Beyond Human Limits: Whitepaper

01 May 2019


Over the past 500 years, advances in technology have led to more effective tools that have helped mankind survive and thrive – from faster, more powerful transportation to smarter, more efficient production lines.

Today, the convergence of artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, biology and neuroscience is blurring the line between our physical selves and technology, with the potential for humanity to achieve more than we ever thought possible.

Within the next decade, we could see man and machine become more closely integrated, as new developments in biotechnology transform the human body. Algorithms could communicate directly with our central nervous system, replacement organs may be grown in labs, while implanted devices could trigger improvements in the way we learn and remember.

Barclays Private Bank has spoken to world-leading experts and companies to examine the latest and emerging innovations in biotech and human enhancement technology. We uncover how our lives could be transformed as a result, and what it could mean for you and your investments.

Chapter 1: Healthcare

A 3D-printed organ, a drug that can trigger cell repair, the eradication of malaria-spreading mosquitoes – advances in synthetic biology are turning science fiction into fact, and triggering innovations beyond our imagination.

The need for innovative healthcare solutions is pressing. Each year, 15 million people between the ages of 30 and 69 die from chronic disease. Along with the vast personal human cost, chronic diseases put enormous strain on healthcare systems globally – a pressure that will rise as the global population of older people increases.

The World Health Organization has set a global target to reduce the risk of premature deaths from chronic disease by one third by 20301. Responding to the challenge for pioneering healthcare solutions and rapid technological advancements, the global medtech industry is flourishing. With an expected growth forecast of 5.6% each year, it is predicted to reach global sales of $595bn by 20242.

The potential of 3D bioprinting

Precision medicine – or healthcare that can be customised to the individual – is growing exponentially. A key catalyst in its evolution has been the development of 3D bioprinting. This uses biological ‘inks’ to allow the fabrication of structures that imitate natural tissue. These bioprinted substances can be used for scientific research, but also have the potential to repair, or even replace, damaged organs, cells and tissues in the human body. Addressing the universal shortage of available organs for transplant, this could mean vast improvements for global health.

“As well as enabling scientists to accelerate drug development, bioprinting is enabling us to print new tissue,” says Gusten Danielsson, CFO and co-founder of CELLINK – one of the first bioink companies in the world. Its patent-pending product is a biomaterial innovation that is mixed with cells, enabling them to grow as they would in their natural environment.


“At CELLINK, we combine different polymers and materials to make an ink specialised for a specific cell or tissue type,” says Danielsson. “It’s so versatile. We can basically use it to print any human tissue.”

Full human organ transplants based on bioprinting are still some way off, but Danielsson believes that bioprinted tissue will be used for skin grafts for burn victims, or cartilage tissue transplants within the next five years.

“We’re seeing real advances in the field of bioprinting, supported by the work of innovative companies around the world,” says Gerald Moser, Chief Market Strategist at Barclays Private Bank. “Precision medicine is set to transform the way that we use healthcare in the future, with huge implications for companies in the medical sector.”

Improving drug development

Bioprinting and other groundbreaking technologies, such as regenerative medicine, synthetic DNA production and DNA sequencing, also hold the key to quicker, more cost-effective drug trials.

At the moment, it takes years to bring a new drug to market and failure is common. According to Cancer Research UK3, it can take 10 to 15 years or more to complete the clinical trials necessary before a drug can be licensed.

Drug development is also prohibitively expensive: “It is estimated that to get a new prescription drug out into the market costs $2.6bn,” says Tom O’Leary, Chief Information Officer of ICON, a global clinical research organisation for drug development4.

These costs are then passed on to consumers, and often become unaffordable. “There is a strong moral and social obligation for exploring alternatives,” says Rufus Pollock, Founder and President of Open Knowledge Foundation5. “Millions of people globally do not have access to the medicines they need to survive.”

Regenerative medicine and DNA

While bioprinting is already enabling scientists to increase the speed at which new drugs can reach the market and reduce costs, other technologies are also facilitating the efficiency and accessibility of biomedical research.

Meanwhile, DNA Script, based in Paris, is working to help scientists find treatments faster by manufacturing high-quality synthetic DNA. The potential for this kind of synthetic biology is huge. It could help scientists to create new forms of disease-blocking DNA, for example, by giving them the ability to write up their own gene sequences.

We want to enable the analysis of any living thing – and we’ve come a long way on that journey...

Gordon Sanghera

Oxford Nanopore’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

“What we’re looking to do is increase the pace at which scientists can find cures,” says Sylvain Gariel, the company’s co-founder. “What matters isn’t the synthetic DNA itself. It’s the fact that scientists can get access to the data they need to test hypotheses and move to the next steps. It’s helping scientists get faster diagnostics and faster access to the right kind of treatment.”

The development of DNA sequencing

DNA sequencing methods are also advancing rapidly. UK-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies has developed a portable DNA sequencing system being used in more than 80 countries for a range of biological research applications, including research into diseases and genetic illnesses. Its pocket-sized sequencing device can be used for rapid testing or experiments in the lab or in the field. 

Gordon Sanghera, Oxford Nanopore’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), describes the company’s ambitious goal: “We want to enable the analysis of any living thing – and we’ve come a long way on that journey. Low cost, real-time, easy to use devices can change the paradigm of biological analyses.

“This small format has already helped farmers in East Africa, infectious disease specialists in Madagascar, marine biologists looking at glacier microbiomes and educators alike. Larger formats are now helping scientists make new discoveries about human and plant genomes.”

Chapter 2: Performance

On 6 May 2007, Claire Lomas’s life changed in a split second. The former professional event rider was competing in Nottingham when her horse clipped his shoulder on a tree. She was knocked to the ground and suffered a dislocated vertebra, leaving her paralysed from the chest down. Claire was told she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Five years later, Claire became the first paralysed person to complete the London Marathon, supported by biotechnology that helped her achieve the seemingly impossible. She walked the 26.3 miles in 17 days using a robotic motor-powered exoskeleton that used sensors to translate pressure changes in her hips into leg movements.

In the future, pioneering work in robotics, biotechnology and neuroscience could help those paralysed to achieve even more – effectively ending paralysis – and lead to transformations for all of us.

Already a study6 conducted by engineers at Columbia University has shown that an individual’s performance in demanding motor tasks, such as flying a plane or driving, can be improved with brain computer interface technology. It may not be long before we can control an exoskeleton, a mobile device, or even a car, just with our minds.


Electrical stimulation and brain computer interfaces

There are 60 million people around the world who are paralysed, and 2.5 million who suffer from spinal cord injury. For those affected, signals from the brain are blocked as they travel through the central nervous system, causing loss of movement, feeling and muscle control. But reviving those signals with electrical impulses can help improve symptoms.

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) involves applying a small electrical charge directly to the muscle, stimulating it to move. Researchers are developing cutting-edge ways of combining this electrical stimulation with exoskeleton robotics and brain computer interfaces to provide a breakthrough for those with paralysis.

For example, USA-based Parker Hannifin has developed the Indego Exoskeleton – a lightweight robotic suit which offers users with a spinal cord injury a new level of independence thanks to its modular, portable design. The Indego is currently undergoing research trials so it can be used in conjunction with FES once the technology has Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

Translating impulses into action

At the moment, exoskeletons are typically controlled using muscle movement in the upper body. However, in theory, these robotic devices could be connected to a brain computer interface (BCI), which uses neural scanning to translate our electrical impulses into instructions for devices.

“We have billions and billions of neurons in the brain that communicate with each other thanks to electrical signals,” says Olivier Ouillier, president of EMOTIV, a company that creates portable electroencephalogram (EEG) devices to track and amplify brain signals. These are then recorded on a computer and converted into instructions to control computers, devices, or robotics.

“For people who are paralysed, these algorithms could translate the motor commands that would have been sent directly from their brain to the limbs into instructions to control artificial prosthetics.”

Gerald Moser of Barclays Private Bank, says: “Improvements in AI and machine learning, combined with the commercialisation of technology that tracks brain signals, could have wide-ranging implications for everyday life.

“Companies are extending what could be physically possible with the human body, in some cases by allowing us to control devices or machines that would otherwise be out of reach. We are only just beginning to see the potential applications for this technology.”


Advances in the workplace

Today, integrating the human body and technology is helping patients overcome barriers. Tomorrow, it could allow us to compete and perform in ways we never thought possible – from the sports field to the factory floor.

Ekso Bionics, based in California, has produced the EksoVest, specially designed for factory-line workers, which reduces the likelihood of injury and raises productivity. Lightweight and flexible, it elevates and supports a worker’s arms to help them with repetitive lifting tasks. Lessening the strain on the shoulders and back, it allows operators to work more comfortably for longer by reducing fatigue.

Meanwhile, US-based company Seismic is creating stylish and streamlined clothing for everyday use that contains discreet robotic muscles. Reacting to the body’s natural movements, a Seismic suit will provide supplementary strength to the wearer’s own muscles and joints. Originally developed for soldiers to reduce injury risk and enhance endurance, it can provide up to 30 watts of power to each hip and the lower back to support sitting, standing, lifting, carrying and a range of other activities.

In the short term, the clothing will help those with serious health concerns. However, in the future, this robotic support could be used by all of us to augment our muscle strength in everyday life, as these devices are made cheaper and become more widely available. The global wearable robotic exoskeleton market is expected to reach £3.5bn by 2026.

Enhancing sporting performance

Technology is already an integral part of the competitive sporting world. Digital wearables monitor sleep quality, heart rate and blood levels, and apps can track fitness and performance data. Biomaterials, too, have improved performance across sport, enabling sports brands to upgrade their equipment. More recently, biotechnology, such as stem-cell therapy, has been used to treat sports injuries.

The question is how far can you go? To what extent can the sporting world embrace technological advancements while still maintaining a level playing field between competitors. Some argue that golfers having eye surgery to improve their vision gives them an unfair advantage, for example, and equal opportunity is being discussed in relation to prosthetic-legged athletes. It is already suggested that they have an advantage over their able-bodied competitors because their limbs don’t tire; and, at some point in the near future, technology will allow them to outperform their peers.

Growth in brain interface wearables

Surgeons are now using augmented reality to map medical imaging on to the bodies of patients...

Olivier Ouillier

President of EMOTIV

The combination of AI and machine learning with the commercialisation of existing EEG technology could have wide-ranging applications. Indeed, Olivier Ouillier believes that miniaturised, wearable BCI technology that could be embedded in glasses, headsets or even implanted in the brain will have ramifications far beyond the medical world.

For example, brain monitoring could help businesses understand the mental health of their workforce and how to improve performance, wellness and safety. He also sees a wide range of applications in the workplace, from factory workers to surgeons in the operating room.

“Surgeons are now using augmented reality to map medical imaging on to the bodies of patients, yet in order to swipe to the next piece of information, they need to talk to the machine or to make a movement with their hands,” says Ouiller. “We have piloted the integration of mental command in augmented reality headsets using BCI technology, so they’ll be able to control the information they are seeing with their minds. They will only need to move their hands to operate on the patient.”

“In the next few years, brain computer interfaces will no longer be used just to fix broken body parts or broken functions in the brain,” he says. “They will help us…move faster, think faster, compete better. It’s not science fiction any more. It’s just science in action.”


Chapter 3: Intelligence

In the 1972 thriller The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, a computer scientist is fitted with a revolutionary ‘brain pacemaker’ designed to control his seizures. Instead, the implant produces pleasurable sensations to calm the patient after acts of violence, leading to tragic consequences7.

Implanting an electrical device into the brain to help control health problems might still sound like science fiction, but deep brain stimulation (DBS) technology has been used to manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease for over 30 years. Today, more than 35,000 patients8 around the world have DBS implants, helping them to address the symptoms of a range of disorders, from Parkinson’s and epilepsy to clinical depression.

Now neuroscience is going one step further, looking at ways to use advanced technology not just to address health issues but also to enhance our neuroplasticity – or the brain’s ability to learn. This could potentially increase our memory and our ability to retain information.

“While seamlessly connecting our brains to the digital world may be a long way off, neuroscientists and entrepreneurs are discovering how certain parts of the brain are wired, with potentially impressive results,” says Gerald Moser, of Barclays Private Bank. “By leveraging consumer technology, these discoveries could have significant commercial value.”

The future of deep brain stimulation

In the past, deep brain stimulation (DBS) has involved implanting fine wires into the brain. Connected to a device, these generate a pulse, similar to a pacemaker placed underneath the skin. When the generator is switched on, electrodes deliver high-frequency stimulation to specific areas of the brain, creating electrical signals. These have been shown to relieve symptoms in some health disorders.

“Recently, there have been trials for DBS on Alzheimer’s, depression, alcohol use disorder and OCD,” says Newton Howard, Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Functional Neurosurgery at the University of Oxford.

Howard is developing a new wireless technology that combines DBS technology with brain machine interfaces, as part of a company called Ni2O (short for Neuron Input to Output). Ni2O’s implant – the KIWI chip – is designed with more than a million carbon nanotube connectors. It will use advanced nanotechnology, optogenetics (using light to control neurons in the brain) and deep machine learning to record brain activity and deliver electrical and optical signals to target specific areas. “With our chip, the same principle of electrical stimulation applies, however ours takes it a step further,” says Howard.

While the chip will initially be used specifically for people with neurological disorders, the team believes the following generations of implants could enhance healthy people’s cognitive functions. While these implants won’t give us access to unlimited knowledge, they could improve our ability to retain information and muscle movements as we learn.

Howard sees it becoming a possibility in just two or three years. “It’s common to have inhibitions or anxieties when you’re learning a language, for example,” he says. “Implant the chip in the region that controls those feelings, and you have the potential to learn a language in a fraction of the time.”

The changing shape of implants

Small, wireless and discrete, the KIWI device is far less invasive than traditional DBS implants – a key concern for neuroscientists globally, who are eager to eliminate any danger of tissue damage.

“Traditionally people have put in electrical wires or probes that poke into the brain. While those methods work quite well in terms of stimulating the brain with current, they can lead to damage,” says Rod O’Connor, Professor and Head of Bioelectronics at the Ecole des Mines in Saint-Etienne, France.

Imagine if you didn’t need to hold a phone or type on a keyboard, but instead computing was as seamless as thinking.

Rod O’Connor

Professor and Head of Bioelectronics at the Ecole des Mines in Saint-Etienne, France.

George Malliaras, now Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge, pioneered the creation of incredibly thin, flexible implants made of plastic, which are planted on the surface of the brain instead of inside. O’Connor, who continues this work in France, sees enormous potential for implants in the future, and suggests that, with advanced technology, we will all have the option to have the equivalent of a smartphone implanted in our brain, removing the need for any physical devices.

In the more distant future, everyone could have a chip, Howard agrees. “Imagine if you didn’t need to hold a phone or type on a keyboard, but instead computing was as seamless as thinking,” he says. “It might sound like a sci-fi movie, but in the future we could monitor and control our whole body from our brain. Getting the newest chip could be akin to getting the latest smartphone. It could become something that healthy people get to enhance their cognition, memory or learning potential.”

Non-invasive neuro-stimulation

Implants, of course, necessitate surgical intervention. Start-up company Halo Neuroscience has raised $27m and developed a device that stimulates the brain from the outside. “The question was whether there could be a technology that would allow us to retune and augment circuits within the brain with a wearable device,” says co-founder Dr Daniel Chao. Its solution was Halo Sport – a headset that it claims increases the brain’s ability to learn new skills using transcranial direct-current stimulation.

At the moment, Halo is focusing on enhancing motor skills – helping athletes, musicians or soldiers to build muscle memory faster from training and improve performance. However, the company has plans to broaden its scope into cognitive learning and memory enhancement.

“Neuroscientists have talked about how our memory reserves are similar to a bank account. That the more you deposit, the more you’ll be able to withdraw later in life,” says Chao. “And that’s why brain fitness apps on your phone, crossword puzzles and Sudoku help to keep your brain active. So, what can we do to augment this; to stimulate our cognitive abilities? Neurostimulation’s going to be a big part of the answer.”

Chapter 4: The implications for your investments

Major leaps forward in our understanding of human biology and the potential integration of technology could revolutionise healthcare – and all our lives – in the future.

These changes are being fuelled by the expansion of AI and big data, which are helping scientists make sense of the complex biological processes within the human body. This could change all our perceptions of what is humanly possible – physically and intellectually.

“Extraordinary developments in biotechnology will transform the global economy, businesses and the lives of individuals around the world”, says Gerald Moser of Barclays Private Bank.

Barclays Private Bank can help you to understand what these advances will mean for you, your investments, and society, in 2019 and beyond.

We can leverage expertise across the whole Barclays group, including its corporate and investment banking operations, giving us access to a huge range of insights and expertise. Our researchers can also draw upon a global network of experts and innovators, and are constantly looking for emerging themes and new opportunities.

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See Beyond

With advances in health and technology, we're living longer and can increase what is humanly possible - read more in our Beyond series, Beyond 100 and Beyond Human Limits.