Over the course of the next three decades the United Nations estimates that the global population will reach ten billion, an increase of 2.2 billion. Demands on food supplies and healthcare will intensify – problems already exacerbated over the past 12 months by the impact of Covid-19. Currently more than 400 million people are lacking access to basic medicine and the World Food Programme warns that the number of people facing acute hunger doubled to 265 million at the end of 2020.
At the same time, combating Covid-19 has highlighted the role new technologies can play in meeting these challenges. The virus’s genome was sequenced in a matter of weeks, while the mRNA vaccines that are now being rolled out across the world are significant for future disease treatment. The speed of the scientific response is cause for optimism and indicative of a technological revolution – a ‘Bio Revolution’ – in the life sciences.
“The easiest way to explain the Bio Revolution is to point to someone who has become known as a visionary,” says Werner Baumann, CEO of leading life science company Bayer. “About 10 years ago, Apple’s Co-Founder Steve Jobs was asked about the most disruptive developments he saw on the radar. His answer was: ‘The biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.’ And that’s exactly what’s happening right now.”
Health and nutrition are among the most basic needs of societies around the globe. It’s the definition of systemic relevance. Based on the converging worlds of genes, cells and data, the Bio Revolution leads to a new foundation for scientific breakthroughs in those areas.Werner Baumann, CEO of Bayer AG.
Like the industrial revolution before it, the Bio Revolution represents a convergence of technologies, this time with advances in biological science being driven forward by developments in computing, automation and artificial intelligence. Bayer had already been an innovation leader back then, symbolised by the discovery of Aspirin in 1897. Today, the company operates at the core of the Bio Revolution in healthcare and agriculture and is well positioned to harness the long-term potential which may change the treatment of disease and how we grow food forever.
“Health and nutrition are among the most basic needs of societies around the globe,” says Baumann. “It’s the definition of systemic relevance. Based on the converging worlds of genes, cells and data, the Bio Revolution leads to a new foundation for scientific breakthroughs in those areas.”
In healthcare, the Bio Revolution opens the way for new approaches to diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis that compromise the lives of a large proportion of the population. The aim now is not just to treat symptoms but to develop curative therapies. The work of BlueRock Therapeutics, a company acquired by Bayer in 2019, is focussed on reprogramming mature body cells to behave like embryonic stem cells that are injected to potentially restore diseased tissue in patients.
In agriculture, the Bio Revolution aims to transform the cultivation of food while increasing yields and reducing its environmental footprint. Rapid and ever-cheaper DNA sequencing has deepened understanding of how biology works, and tools such as CRISPR, a technology that allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function, are now being used to adapt crops to climate change. Bayer is using innovative breeding technologies, biotechnology and gene editing to develop short stature corn that is better able to resist severe weather to minimise crop losses.
In addition, Bayer’s impact investment arm Leaps utilises venture capital to build up or grow new innovative companies. In the past five years, it has invested US$1 billion in companies, many of them at the forefront of the Bio Revolution, such as BlueRock which was once founded as a joint venture through Leaps by Bayer in 2016.
“The investments we make at Leaps are early-stage and high risk. But it is important to make these investments early to support the development of these potential breakthrough technologies,” explains Jürgen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer. “It is risky, but we know that those that will succeed will have a huge impact. That is the idea behind Leaps.”
It is important to make investments early to support the development of potential breakthrough technologies.Jürgen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer.
In a joint venture called Joyn Bio, Leaps has teamed up with Boston-based company Ginkgo Bioworks to find ways to reduce the global use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, whose production is responsible for a significant proportion of greenhouse gases. The company is hoping to use a type of bacteria that lives symbiotically with certain plants, capturing nitrogen from the air which then benefits the host plant’s growth. By bio-engineering the microbes the aim is to create bacteria that would be able to perform the same process for a wide range of food crops such as corn or wheat.
“It is a good illustration of how we work at Leaps,” explains Eckhardt. “We teamed up with Ginkgo, they provided access to their synthetic biology technology and engineering platform and we brought Bayer’s microbial strain library to the plate. It is a wonderful partnership and a great way to work with like-minded industry partners.”
Leaps has also invested in biotech company eGenesis, which is carrying out pioneering work to try to address the chronic shortage of organs needed for transplantation. In the US alone more than 107,000 people are waiting for life-saving transplants. The aim is to prevent the human immune system rejecting organs transplanted from animals by ‘switching off’ the part of the cell that triggers the rejection process.
“The technologies are so good that experiments on complex human samples are now at least as easy, accurate and informative as those that used to be the monopoly of 'model organisms',” says Professor George Church, Co-Founder of eGenesis and renowned Harvard geneticist. Since 2004, he adds, there has been a “ten million-fold” improvement in the cost of reading, writing and editing DNA and cells, with a similar impact on speed and quality.
As Bayer’s Baumann observes, advances such as these mean that the Bio Revolution offers the opportunity to fundamentally reassess how mankind deals with some of the most pressing issues it is facing over the coming decades.
“The disruptive technologies of the Bio Revolution will shift key paradigms of our industries,” Baumann says. “In health, this means moving from treating to curing and preventing diseases. In agriculture, it’s about moving from producing more to better and more sustainably. As societies, we should dare to ask: What if? What if diseases like Parkinson’s weren’t diseases we treat, but cure? What if we could create a carbon-positive agriculture? What if underserved communities had everything they need to take care of their everyday health?”
If the Bio Revolution can provide the answers to these questions - and more - then, as the late Apple co-founder predicted, a new era truly will have dawned.
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