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January 13, 2021

An amazing world

Opinion

January 13, 2021

The socio-economic development of nations today hinges on the ability of their leaders to formulate suitable policies and transfer precious resources from various sectors to education, science, technology and innovation so that a strong knowledge economy can materialise. This is because natural resources have diminishing importance as ideas are transformed into novel products and processes.

About a decade ago, a team of 20 scientists led by Craig Venter in the US created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment. This opened the door for organisms that can be built in the laboratory rather than through evolution. Very soon afterwards, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna discovered one of the sharpest tools in gene technologies. These molecular scissors, named CRISPR/Cas9, led to the two scientists being awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This exciting discovery allows researchers to alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with very high precision.

The method allows scientists to precisely cut any strand of DNA they wish. Such strands can then be inserted into DNA of other species, leading to the development of new organisms that this planet has never known. This has created exciting new opportunities for plant breeding, developing novel cancer therapies and tackling genetic diseases.

Another area of active research is to slow down or even reverse the process of ageing. There are several scientific reasons for ageing. One of these is a phenomenon (‘apoptosis’) that causes cells to stop dividing and then die. This time clock within each cell ensures that after a certain time period, certain chemical signals are released within the cells, telling the cell to stop dividing and die. Scientists have learned what some of these signals are and how they may be tampered with so that the cells do not die immediately but can live much longer.

Another reason for ageing is degradation caused by oxygen. While oxygen is so necessary for us to live, it is also responsible for our death. A reactive form of oxygen (oxygen radicals) is created in our body that attacks our DNA, causing it to degrade. Certain enzymes remove this bad form of oxygen from our body when we are young, but they become less efficient as we age, resulting in the oxygen radicals attacking our cellular mechanisms, leading to ageing. The development of antioxidants has therefore been one important area of active research.

Another reason for ageing is the erosion of a protective cap (called ‘telomere’) at the end of our DNA molecules as we grow older. Once this cap has been lost, the DNA molecules themselves start to degrade, leading to ageing. Scientists are now learning how to activate an enzyme (‘telomerase’) in order to prevent this erosion of the protective cap, and thus to slow down the ageing process.

A number of compounds have been discovered that are able to do this. A few years ago, a natural compound (resveratrol) was discovered which when administered to old mice made them younger. Another compound NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) was also found to reverse the ageing process in animals. A third compound (metformin) used for treatment of diabetes also has anti-ageing properties. It appears that humanity is at the threshold of a new world order in which people may live to ages of 150 years or more, posing huge social challenges.

Similar fantastic developments are taking place in many sectors. Biology is merging with engineering, leading to many bioengineering applications such as ‘biobots’ (biological robots) that are being used for supplying medicines to targeted areas of the human body. If the sizes of molecules are reduced to about 10 to the power of minus nine of a meter, these ‘nanomaterials start exhibiting novel and exciting properties. For example, nanomedicines (nano-aspirin, nano-paracetamol, nano-antibiotics) etc are now being developed that are more active and less toxic than the parent medicines.

The field of nanotechnology is evolving rapidly too and the first national center for nanotechnology has been established through a liberal grant of the Latif Ebrahim Jamal Foundation at the internationally famous International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences, which houses the H E J Research Institute of Chemistry as well as the Dr. Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research at the University of Karachi. Similarly, stem cell technologies are being developed to repair damaged human organs such as kidney, heart, liver, cornea, etc.

In the field of material sciences, graphene has been discovered. Made of pure carbon, its honey-comb like structure makes it 200 times stronger than steel. Objects can be made invisible if coated with ‘metamaterials’. These substances have the remarkable ability to bend light and the technology is now being used for stealth purposes to conceal tanks, submarines and aircraft.

Perhaps the most profound impact of such innovations will be in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). According to a report by McKinsey Global, it will have about $16 trillion worth of impact by the year 2025. If Pakistan can capture even one percent of this huge market, it can bring in $160 billion to its coffers. Artificial intelligence is already affecting all aspects of our lives – medicine, health, security, privacy, communication, industry, agriculture, employment, economy, law, weather etc.

Nations that are investing in such technologies are migrating to strong knowledge-based economies. They are forging ahead, through massive investments in their research centres and in education. Pakistan too has now embarked on this road under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan. As a result of the initiatives taken, a large number of projects have been launched through various ministries, leading to a six-fold increase in the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology and soon a similar increase in the budget of the Ministry of IT and Telecommunications.

The Pak Austrian University of Applied Science and Engineering has been established in Haripur Hazara in collaboration with eight foreign universities, funded by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and the Ministry of IT and Telecommunications. Another similar university is being set up in Islamabad and Sialkot. Other initiatives cover the fields of artificial intelligence, energy storage systems, electric cars, industrial biotechnology, advanced agriculture, high speed trains, mineral extraction, and many other projects to build a new Pakistan.

Projects have been approved or are under approval covering various new and emerging technologies through the initiatives of the Knowledge Economy Task Force because of the personal interest and supervision of our prime minister. Pakistan has at last woken up and is now a rising giant.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

Email: [email protected]