“The metaverse could also serve the world of health”

You weren’t always destined for biomedicine. Could you go back on your trip?
Professor Damien Gruson: I wanted to become a community pharmacist and that’s what I started studying at the Catholic University (UC) of Leuven. After somewhat mixed experiences during my internships in pharmacies, I turned to a more clinical and medical specialization, in this case biology, and started a five-year course at the same university. In 2011, I obtained my PhD with a thesis focused on hormonal mediators and biomarkers of heart failure.

What topics are you working on today?
They are numerous because I have several hats myself. Since 2016, Head of the Medical Biochemistry Department of the Saint-Luc University Clinics in Brussels, I am also Head of the Clinical Laboratories Department – a position equivalent to that of Head of Department in France – since October 2021, which includes several specialized sectors, such as anatomic pathology , microbiology, biochemistry, or even molecular biology and genetics. But I am also a university professor and as such responsible for the specialization courses in biology and biochemistry at the University of Leuven. These are my “routine” activities. At the same time, I try to keep up with the research on cardiovascular markers, and in particular regarding the use of delocalized and digital technologies. I am particularly interested in how these tools can facilitate decision-making in supporting chronic patients.

Do digital technologies occupy an important place in your daily life?
That is indeed the case, but this observation applies to society in general, where digital is ubiquitous today. In healthcare, the trend has been accelerating for several years now: measurement techniques are becoming more accurate, they are miniaturized, rapid tests and telemedicine are becoming commonplace… The intensification of “omics” approaches, such as genomics or proteomics, is also increasing the amount of generated data, increasing the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), which can best process and exploit these masses of information. They are therefore naturally used in the health sector, including in biomedicine.

How does this spread translate?
The integration of a new technology into our processes is always preceded by discussions and discussions with hospital doctors to identify their needs and the tools available to meet them. In addition to this multidisciplinary consultation, efforts are made to monitor technology, which is carried out on a daily basis by teams and research units. Once a solution is validated, we routinely introduce it, taking into account the refund terms. This can also act as a brake, as current reimbursement models do not always take innovation into account, especially for digital media or delocalized biology. The situation is therefore often settled by the hospital itself. Therefore, in my view, it is necessary to reflect more economically on access to innovation for all, and in particular for the most vulnerable and vulnerable populations on a larger scale.

You mentioned artificial intelligence earlier. How do you approach it?
We have regular meetings with the “Louvain Intelligence Artificial Medecin”, an AI incubator housed within the university that brings together health professionals and researchers in the field of data processing. Our aim here is to identify solutions that can support clinical practice in a broad sense, and more specifically the practices of medical biologists. Once multidisciplinary selected, these instruments can aid clinical decision-making or contribute to the processing of scientific literature. The latter, which is particularly thriving, can indeed be analyzed by AI. And then, as I mentioned above, AI is also an essential ally for “digesting” the results of “omics” scientific panels.

Will these new dynamics currently at work have an impact on the medical biologist profession?
They already have it, and it’s clear it will stay that way. But technology cannot replace humans. On the contrary, I am convinced that the future will be for the augmented biologist, ie a human being accompanied by digital tools. These facilitate practice, help identify the processes whose medical and operational efficiency can be improved. For example, in a laboratory, clinic or care pathway, they allow to better target the areas or sequences where it would be more relevant to mobilize human resources. But while technology offers many advantages, people remain the decision maker. In short, new technologies will give us time and efficiency savings, which we will use to better focus on the most complex cases.

You have been in contact with the health world since your first pharmacy training in 2000. Have you already experienced major changes?
Evolution is constant there: so I have experienced several waves during my career, automation in laboratories, regroupings, miniaturization, the boom in genomics and “omics” technologies… And everything accelerates more and more, the change no longer takes place on the size of a decade, but only a semester. This is especially striking if we take the example of the health crisis, given everything that has been done in a few months on rapid tests, multiplex tests or sequencing. It’s impressive. And the trend is the same for digital technologies in the broad sense. Before Covid-19, no one would have thought that they would have almost instant access to their vaccination certificate or their results via a digital application and a QR code. But if the health crisis has undoubtedly accelerated the movement, it has been going on for a long time: big companies, incubators, are already surfing transitions marked by technology and this will not stop.

What technologies could emerge for the biology sector in the future?
I’m thinking in particular of the Metaverse, which has been particularly popular with the general public in recent months, but which could also serve the world of health and biology. This technology makes it possible to simulate many things, new instruments, new lab tests, even new labs in their own right. The Metaverse could therefore be a large-scale simulation base, for example to access virtual patients in which different sets of data, multiomics, biological, clinical … are integrated. AI processing would then give us the opportunity to create a full picture of a patient to, for example, visualize the impact of a treatment or action and thus assess its effectiveness and the possible risks.

Changes in practice would be important here…
Sure, but we have to anticipate it, prepare for it. Especially since we are already seeing these developments in our daily lives, that is, outside of our profession as health professionals. Taking the example of the Metaverse, reflections are already underway in the general population, for use in a fun environment or on social networks. Technology changes our lives in general, we see it every day. But the hospital is not isolated from the rest of the world. This applies to new technologies, but also to other themes that are at the heart of society today, such as sustainable development.

Do you think technology can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?
The new tools undeniably help to consume more efficiently, also in terms of prescribing studies or therapies. Take the correct prescription for antibiotics, which should be given in an environment known as: a health “ie including the environment, humans and animals. To prevent antibiotic resistance, the veterinary world, the human world and the industrial world are interconnected and must therefore work together. To be more efficient, to work better together, technology is certainly an asset.

Can this collaboration be extended?
True digital health systems are starting to emerge, especially in Europe. On the scale of our continent, the mixing of populations leads to more uniform practices, but if we want optimal medical efficiency, the will must also be political. In recent months, the political world has been able to pass judgment on the effectiveness of clinical biology, the importance of tests in prevention and diagnosis. To move forward, European consultations would now be necessary, so that the most important investigations in all European states are reimbursed in the same way. This discussion should also take into account the subject of the directly to the consumer », a model in which citizens can prescribe tests themselves. This practice, already highly liberalized in the United States, but also in certain European countries, represents a total paradigm shift that does not only affect the world of biomedicine. Although commendable, this desire for autonomy is not without consequences, as the citizen risks being alone, without having the means to analyze the results or even certify the reliability of the tests.

Article published in the May 2022 issue of Hospitalia to read here.

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