Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, recently announced a $3 billion effort to cure all disease during the lifetime of their daughter, Max. Earlier this year, Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker donated $250 million to increase collaboration amongst 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, on which applications keep track of our vitals and can gauge our emotional and psychological states.
Then there is sequencing of the human genome, first completed in 2001 at a cost of about $3 billion and possible today for about $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 already on the horizon: our microbiomes, the bacterial populations that live inside our bodies. We may think we are made up of cells, but in reality there are 10 times as many microbes in our body as cells. This is a field 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 that the bacteria in our guts makes 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 AI-based prescriptive-medicine systems will help us feel better and live longer.
The most amazing — and scary — genetics technology of all is CRISPR. It has come into prominence only in the past three years. It manipulates the ancient system that bacteria and other single-celled organisms use to protect themselves from viruses: The bacteria incorporate the viruses’ DNA into their own so that they can easily identify attacking viruses. The system uses an enzyme, Cas9, to home in on a specific location in a strand of DNA and edit it to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. Chinese scientists have used this same system to genetically modified pigs, goats, monkeys, and sheep to change their size and color. They also claim to have edited the DNA of a human embryo to give it 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.
We are also seeing advances in 3D-printing 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 called 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 be able to enhance our bodies to have perfect vision, hearing, and strength as 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 enhancements before the rest of us. But this will only be for a short period, because the way the tech industry builds value is by democratizing 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 healthcare industry. These companies have a motivation to keep us healthy: They need us to download more applications rather than remain hooked on prescription medicines.
(This post is based on my upcoming book, “Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future”)
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and a director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke. His past appointments include Stanford Law School, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard Law School, and Emory University. Follow @wadhwa.