Following the news feeds of blogs and various websites in the healthcare and biotech industries provides you with insights about where we are heading in the future. In my blog post “So far, so good,” I wrote about the autoimmune illness that’s plaguing the world healthcare system. Today I’d like to take you with me on a journey into the future.
It does’ t require a visionary perspective to come to the conclusion that the growing prevalence of cancer, obesity, diabetes, and numerous neurological disorders is a bit of a modern phenomenon in the timeline of human history.
Whereas the very existence of mankind was once threatened with extinction by different viruses or bacteria in ancient times, then called plagues, nowadays we think we’re far too smart to be taken down by a few nasty microbes. However, when confronted by the widespread panic that occurs when certain viruses mutate, a looming antibiotics crisis, and the frightening fact that over 5% of the US population is infected with untreatable super bacteria, you suddenly have the impression that we’re all playing some real-life, global version of Plague Inc., a popular game where the primary goal is to wipe out the world’s population with viruses and bacteria.
Many scientists blame the drastic changes in our environment for our modern super diseases and to a certain extent, I agree. As a human race, we’ve survived an industrial revolution, an information revolution, and are now in the middle of a biotech revolution. We genetically modify our food to boost production, adding chemicals for sustained quality and improved shelf life without even knowing the long-term effects. No worries, I am not a strong advocate of everyone going organic. We simply can’t produce enough food in this manner to feed the world’s population. It is very noble to think we can, but lets’ be honest, we first have to reinvent the food chain and then we’ll all have to start eating algae.
The field of genetics is also evolving. We now know that our imprinted DNA is not necessarily what is biologically expressed in our bodies. Cells can have different DNA profiles and even tiny environmental changes can influence how these genes express themselves, resulting in unknown, complex, and rare diseases. With new technologies like proteomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics, we are trying to find out what exact biological path a disease will follow. In the meantime, we still need to unravel the causes of many of these same diseases.
The real question is if technology can keep up with the human race. With a world population of over 7 billion, an annual birth rate of over 130 million, and an average of around 100 de novo variants per person, that’s roughly 13 billion new human genetic mutations formed on an annual basis! That’s what Darwin called evolution…
I am a passionate advocate for science and technology. Sadly, the scientific community is restricted and hampered by increasingly strict privacy legislation, ethical concerns, and a pervasive reluctance to change. We have the World Health Organization, but their task is primarily reactive. We don’t have a UN of science. In its place, there is a lack of coordination and collaboration. Only in despair and in cases of extreme crisis do we join forces. Then it’s usually already too late…
As there are around 100 trillion cells in the human body, with each encoding 3 billion base pairs of DNA, it ‘s almost as if we’re like the ancient Greeks, discovering the stars and the universe, which after more than 2,000 years still remain a mystery. It might take decades, if not centuries to unravel the biological mysteries within our own bodies. And where Galileo ended up literally blinded by science, I surely hope we don’t.
I am not trying to sketch a gloom and doom scenario. We know that nature has a tendency to balance itself. That’s one of the basic lessons that emerges from studying evolution. Luckily some governments, like the UK, are seeing the importance of life science technology and announcing large-scale genetic projects. Unfortunately, these initiatives are still a drop in the ocean of human biology and without lifting the restrictive rules surrounding it, we still have a very long way to go. A recent FDA ban on the genetic company 23andme, a pioneer in consumer genetics, offering their services at low costs to interested consumers, proves this point. I believe 23andme and the services they provide are a good step forward, but still not the giant leap that we desperately need. Certainly not now that the FDA ban takes us several steps backwards instead.
Historically we have had major scientific breakthroughs that have reshaped our thoughts, cured diseases, and even taken us to the moon. Why can’t we experience another one tomorrow? I know that I’m not alone in my opinion, but we are unfortunately too outnumbered to convince the politicians and world leaders who set the scene for the majority of people. In my opinion, this is far more important than the issue of climate change, which after many years has been prioritized on everyone’s agenda.
Keep the faith and stay hopeful. It’s never too late to change… our future evolution.
- 23andMe ordered to stop selling $99 genetic test (newscientist.com)
- Upcoming ‘Plague Inc.’ Update Adds Disease Scenarios (toucharcade.com)
- Massive DNA volunteer hunt begins (bbc.co.uk)
- Antibiotic resistance will mean the end of just about everything as we know it (salon.com)