Together with David Pearce and Phil Bowermaster I’ve been brainstorming about which diseases medicine looks set to tackle over the coming two decades. Thanks to gene manipulation, stem cell research and nanotechnology, many of today’s most murderous maladies face brutal annihilation at the merciless hands of medical science.
It’s difficult to say exactly how these technologies will converge, but combinations of any or all of these could become panaceas before long.
Stem cells are like blank slates. They’re cells that don’t yet have an identity, a role. But we can assign roles to stem cells, and tell them whether to become a skin cell, a brain cell or a part of any organ we want. Granted, we’re only beginning to learn how to do this, but we’ve already grown functioning livers, bladders, ears, and lungs in laboratories by dripping little drops of stem cells onto molds. So stem cells can be used to repair damages in organs and tissue, or to simply replace faltering organs altogether. They will soon obviate the need for organ donors. We’ll instead have organ factories that make hearts, eyes, kidneys; you name it, on demand and off the shelf. Read about one man who was cured of AIDS using stem cells.
Ray Kurzweil has said that computers that used to take up a whole room in the sixties, now fit in his pocket, and that these same computing powers will fit inside a blood cell within a generation. When processors are so small that they can be injected into your blood stream, you can send in billions of them to repair and regenerate tissue as it degenerates, enabling a continuous rejuvenation of all organs. If a malignant tumor is discovered somewhere in your body, a billion strong army of well trained nanobots could be deployed to defeat it. Nanotech will also enable the implantation of microchips in our brains, where they have already cured depression and anxiety disorders in test patients.
And then, of course, there is gene manipulation, which can take both a proactive and a preventative nature. Through accurate alterations in a fetus’ or baby’s genetic makeup, hereditary diseases would be precluded from ever causing any trouble in the first place. If, upon analyzing your child’s DNA, your doctor finds it predisposed to Down’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, or ADHD for instance, he will have the ability to change or fix the relevant chromosomes. One man was cured of a blood disease through gene therapy.
Which diseases will we cure?
I asked Phil and David to help me with this.
Phil Bowermaster of The Speculist says:
I'm on the record saying that I think we're within a couple of decades from most forms of cancer being, at worst, something people can live with the way they currently live with being diabetic.
So let me expand the list. Diseases that in 20 years will either be eliminated or that people will be able to live with via treatments:
1. Most forms of cancer.
2. Heart disease.
Diabetes may be cured by then, too, rather than just being treatable. Any progress in treatment of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will lead to a huge demand for faster progress.
This is far reaching, but if correct we will have made tremendous progress in 20 years towards life extension simply by treating these diseases.
David Pearce of Abolitionist.com says:
I think we’ll cure/manage depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson's disease.
To these I would like to add blindness, multiple sclerosis, most kinds of paralysis.
So put together we have the following list:
Many will also rejoice to hear that the continuing developments in stem cell research will likely cure baldness, although that is not, strictly speaking, a disease.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and when looking back in 2030, it could be much, much longer.
Social Darwinists, religious fundamentalists and other skeptics towards game changing science will do their part to decelerate this progress, as they did with in vitro fertilization (which continues to give the joy of parenthood to millions), gene modified crops (which continues make food increasingly affordable to the hungry masses without the prophesized side effects) and on countless other accounts.
But in the end, reason and compassion will prevail, as it always does in time.
Disease eradication goes hand in hand with prosperity. Many poverty stricken populations, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, suffer needless deaths from Malaria, AIDS and Polio. Those are all perfectly treatable diseases (indeed most HIV positive patients from the industrialized world are now able to live full lives), yet, without the most important prerequisite for medical progress – wealth – many Africans remain defenseless in the face of for instance Malaria. They can’t afford to keep their cattle in barns, they have no houses with sealed windows behind which to hide at dusk and dawn, and they can’t afford treatment once infected. Africa will be the last continent to reach economic prosperity, and subsequently the last to enjoy the health benefits that accompany affluence.
But that day too will come - in our lifetime.