Panacea for the Planet?
Last week, while the world was tuned to the Nasa briefing on the discovery of seven Earth-like planets around a cool star about 40 light years away, medical diagnostics experienced a mini-revolution. It could change how potential diseases are detected and treated. It is a reusable biomedical chip that costs 1 cent, roughly 70 paise, and can detect almost all lethal diseases from AIDS to cancer.
In the paper, Multifunctional, Inexpensive, and Reusable NanoparticlePrinted Biochip for Cell Manipulation and Diagnosis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of Stanford University engineers claim that this miniaturised lab-on-a-chip (LOC) has the potential to lower the diagnostics costs to unheard of levels. This is the best news for the developing world with modest public healthcare infrastructure and near absent point-of-care diagnostic facilities. An invention like this can save many lives across Asia, Africa and South America.
For a long time, access to quality healthcare in countries such as India has been limited. Often, a hospital is far away from the places of disease outbreaks and it takes a long time for a disease-response team to reach farflung areas to diagnose the ailment. Every year, be it encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh or malaria in north West Bengal, scores of people die often without proper medical care.
The Stanford research team has taken a note of this gap. “In the developing world and resource-limited areas require numerous special design considerations to provide effective early detection of disease. Of particular need for these contexts are diagnostic technologies featuring low costs, ease of use and broad applicability,” they write in their PNAS paper. The need has resulted in the manufacturing process that is simple yet effective.
The Stanford chip has a three-layer configuration. The top layer is reusable and it can be “printed onto the device through a standard ink-jet printer”. The disposable, silicone bottom layer is designed to hold biological fluids from a patient to be analysed. The third part consists of a thin barrier that keeps the electronics in the top layer away from the fluids in the bottom chamber.
The production of the chips is a two-step process. The first involves creation of a custom electronic circuit based on user needs. That is, designing a circuit that will isolate biomolecules with distinct properties, such as shape, size, or polarisability, when an electric potential is applied across the circuit. Then based on the design “regular inkjet printers that can be used to print the electronic strip onto a flexible sheet of polyester using commercially available conductive nanoparticle ink and place it over the single-use silicon chambers”. In the future, according to the team, “designs for the top layer can be downloaded from the web”.
It is not only the costs that have come down, but also manufacturing time — to minutes now. “Perhaps most notably, the device manufacturing is significantly less expensive, time-consuming, and complex than traditional LOC platforms, requiring only an inkjet printer rather than skilled personnel and clean-room facilities. Production only takes 20 minutes (vs up to weeks),” the report states.
How did the chip perform under laboratory conditions? During the study, the Stanford engineers conducted tests to find out if their chip could be used to isolate cancer cells from a fluid sample. It did that without any hitch. The researchers write that they also compared the efficiency of their chip against an available Rs7,000,000 flow cytometer, a device to measure the characteristics of cells, typically used to count immune cells, and both tools measured the cell count accurately.
With arterial stent prices having been reduced by nearly 75%, a device like this will make medical facilities a lot cheaper than what it is today. It can potentially stop diseases from assuming an epidemic proportion and can allow medical administrators to divert a lot of funds to develop other areas of medical infrastructure.
However, there is always the fear of profit sharks. Before the government clamped down, a stent that costs around Rs15,000 in Germany was selling for Rs100,000 in India. Many feel the government was late in taking action.
But a caveat. Like the Nasa scientists not sure about the presence of alien life forms on the newly found seven planets outside our solar system, the commercial production of the Stanford device is still not on the horizon. This will depend on several factors — from further testing to meeting several standards. The team has started the process. “This inexpensive, accessible platform has broad applications in precision diagnostics and is a step toward the democratisation of medical technologies,” the report states. Let’s wait and watch, patiently. Digitisation has become deeply embedded in banking strategy, as nearly all businesses and activities have been slated for digital transformations. The significant advantages of digitisation, with respect to customer experience, revenue, and cost, have become increasingly compelling. The momentum to adopt the new technologies and operating models needed to capture these benefits continues to build. The risk function should be no exception. Indeed, we are starting to see digital transformations in risk create real business value by improving efficiency and the quality of risk decisions. A digitised risk function also provides more effective regulatory compliance. Experience shows that the structural changes needed to bring costs down and improve effectiveness in risk can be accomplished much like digital transformations in other parts of the bank. The distinguishing context of the risk environment, however, has important implications. First, risk practitioners in most regulatory jurisdictions have been under extreme pressure to meet evolving regulatory requirements and have had little time for much else. Second, chief risk officers have been wary of the test-and-learn approaches characteristic of digital transformation, as the cost of errors in the risk environment can be unacceptably high. As a result, progress in digitising risk processes has been particularly slow.
From: Digital Risk: Transforming Risk Management for the 2020s
Yes, this does look promising