If we are going to take advantage of the wealth of resources and economic potential on this continent, we must acknowledge and invest in STEM.
Thierry Zomahoun, President and CEO of African Institute of Mathematical Sciences
It is probably true that when you cannot see beyond your nose, you can hardly prepare for the future, whatever that is. History has countlessly shown that fatalism only exists in the minds of the haplessly naïve. I grew up with the notion, probably almost everyone did, that once you set your mind on a particular goal, and you prioritize your activities to achieve that goal, you would almost invariably clinch it provided you remain wise enough to tweak your approach in the face of obstacles.
We all need to see where the future is in terms of prospects. Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, Bill Gates, told young college graduates that the future is in three areas: bioscience, artificial intelligence (AI), and energy. Our world is changing rapidly, thanks to globalization, and we all need to embrace this fact. In my opinion, knowledge of biomedical science can be applied to AI and to keep our planet green. Consequently, I believe the biomedical industry — biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and medical diagnostic segment — given the right environment and auspicious policies, can transform the economies of nations of the world, especially African countries.
Globalization and disease
Globalization has drastically made the world smaller and enabled themassive flow of goods, services, and people, thus engendering economic boom in many parts of the world. Consequently, countries are leaving low strata of income category to higher ones and lives are improving in many parts of the world especially in the developed countries. However, this economic prosperity has also shifted health problems from communicable/infectious diseases to non-communicable diseases even in African countries. Furthermore, the demographics of theageing population and its associated diseases is also on the rise globally. Africa is equally not left behind in this. According to WHO, the percentage population of people 60 years and above and the attendant ageing-associated health problems, is projected to skyrocket in sub-Saharan Africa. So, aside from the fact that we are still trying to stamp out preventable infectious diseases, we now have anadditional problem on our hands: non-communicable diseases. In addition, disease-causing microbes that had long been thought vanquished have evolved to a point where they can now put up a fight against drugs that were once effective against them; climate change is threatening to worsen food shortage globally with Africa likely to be worst impacted. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done in Africa and I think it is absolutely logical for us to intensify our efforts in capacity building.
Outlook for biomedical industry
The world not only has some old problems to deal with, new and complicated ones are springing up as well. The human genome has not been completely sequenced (Human Genome Project Completion_ Frequently Asked Questions – National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).html) Yes, there are still a few unsequenced parts of the human genome, about 1 % remains unrecovered until we have a better technology; nonetheless, the world is sharply moving into apost-genomic era in spite of this caveat. There is an endless list of health challenges waiting to be solved: we still have anavalanche of biological data that scientists are trying to decipher; in addition, most non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases are not simple and have remained a conundrum largely because their pathogeneses involve interactions among several genes, and how these genes interface with the environment is still very much a mystery. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the genes involved in some of these diseases vary from one individual to another thus making finding a cure extremely difficult. A viable option might be to personalize the cure for these sort of diseases.
If the current rate of discoveries in biosciencescontinues, I believe that the era of personalized medicine will become fully ingrained into themainstream of health care within the next decade. Gene editing and cell-based therapy will soon become commonplace provided right policies are formulated to foster the growth of these novel treatment approaches.
Putting everything together, the outlook for thebiomedical industry is absolutely positive. This industry is on the precipice of going through an explosive market growth given the rapid increase in chronic and acute illnesses, population growth, artificial intelligence, climate change etc. Look, we are in the –Omic era! Just recently, Google, Microsoft, Amazon recruited biologists with skills in Bioinformatics.Yes, it is true! Tech companies are poaching bioinformaticians from academia as they move into the healthcare sector, cloud computing and machine learning services for healthcare products. According to a system biologist, “these people are really important to the future of what we want to do.”
If you ask me, I’d say there are a lot of opportunities in this industry — application specialists, entrepreneurs, sales and marketing, engineers, R & D,bio-remediation experts, bioinformatics etc. Lastly, let’s not forget the incredible benefits of improving human lives.
All in all, the private sector is the most important driver of bio-economy, but in order for this to happen, the STEM workforce needs to have up-to-date requisite skills and the capacity to provide innovative solutions to the multiplex challenges besetting us. And considering the enormity and the proportion of these problems, people in biosciences, particularly in Africa, need to make a conscionable decision to develop themselves because only then can we tap into the inherent, limitless opportunities that biomedical industry offers.