Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recently announced a USD 3 billion effort to cure all disease during the lifetime of their daughter, Max. Earlier this year, Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker donated USD 250 million to increase collaboration among researchers to develop immune therapies for cancer. Google is developing contact lenses for diabetic glucose monitoring, gathering genetic data to create a picture of what a healthy human should be and working to increase human longevity.
The technology industry has entered the field of medicine and aims to eliminate disease itself. It may well succeed because of a convergence of exponentially advancing technologies, such as computing, artificial intelligence, sensors, and genomic sequencing. We’re going to see more medical advances in the next decade than happened in the past century.
We already wear devices, such as the Fitbit and Apple Watch, which monitor our physical activities, sleep cycles, and stress and energy levels and upload these data to distributed servers via our smartphones. And those smartphones contain countless applications to keep track of our vitals and gauge our emotional and psychological states.
Then there is sequencing of the human genome, first completed in 2001 at a cost of about USD 3 billion. It’s possible today for about USD 1,000, with costs falling so fast that, by 2022, genome sequencing may be cheaper than a blood test. Now that it has been mapped into bits that computers can process, the genome has become an information technology.
With increasingly large sample sizes and tools such as IBM’s AI system, Watson, scientists are gaining an understanding of how our genes affect our health; how the environment, the food we eat, and the medicines we take affect the complex interplay between our genes and our organisms.
The next big medical frontier is on the horizon: our microbiomes, the bacterial populations that live inside our bodies. We may think we are just made up of cells, but in reality there are 10 times as many microbes in our body as cells. This is a field that I am most excited about, because it takes us back to looking at the human organism as a whole. The microbiome may be the missing link between environment, genomics, and human health.
Some children, for example, are born with a genetic predisposition to type-1 diabetes. Researchers tracked what happened to the stomach bacteria of children from birth to their third year in life and found that those who became diabetic had suffered a 25 percent reduction in their gut bacteria’s diversity (possibly from antibiotics). In another study, on Crohn’s disease, scientists took a small sample of feces from a healthy person and gave it in an enema to somebody with Crohn’s. Though that seems a disgusting procedure, it proved extremely effective in curtailing the condition. Scientists are also finding a correlation between the microbiome and obesity. It may well be the bacteria in our guts that make us fat — not just the food we eat.
Within a few years, our genome, microbiome, behavior and environment will all be mapped and measured, and prescriptive-medicine systems based on artificial intelligence will help us feel better and live longer.
The most amazing — and scary — genetics technology of all is CRISPR. It uses an enzyme, Cas9, that homes in on a specific location in a strand of DNA and edits it to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. With it, Chinese scientists have genetically modified pigs, goats, monkeys and sheep to change their size and color. They also claim to have edited a human embryo for resistance to HIV. For better and for worse, CRISPR has the potential to eliminate some debilitating diseases and to create a species of superhumans. And it is so cheap and easy to use that hundreds of labs all over the world are experimenting with it.
There are also advances in 3D-printed prosthetics and bionics. One company, UNYQ, for example, is “printing” new limbs for people with disabilities. Ekso Bionics has developed robotic exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again. Second Sight is selling an FDA-approved artificial retinal prosthetic, the Argus II, which provides limited but functional vision to people who have lost their vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal ailment. I expect that, by 2030, we will have developed enhancements that give us perfect vision, hearing, and strength as seen in the 1970s television series, “The Six-Million Dollar Man.”
Yes, it will take time for the inventions to get from the lab to people in need, and the technology elite will have these before the rest of us. But this will only be for a short period, because the way the tech industry builds value is by democratising technology, reducing its cost and enabling it to reach billions. This is why I am so excited that companies such as IBM, Facebook, and Google are taking the mantle from the health-care industry. These companies have a motivation to keep us healthy: so that we download more applications rather than remain hooked on prescription medicines.
(This column is based on Wadhwa’s upcoming book, “Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future”)