“Metaverset could also serve the world of health”

You were not always destined for medical biology. Could you go back on your journey?
Professor Damien Gruson: I wanted to become a community pharmacist, and that was what I started studying at the Catholic University (UC) in Louvain. After some mixed experiences during my internships at pharmacies, I reoriented myself towards a more clinical and medical specialization, in this case biology, and began a five-year course within the same university. In 2011, I took my PhD after a dissertation focusing on hormonal mediators and biomarkers for heart failure.

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

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

How is this diffusion translated?
The integration of a new technology into our processes has always been preceded by discussions and discussions with hospital clinicians, in order to identify their needs and the tools available to meet them. In addition to this interdisciplinary consultation, there is an effort to monitor technology, which is carried out on a daily basis by teams and research units. Once a solution is validated, we introduce it routinely, taking into account its repayment terms. This can also be a brake because current reimbursement models do not always take into account innovation, especially for digital media or outsourced biology. The situation is therefore often decided by the hospital itself. Therefore, in my opinion, it is necessary to engage in economic reflection on a larger scale around access to innovation for all, and in particular for the most fragile and vulnerable sections of the population.

You mentioned artificial intelligence earlier. How do you approach it?
We regularly exchange with “Louvain Intelligence Artificial Medicine”, an AI incubator that hosts the university and brings together health professionals and researchers in the field of computing. Our goal here is to identify solutions that can support clinical practice in a broad sense, and more specifically the practice of medical biologists. Once selected in an interdisciplinary manner, these tools can help with clinical decision-making or contribute to the processing of scientific literature. The latter, which is particularly thriving, can actually be analyzed with AI. And so, as I pointed out above, AI is also an important ally in “digesting” the results of “omics” science panels.

Will these new dynamics currently at work have an impact on the profession of medical biologist?
They already have it, and it is obvious that it will continue. But technology can not replace humans. On the contrary: for my part, I am convinced that the future will be for the augmented biologist, that is, a human being accompanied by digital tools. These facilitate practice, helping to identify the processes whose medical and operational efficiencies can be improved. For example, in a laboratory, clinic, or nursing setting, they make it possible to better target the areas or sequences where it would be more relevant to mobilize human resources. But even though technology offers many benefits, it is still people who make the decision. 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 touch with the world of health since your first pharmacy education in 2000. Have you already witnessed major changes?
Evolution is constantly there: I have thus witnessed several waves during my career, automation in laboratories, regroupings, miniaturization, the boom in genomics and “omics” technologies … And everything is accelerating more and more, the change is no longer taking place on the scale of a decade, but only one semester. This is particularly striking if we take the example of the health crisis into account all 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 a broad sense. Before Covid-19, no one had imagined having, via a digital application and a QR code, access to their vaccination certificate or their results almost instantly. But if the health crisis has undoubtedly accelerated the movement, it has been under way for a long time: large companies, incubators, are already surfing on transitions marked by technology, and it is not about to stop.

What technologies may emerge for the biology sector in the future?
I am thinking in particular of Metaverset, which has been particularly highlighted in recent months for the general public, but which could also serve the world of health and biology. This technology makes it possible to simulate many things, new instruments, new laboratory tests, even new laboratories in themselves. Metaverse could therefore be a large-scale simulation base, for example to have access to virtual patients, within which will be integrated several sets of data, multiomics, biological, clinical … AI treatment will then give us the opportunity to have a complete image of a patient to, for example, visualize the effect of a treatment or action, and thus assess its effectiveness and its possible risks.

Changes in practice would be important here …
Admittedly, but we need to anticipate them, prepare for them. Especially since we are already witnessing this development in our everyday lives, that is, outside our profession as health professionals. If we take the example of Metaverse, reflections are already underway in the general population, for use in fun environments or on social networks. Technology is changing our lives in general, we see it every day. But the hospital is not cut off from the rest of the world. This applies to new technologies, but also to other themes that are at the core of society today, such as sustainable development.

Do you think technology can help achieve the goals of sustainable development?
The new tools provide an undeniable help to become more efficient in our consumption, including in the form of prescriptions for studies or therapies. Take the right prescription for antibiotics that need to be put in place in an environment known as One Health », that is, 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 collaborate better, technology is definitely an asset.

Can this collaboration be extended?
Real digital healthcare systems are starting to emerge, especially in Europe. On the scale of our continent, the mixing of populations generates more uniform practices, but if we want optimized medical efficiency, the will must also be political. In recent months, the political world has been able to assess the effectiveness of clinical biology, the importance of tests in prevention and diagnosis. To move forward, it would now be necessary to participate in European consultations so that the most important tests are reimbursed in the same way in all European states. This discussion should also take into account the topic of directly to the consumer », a model where the citizen himself can prescribe tests. Already highly liberalized in the United States, but also in some European countries, this practice is a total paradigm shift that does not only concern the world of medical biology. While commendable, this desire for autonomy is not without consequences, as the citizen risks finding himself alone, without having the means to analyze the results or even to certify the reliability of the tests.

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

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