Living beyond 100: Desire for longevity drives innovation

PHOTO: Living beyond 100: Desire for longevity drives innovation

Longevity has always been the dream of humans. To be precise, good health coupled with longer life has been the desire. There is even a longevity bridge at Hong Kong's Repulse Bay. Folklore is that if you cross the bridge once you will gain three more days of life!

Except for the recent 100 years, the average life span of humans has been below 50 years for the past 10,000 years. Innovation in the form of medical devices to replace or restore damaged tissues and organs, antibiotics and vaccines to fight infections, medicines, and improved living conditions resulted in extending the average life span to more than 80.

Since the 1980s more than a million medical devices have been invented to safeguard the health of human beings. Contact lenses, intra-ocular lenses, artificial hip and knee joints, heart pacemakers, stents, brain pacemakers, wound dressing, insulin pumps, kidney dialysis machines, MRI scanners and radiation therapy machines are examples of medical devices. Using such devices, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) of Singapore even offers DNA testing services to determine the kinship between individuals. It is done by analysing the genetic material called deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. So we can determine our biological mother and father, and also our individual unique genetic profile.

The worldwide market size of medical devices is more than $400 billion. Longer life spans, changing lifestyles and awareness of health issues are spurring the growth of medical devices in all countries. This explains why Internet search giant Google partnered medical industry titan Novartis to develop smart contact lenses to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics.

For the Net Generation or Generation Z, with innovation and entrepreneurial dreams, the medical devices sector is promising. Noticeable ageing effects kick in as early as the mid-20s. For example, loss of elasticity of the skin and slowing down of the brain. By the 40s, eyesight gets affected due to the loss of elasticity of lens, teeth and gum diseases set in, due to less saliva, and hormonal imbalance. Thereafter, weakening of heart, joints and muscles happen. Further into life, gut, bladder, kidneys, taste, smell, voice, cancer and brain issues show up. Medical robotics, tele-medicine, nanotechnology-enabled imaging, diagnostics and treatment, nanomedicine, regenerative medicine and stem cells are areas to keep an eye on as they hold promise for humans to live beyond 100 years healthily and, perhaps, happily!

Here are some examples. With engineering design input from the Center for Nanofibers and Nanotechnology at the NUS Department of Mechanical Engineering, the National University Hospital radiation oncologist Dr Keith Lim is developing self-anchoring catheters for use during the high dosage rate brachytherapy treatment.

They reduce discomfort and complications of prostate cancer patients caused by the undesired movement of catheters. Another example, Singapore-Technion Alliance for Research and Technology (START) is a partnership among National University of Singapore, National University Hospital, Nanyang Technological University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology under the Singapore National Research Foundation's CREATE programme.

START researchers are devising regenerative biomaterials to revive failing hearts. This work is also extended to regenerate damaged neurons in the spinal cord, brain and eyes. Singapore Eye Research Institute researchers are tailoring nanoparticles, 100 times thinner than paper, to treat devastating eye infections.

Adverse health outcomes caused by the improper design, manufacture and use of medical devices raise public concern. In Singapore the HSA regulates medical devices so as to ensure the safety of patients. Businesses need qualified and well-trained professionals to interpret, comply and adhere to the regulations.

Recently, the University of Birmingham, UK, invited me to deliver the EPS distinguished lecture on "how to live beyond 100 years". This prompted me to talk about it with whoever I come across, and I realised that every one finds it an interesting discussion topic!

Dr Seeram Ramakrishna is director at the Center for Nanofibers & Nanotechnology, National University of Singapore. He is one of the 3,200 scientific minds in the Reuters list.

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