2015 Breakthrough technologies: the challenges and opportunities

07 July, 2015

MIT Technology Review recently revealed their list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2015. The list is an annual look at emerging technologies which they believe will change the world and help to shape our future. 

Sagentia co-presented an event with MIT Technology Review on the top breakthrough technologies for 2015. This is the third successive year that MIT Technology Review and Sagentia have partnered to evaluate the role of emerging technologies and their potential impact on future R&D.

This year, the technologies include examples from the communications, medical, agriculture, and consumer markets and range from 3D virtual reality, to blood tests that detect very early-stage cancer. With the rise in the use of connected devices and the proliferation of internet usage, this year’s selections particularly highlight a range of innovations in communications technology including Apple Pay, Google’s Project Loon and the Internet of DNA.

To view a video of the event please see below:

Here, experts from Sagentia and the broader Science Group team evaluate the current status, challenges and potential implications and applications for some of those technologies.

Liquid biopsy 

Liquid biopsy is a technique that is being expanded in its use to provide early-stage cancer detection.  This technique is already in use for early screening of downs syndrome and is used by many women in preference to standard tests due to its low false-positive rate, thus reducing the need for subsequent amniocentesis. The blood test detects DNA fragments which in the case of downs syndrome are originated in the unborn child and detected in the mother’s blood. The new, breakthrough technology reuses this technique to identify cancer by detecting the DNA dead tumour cells shed into a person’s blood. This clearly is a breakthrough with huge potential given the number of people worldwide suffering with cancer and the cost of available treatments and screening mechanisms. The research now is focusing on specific cancers but longer term the view is to have a one-stop-shop test for cancer generically. 

The challenge with this technique is that the number of cells in early stage cancer may be so few that detecting the tiny number of DNA fragments in a blood sample may be very difficult and costly. The next challenge is that in these early stage cancers, there is generally no possibility for imaging, so the question arises as to what you do with the knowledge that someone has cancer somewhere in their body but where is unknown.

Currently, the use of the technique in clinical trials where physicians know which mutation they are looking for, and can therefore selectively enrich the sample, is valuable and the extension of this technique for additional mutations is underway. The technique can also be used to monitor the response to cancer therapy. It can also clearly be used in cancers where performing a physical biopsy is problematic.  

As other cancer treatments – such as immunotherapy – develop further it is possible to see a world in which early stage cancer cell detection could lead to early stage immune responses stopping cancer early in its tracks.

Car to car communication

Car to car communication is the ability for cars and other vehicles to communicate with each other to warn drivers of potential collisions. It is due to come into production in 2017 in a Cadillac model. The technology works through computers aboard each car processing readings being broadcast by other vehicles ten times every second, each time calculating the chance of an impending collision. The potential benefit of the technology, with the numbers of deaths and injuries occurring in car crashes, is obvious.

The main challenge with this technology is that it requires high – almost total – market penetration to be useful. When the first Cadillacs come off the production line, there won’t be many cars with which they communicate and therefore the value of the communication will be minimal. In order to get complete market penetration then the cost of the item needs to be so low as to be a “no brainer” for manufacturers to put into their base models. This cannot be a premium product.

In addition to this, there will need to be some “after-market” devices so that old cars in addition to new cars can be included in the comms network. This suggests that the device might move to the smartphone (as sat nav devices have) and will then be able to benefit pedestrians, cyclists and horse-riders too. The worry of course being that those who don’t have the technology, will be greatly disadvantaged as other drivers come to rely on it.

There are also some potential technological issues. The challenge of the UI, for example – how should the device communicate warnings to the driver? Do we want voice commands, line of sight warnings, other physical warnings such as vibrating steering wheel…? Obviously the warning needs to be effective but not dangerous in its own right. Another technology issue is that over time as the internet of things expands, the space in the wireless spectrum must become crowded. Obviously car to car communication must be (real) real time to be of any use and any latency in the system will render it near useless.  

It will be interesting to see whether the autonomous “Google” cars take off faster than car to car communication and if they will be complementary technologies. The relatively simple technology of car to car communication potentially offers great benefits but the need to get high rates of market adoption is definitely the critical factor.

Megascale desalination

Megascale desalination has taken standard water desalination techniques to the next level. The world’s largest modern seawater desalination plant is in Israel built by the Israel Desalination Enterprises, or IDE Technologies. It uses, however, a conventional desalination technology called reverse osmosis (RO). But through a series of engineering and materials advances it has managed to produce relatively cheap water at a scale not seen before. Quite clearly there is a need for water – we know that there is a water deficit in many parts of the world – with larger populations and water depletion. The question is – is this really a technological breakthrough or just a scale-up? 

Definitely the technology is producing cheaper water – 50 cents per cubic meter.  But the cost of doing this is counted in energy – this is a power-intensive process. And that energy, if the price point is to be hit, comes from low-cost fossil fuels not renewables – maybe exacerbating the problem that’s causing the drought in the first place?

We know that only 10% of municipal water is used for drinking, washing and cooking – so do we need the same level of purity in water for other purposes such as watering the garden? Does availability of cheap water prevent those other technologies flourishing? Rather than using desalination to provide cheap water should we be looking at more economical ways of using and reusing water to avoid being locked into a solution that is dependent on low cost fossil fuels?

Below we explore some technologies we believe will provide breakthrough innovation in the future

Air gesture control

As virtual reality and augmented reality technologies develop, it is clear that there need to be intuitive ways of communicating with these new environments. An important part of interacting in a virtual world is the ability to sense – some aspects of this could be provided by air gesture control. 

Two technologies in this sphere are maturing and coming down in cost:

Radar is being used in this space. An example of this is Google’s project, Soli. Here, the technology identifies subtle finger movements, such as a sliding action or a rotating thumb and finger movement, using radar built into tiny microchips. This could allow you to remotely activate devices such as telephones, radios, ovens, toasters, you name it….with your fingers.

Time of flight cameras are also seeing an uptick. These give an image and with each pixel, you are given the distance of the object that reflects that light from that camera. The output is very simple – an image with distance data. This provides lots of opportunities to feed this into other applications. The second-generation Kinect sensor which is a standard component of the Xbox One console, launched last year, uses a time-of-flight camera for its range imaging, enabling gesture recognition techniques. 

Now gaming has driven the cost down, can the technology find other practical uses?

We hope so.  A key area where we can see use of this technology is in surgery. Here surgeons need to remain in sterile zone but at the same time want to interact with lots of devices. Currently, that is managed with nursing support but it is possible and exciting to see how air gesture control technologies could transform the operating theater. 

Bioelectronic therapeutics

Bioelectronic therapeutics is the electrical stimulation of nerves in order to treat medical conditions. Nerve stimulation affects the function of organs and has been used to treat depression, epilepsy, arthritis & many other conditions. The concept has been around for years, with some examples dating back to 1994. But now we are seeing a real upsurge in the use of these technologies.

NIH and GSK have both recently invested in the fundamental research needed for Bioelectronic therapeutics; understanding which nerves control which organs and what functions they affect.  

There are also many products either in clinical trials or with the FDA. These include a nerve stimulator from Enteromedics which is used to treat obesity. SetPoint Medical is developing neuromodulation therapies for patients with inflammatory autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), psoriasis, diabetes, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. There are also devices coming to market for sleep apnoea. 

What does this upsurge in these technologies coming to market mean? For a generation used to taking a pill for everything, technological options are novel. To date, they have largely been used when conventional, pharmaceutical options have failed. Given the interest and upsurge in nerve stimulation devices, we see that these may become first choice rather than last choice options in the treatment of some conditions.