Ralph Weissleder (seen right, © Wikipedia), who is a professor of systems biology at Harvard and a specialist in interventional radiology, has just contributed an editorial to Science Translational Medicine. Entitled “Leveraging technology to address current and future world issues,” he warns that society will face various emergencies in the coming decades, including viral pandemics, rising cancer incidence, antimicrobial resistance, and the effects of climate change on food supply. Weissleder, who has an astonishing h-index of 211, argues that technology – with its origins in biology, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, and engineering – will shape the future of medicine.
He has identified several biomedical technologies, including: (1) cell, gene and immune engineering to enable new forms of transplantation; (2) tissue cultures to personalise drug testing; (3) metabolic engineering and synthetic biology to facilitate antibody and RNA production; (4) minimally invasive interventions based on advances in imaging, robotics and medical devices; (5) biosensors to support patient monitoring; and (6) advances in computation to assist with imaging and diagnostics. Weissleder says he is surprised that progress does not happen as quickly or widely as possible, and asks: Why is this the case?
While the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that new technologies – such as the roll-out of the mRNA vaccines – can advance at lightning speed, this success stands in stark contrast to other technologies that often take a decade or more to reach the market. He posits that there are at least six main contributors to slow translation: (1) increasing regulation; (2) lack of funding; (3) competition; (4) market saturation by “good enough” technologies; (5) added costs; and (6) excluding the end users. Thus, “We are often resigned to making do with the status quo while the best technologies lie unused.”
In thinking ahead, Weissleder highlights some key areas that, in his view, require greater attention, recognition, and support. First, he argues that we need roadmaps to prioritise and promote translational science. This includes the establishment of new organisations for rapid innovation, recognition by educational institutions to promote technological translation, and the introduction of national and global strategic plans. Second, he suggests there should be policies to promote more rapid translation, where society should be thinking in a proactive rather than reactive fashion to reduce the long lead times to develop novel drugs and medical devices.
Finally, while recognising that editorials do not change the world, Weissleder believes we have an extraordinary opportunity to make this a better world, concluding: “To reap the potential benefits of scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, we must appreciate the complexities of translation and begin to break down barriers.”