In Medical Research, the Future Is Now
Five scientists whose medical innovations literally have the potential to change the future offered insights into their discoveries during the Global Conference session “This Changes Everything: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Medicine.”
Their advances include ways of identifying and changing the good bacteria that help our immune system fight disease, identifying the parts of chromosomes that predict mortality, creating tests that identify cancers earlier, a process for building bones from our own fatty cells and a method for programming human cells the way we program computer chips.
Jack Gilbert, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, began the discussion by explaining how a century of antibiotics and cleaning products has been “deforesting our own microbiomes,” the collection of good and bad bacteria that surrounds us all. That deforesting has led to increased incidence of allergies and diseases like asthma. He and his team are working on an innovation he calls Microbial GPS, which will allow people to pinpoint exactly what bacteria they need to eat or supplement to improve their health.
Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel Prize-winning president of the Salk Institute, is leading a team that hopes to prevent, pre-empt and intercept diseases. They’ve done a deep dive into telomeres, the cap ends of chromosomes, which wear down over time at a rate that can predict mortality. “If your telomere length is in the bottom 10 percentile, you’re twice as likely to die as those in the top 10 percent,” she said.
Blackburn noted that stresses like depression, trauma, abuse, tobacco and obesity can all shorten telomeres, prompting Blackburn to predict that in the future, “we can have the option of making disease optional.”
Vadim Backman, Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University, said the key to curing cancer is not with better drugs, but with easy-to-administer tests that identify cancers earlier. Stage 4 or 5 colon cancer is almost always fatal, he noted, but if identified in the early stages, it’s almost always curable. Backman cited the Pap-smear, used to detect precancerous cell changes, as a model for his research. He set out to create tests for other kinds of cancer that could be performed in a primary care setting.
Backman’s research has produced potential tests for a range of cancers, including colon, ovarian and esophageal, many as simple as a cheek swab. He hesitated to declare the end of cancer, but quoted Winston Churchill in saying it was “the end of the beginning.”
Nina Tandon, CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, explained how her company is making bone grafts out of stem cells. Unlike bones harvested from other parts of the body, EpiBones can be customized to fit each patient’s individual defects. “Titanium implants that need replacement every 10 years just don’t cut it,” she said. Tandon added that her advance reflects a philosophy of medicine that puts faith in the body’s capacity to repair itself. It’s a belief that goes back to the days of Leonardo Da Vinci, but fell out of favor during the industrial revolution when we started to treat the body as a mechanical system with replaceable parts.
Juan Enriquez, managing director of Excel Venture Management, has just one word for the audience: lifecode, technology that allows reprogramming of DNA. Although we profess a preference for “natural” things, Enriquez cited human interventions like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and purebred dogs to argue for a world that was far from natural. “When you take a Chihuahua from Rodeo Drive and put it on the African plain, that’s natural selection.”
The story of his unnatural innovation began with a question: “Can you program human cells in the same way you program computer chips?” A decade and $40 million later, the answer is proving to be yes. It manifests itself in the form of a “green goo” that can be programmed to make all manner of substances. ExxonMobil uses it to make fuel and Novartis has used it to make a year’s worth of flu vaccines in a week. A company Enriquez wouldn’t identify has used the goo to make proteins for humans.
Enriquez closed the discussion with this humble pronouncement: “Nothing in the world is going to change humanity and all life on this planet more than the ability to read and write lifecode.