The field of medicine is constantly being impacted by today’s technological revolution; continuous breakthroughs in medical technology have helped save countless lives and enhanced the general quality of life for many. In the year 2000, business magnate and founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) with the aim to use technology for global advance healthcare and elimination of preventable diseases like Malaria, HIV and Tuberculosis.
Efforts to eradicate Malaria
Malaria is a mosquito-borne, potentially fatal disease which affects nearly 100 countries worldwide, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asian region. As per UNICEF report, Malaria kills one child every 30 seconds and over one million people die from Malaria each year ;mostly children under 5 years of age. Moreover, an estimated 300-600 million people suffer from Malaria per year. Severe Malaria has the tendency to cause permanent learning disabilities in children, consequently causing a devastating effect on the economy.
BMGF has taken up the challenge to fight Malaria on a priority basis. Its philanthropic investments in researching cures and creating new drugs and controls for Malaria have accelerated the production of vaccines for developing countries. Advance software techniques like drug modelling and usage of huge data to analyse and predict Malaria trends too have sped up the process of malaria eradication.
Their latest multi-year Malaria strategy, Accelerate to Zero, generated in 2013, addresses the high-impact areas to develop revolutionary approaches for shrinking the burden of Malaria.
To date, the Gates Foundation has dedicated nearly USD 2 billion to combat Malaria. The foundation plans to spend double the amount to produce a mosquito-killing technology that relies on CRISPR gene editing. The technique, called gene drive, is a “method to spread traits through wild populations of animals”.
This gene editing project, called Target Malaria, worked upon at Imperial College, London, has been aiming to add instructions to the DNA of malaria mosquitoes that would cause them to become sterile. If discharged into the wild, these mosquitoes could be driven to extinction. The Gates Foundation sees this project as a “long shot” that might effectually eradicate Malaria.
Scientists at Imperial College and elsewhere, successfully experimented installing gene drives in mosquitoes 3 years ago. A gene drive runs by spreading genetic instructions as the mosquitoes breed. For instance, if a drive causes only male to be born, a population would rapidly die out as it runs out of females. Moreover, it may be possible to alter the genetic makeup of mosquitoes, so they are no longer capable of transmitting Malaria.
In the past 14 years, Malaria funding has grown by nearly 10-fold and the foundation has made significant advances to fight the disease in developing nations. The new cases and deaths from Malaria across the world have declined by 25% and 42% respectively.
Strive to combat Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis (TB) is a dangerous infectious disease which adversely affects the lungs. TB causing bacteria are transmitted into humans through tiny droplets released into the air by coughs and sneezes of TB patients. With 10 million cases reported in 2017, Tuberculosis surfaces as the prime cause of death from infectious diseases around the world.
The Gates Foundation is working to better comprehend the fundamental discipline behind the TB epidemic and develop new tools for its prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Current approaches to preventing, diagnosing, and treating TB are insufficient and outdated, and detect merely half of all instances.
The foundation’s effort to devise a treatment program that is safer, simpler, and less costly is named as the TB Drug Accelerator (TBDA) program. The goal of this project is to identify new drugs that have different modus operandi than current drugs to destroy bacteria. The program has designed new tools for drug discovery. Their co-venture, the Critical Path to TB Drug Regimens (CPTR), along with the leading international pharmaceutical companies, public health experts and NGOs, are striving to identify new pathways to accelerate testing of promising TB drug.
The Gates Foundation is currently working on next-generation TB diagnostic tests based on samples. One such technology is the GeneXpert Diagnostic Test, which has shown improvement in the overall success rate of TB detection.
Indian and Chinese governments have extended help to the foundation to carry out trial runs of innovative approaches to modernise TB control. Furthermore, with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), USAID, and the World Bank, the foundation is expanding its TB control operations into the private healthcare sector, where it is needed the most.
Improving maternal and child health
In the area of global health, advancements in maternal and infant mortality rates are among the most significant accomplishments of the 21st century. Since 2000, childhood deaths have fallen by a massive 43% and maternal deaths have reduced by 29%. Despite the considerable decline, these mortality rates are getting more complicated with the passage of time.
To address the problem, Gates Foundation is working to ensure that women and newborns survive and stay healthy before, during, and after childbirth by detecting and tackling the underlying biological weaknesses. Moving ahead, they are now researching and developing a program to build the understanding and tools needed to counter the biological vulnerabilities present during pregnancy and early childhood.
The foundation is investing in and exercising a variety of tools and technologies from vaccines to diagnostics, devices, therapeutics, treatment algorithms and nutritional supplements to aid healthy pregnancies and infants.
Moreover, their Strategic Data Analysis & Synthesis Program consolidates all the data and statistics generated across these programs to track and analyse trends and progress. This initiative helps to understand the enormity of the problem and model the effect and feasibility of new tools accordingly.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is continuously expanding its efforts worldwide through collaborations with international bodies like Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, UNITAID and WHO in order to maximise the utilisation of resources and investments. The foundation is also making effective use of conforming technologies to assist patients in completing their treatment and increase their chances of returning to a healthy living.
Working on the same lines of harnessing technology and innovation, UK’s public health service NHS (National Health Service) has also coupled up the efforts for integration of technology and medicine. In pursuit of this goal, it aims to work for simplification of patient’s access to care while supporting people in managing their own health. Potentially developing a range of new diagnostic tools and artificial intelligence, the service will encourage people to use various health care apps as a preventive measure to help them manage and keep track of their health themselves.
Such large-scale technological developments in the field of medicine are certainly the harbinger of a gradual yet steady revolution in the area of healthcare where diseases will not only be able to eradicated but also prevented, ultimately saving millions of precious lives.