Understanding health choices around novel biotechnologies
Project duration: January 2023 – December 2023
People who live in rural areas are more likely to suffer from Australia’s most common health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer and have comparatively lower health outcomes. A lack of access to centralised medical facilities, longer travel times to receive health care, storage and supply chain issues and difficulties in recruiting and retaining health professionals all contribute to a greater burden of illness in rural and regional areas.
New engineering biology-based health solutions are on the horizon. In Australia there are currently more than 150 genetic medicines in trial stages, as well as 9 approved therapies. But all are dependent on access to centralised facilities like major hospitals – which are typically only found in urban centres – and require special storage conditions.
Developing novel biotechnologies that consider the needs of rural populations, as well as geographical and infrastructure limitations, will be critical to realising health benefits for all Australians. These technologies also have the potential to create considerable positive impacts in low-income regions globally that face similar issues.
This project seeks to identify which biotechnologies have a higher potential for use in rural environments based on their ability to: 1) function independently, or with minimal intervention, from specialised personal, 2) maintain stability over time, transportation, and storage conditions and 3) operate with limited infrastructure and equipment. It also examines psychological drivers, to build an understanding of how people might make health choices in regard to these novel applications of engineering biology.
Many transformative technologies using advanced engineering biology are still in development. As such, we have a chance to identify possible challenges and opportunities, when it comes to their use as future health solutions. Through behavioural research, we are seeking to better predict how people may make decisions about uptake of novel personalised health tools. This knowledge will help inform the design, development, and delivery of biotechnologies for maximum impact, using rural and regional environments as a case example.
This research aims to uncover how different biotechnologies may be received when they become accessible and what influences health choice and decision-making. We want to know: what are the biggest barriers to rural and regional residents accessing healthcare? How is biotechnology best placed to meet their health needs? What are some of the ethical issues that might arise from using biotechnology in these settings? And how is the fact that these new technologies are bio-based going to influence people’s behaviour towards them?
To answer these questions, this project focuses on people’s responses to two promising forms of biotechnology: advanced biosensors and bioreactors. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for rapid and accurate diagnostics, with RAT and PCR tests becoming commonplace. Engineering biology holds promise as a means of bringing disease diagnostics for high priority health conditions to rural communities, by enabling point-of-care monitoring and testing to a high degree of accuracy.
Bioreactors have played a significant role in producing everyday pharmaceuticals for decades – but only in resource-available settings. Engineering biology stands to enable bioproduction to occur in rural settings, right at the point of care, to address rural health needs and supply chain issues.
The ends to which biotechnologies are applied significantly impact how they are perceived. In medicine and healthcare, there is much to be discovered about risk profiles and perceptions of new technology, and how acceptable these might be to health professionals, patients and the wider public. This extends to genetic and bio-based technologies.
Community and stakeholder consultation is key to coordinating sustainable health interventions. New technologies must be stable over time. They can’t rely on sophisticated technology or resources that are sparse in rural areas. And they can’t rely on intervention from specialised personnel – meaning the technology must be highly automated.
By consulting with rural communities, including health care professionals, we aim to develop insights into public attitudes, concerns and priorities, to help guide the development trajectory of novel biotechnologies. Beyond overcoming the practical engineering biology challenges of developing medical biotechnologies for use in rural communities, understanding decision-making and trade-offs when it comes to health care will help define the social and behavioural challenges that need to be considered in order for these technologies to deliver benefits across Australia.