The year is 2117, man has landed on Mars using a Tesla powered hydrogen fuel cell and Fly Me To The Moon by Frank Sinatra is considered holy scripture in a far-off outpost in the Copernicus crater. But back home, something subtle has changed, the hospitals we currently go to get treatments are now only catering for births, accidents and emergencies. Why do I say this?
You are an exquisitely built machine comprising of approximately 100 trillion cells. These cells are filled with energy and complex machinery. That sounds good, but everybody wants energy, and like all complex things, they generally break! As such, viruses and pathogens continually invade our bodies and try to steal our energy for their own gains, and as we get older our DNA mutates and we end up with systems breaking down. Cancer, diabetes and heart disease are classic examples of the latter. In the future, infection and early onset ‘biological system malfunctions’ will no longer be an issue, the reason, Human 2.0
Lets take an initial example, HIV. It’s pretty fair to say, to my knowledge, that no human in approximately 100 years, with >37 million people currently infected, has naturally developed immunity to HIV and cured themselves. And just in case you think we might, newsflash, we are not evolving very fast as a species in comparison to HIV, so it’s highly unlikely. However, right now antibodies (the molecules that bind to and destroy pathogens) that can protect people against almost every strain of HIV are known to exist. The problem is that people get infected before they can develop such antibodies, and most people never evolve them because HIV is so elusive. So what’s the solution? Really there are two obvious ones, you either provide a human with the antibody before they see the virus, or you modify the human so that its cell can no longer be infected. Both would work in preventing HIV infection. And that’s the key. To genetically modify a human to equip it with the technologies it needs to prevent problems before they ever occur. A kind of immunological foresight.
Historically this was approached via vaccination, but many viruses and bacteria are resistant to vaccination approaches, and vaccinating against cancer is notoriously difficult. So, fast forward 100 years. A child is born and a small blood sample is taken. The cells in the baby’s blood are genetically modified using what has, in 2117, become a basic standard of care, much like 8-week vaccinations are today. In that treatment, the T cells and B cells of the new born baby are genetically modified to contain neutralising antibodies and T-cell receptors against HIV, Malaria, Measles, Smallpox, Mumps, Rubella, Cancer, Heart Disease and so on and so forth. And while you’re there, why not modify some cells to clean up fat deposits in the arteries and boost the kidneys ability to deal with toxic compounds?
Was the child born with Hemophilia? No problem, that was detected during pregnancy, and after birth, a virus was injected intravenously to infect the child’s liver and restore the mutated gene. This technology already exists and is being used in adult humans very successfully. And perhaps at the same time, why not inject some cells that strengthen the myocardium of the heart, just to keep it pumping until the prime age of 150 years old.
But how do you know it’s all working as expected throughout adult life? The implant tells you that. You know. The one under your arm pit that measures your heart beat, blood pressure, glucose levels, antibody levels, infection status, dietary intake, your sleep pattern, your stress levels, even how often you have sex….and it feeds all that back to your home and your digital doctor. Why your home? Well based on your elevated blood sugar levels your next drone delivery of food will contain a bit less sugar…..and maybe it changes the music that plays when you get home from work to something a bit more relaxing.
These visions are not beyond the realms of short-term possibility. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in terms of the picks and shovels required, they already exist. Viral vectors that deliver DNA to cells to correct defects, cells of the human immune system modified to fight cancer, CRISPR genome editing technologies to change any DNA you like, antibodies against the most intractable infectious diseases, these all exist today. But pretty much all of them have only been invented in the last 10-20 years. As such, society is playing catch up and deciding how many of these things it will accept. As we saw with GM crops, sometimes it doesn’t always work out first time around, but rest assured, you can’t stand in the way of progress….
By Dr Ryan Cawood