innovation we can make a scientific impact and generate new solutions for education, health and livelihoods," she said. "My personal goal is to make science practical and accessible for people and our communities."
Then she offered a comprehensive overview of the most impacting achievements of biotechnology, which she pictured as "the science that uses natural cells and biomolecular processes."
Humans have exploited for over 6,000 years biological processes carried out by microorganisms to prepare foods such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products, she explained. But in this century, we are witnessing the unfolding of new, even more important biological secrets.
"Some important key inventions and discoveries are under our eyes: antiviral agents, gene editing techniques, how to grow in vitro artificial organs and even the hyperbaric therapy."
Medical biotechnology, in particular, is a powerful tool that enhances patients' quality of life and alleviates suffering. In this respect, great progress has been made in the field of artificial human organs: through biotech, we can create adequate conditions for cells to grow over scaffolds, to form organs that are immunologically safe and are not rejected by the recipient.
"At present, we can grow ears, but imagine what we could do if we could grow a human heart! For hearts, we are at a step where we clean the organ received from a donor using a detergent, to eliminate resident cells. Then, on the collagen skeleton that is left behind, we allow stem cells to rebuild the muscle."
She explained the importance of hyperbaric therapy, which involves breathing pure oxygen in an environment under controlled pressure. This approach is mainly used to treat decompression sickness, a common risk for scuba divers. "Hyperbaric therapy reveals how little we know of the human body. Recent progress suggests it could be applied also in the case of Alzheimer, brain haemorrhages and even cancer. It's a low-risk approach, which grants a good quality of life."
Gene editing and the related molecular technologies have allowed leapfrog progress, in recent years. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a technology that allows cutting the DNA with molecular scissors, to rewrite the genetic code in case of disease-causing mistakes.
"They have opened an entirely new world, with potential applications to the treatment of major diseases, including cancer and inherited conditions, not only in developed but also in developing countries," added Sindi, who led IsDB efforts, in a joint initiative with the International Atomic Energy Agency, on saving women’s lives from breast and cervical cancer in low- and middle-income countries.
"The new mRNA technology that is playing an important role in the treatment of COVID-19 stems from these advances," pointed out Sindi, who has been engaging with several health partners to develop solutions that strengthen the global supply of COVID-19 diagnostics by leveraging and building manufacturing capacity in IsDB member countries. Other common diseases, such as sickle cell anaemia, AIDS and malaria, may receive benefits from the application of gene-editing techniques.
In parallel, she added, it is fair to mention that other COVID-19 treatments are in the pipeline, such as ivermectin, that granted the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Satoshi Omura and William C. Campbell, for their discovery of a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites.
As Sindi said: "This substance stops river blindness, and recently, in cell plates, it showed potential also against coronavirus. Despite some controversies, as I speak, scientists are working to find analogues of ivermectin to stop COVID: at only 50 cents per treatment, this substance would be a remarkable tool in our fight against this virus."
To conclude her speech, Sindi mentioned some pioneering investigations aimed at expanding lifespan up to the unprecedented age of 250 years, by rejuvenating cells that could, in principle, revitalize the entire body.
"This is biotechnology at its best," Sindi said. "We can target potentially any disease, give a better quality of life to people, and help them to be more productive. Achievements that are given for granted in developed countries, gradually move to the developing countries. Future goals will certainly be achieved, with hope for all human beings."