Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Future of Medicine

Good news – medicine is making tremendous progress. First, because of increases in computing, it’s now possible to examine DNA much more rapidly. People can have their genes sequenced at a relatively reasonable cost.

Those who have a family history of Alzheimer’s or diabetes or breast cancer or any number of ailments that have an inheritable component can learn more about their chances of contracting the disease than they ever could before.

For example, about half of all common cancers arise, at least in part, from a mutation of the P53 gene, meaning we will be able to detect the likelihood of cancer before a tumor even forms, monitor the body or even correct the genetic defect before a tumor does grow, and sharply reduce the incidence of many cancer deaths, not to mention eliminating the need for chemotherapy and radiation.

Second, medications are being developed to target specific illnesses and isolated sites within the body. Viruses are being inserted into target cells to allow for the body’s immune system to attack the damaged tissue.

Third, researchers are working on growing new tissue to replace old or diseased body parts. They’ve grown noses and ears and bones and even some organs, which means we’ll be able to grow replacement kidneys for people with diabetes or even new hearts to replace those damaged by cardiac events.

Some scientists are working on nerve regeneration to help people who have been paralyzed walk again. Sure, these developments are still some ways off, but they’re likely no more than a decade or two away.

We’ll also be able to have nanobots inserted into our bodies to monitor our conditions and notify our doctors when a disease or illness begins to develop, allowing treatment at a much earlier stage, which means to a much less invasive degree.

In the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to design our children so they don’t have the same propensity for disease we have. We’ll be able to make them smarter, taller and more handsome. Our children’s children may be better than us in many ways. And we’ll be able to stick around to see it because we’ll be living longer, healthier than we’ve ever been.

This will take a few decades, probably. In the meantime, we have to get past the rise in obesity and pollution-related illnesses and deaths. But those problems too are ultimately solvable. We’ll be able to beat obesity by modifying a few genes here and there so we won’t have the desire to overeat.

And pollution-related diseases, while trickier, can be solved by an early warning system in our bodies that detects the precursors to lung cancer, for example, allowing for early treatment or possibly growing new lung tissue in a lab.

Some scientists even believe there might be a way to reverse aging, to allow for what would essentially be immortality. We know jellyfish can live seemingly forever by rebooting themselves and starting over. We might be able to do something similar.

This all sounds wonderful to many – and for some of us, it will be. However, as always, I feel compelled to point out a few caveats. First, none of this will be cheap, which means the rich will profit more than the poor – duh. Obviously.

Second, there is a societal cost to having people live longer, particularly if birth rates don’t decrease markedly. We may already be pushing up against the limits of human population growth, so any increase could be problematic.

Third, resources that once were dispersed upon the deaths of the wealthy may stay with these families for greater periods of time, keeping or even accelerating inequality levels. And people who are middle class may find that living longer results in increasing poverty if they don’t keep working beyond what normal retirement age is now.

Yet, overall, these are positive developments. The strides we’re making in medicine are truly phenomenal, so perhaps the future holds as many pleasant surprises as unpleasant ones. It might be too late for me to take advantage of many of these advances, but for the younger generations, I see a healthier future.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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