07 August 2005

Designer Immune Systems.

Humans aren't intelligently designed. But, that doesn't mean we can't do some redecorating ourselves. Some of the technologies on the horizon are stunning in their potential implications.

Researchers are making serious progress in developing a wide spectrum flu vaccine. That's right. One jab and you'll never get most strains of the flu ever again in your entire life. It may be ten or more years off, but it could still come soon enough for people like me to benefit before we become elderly. We already have vaccines against many diseases, and we already have narrow spectrum, short term flu vaccines, so this is really only an incremental change, but given how many people are affected by flu every year, its importance is monumental. And, it isn't just a matter of convenience. Geriatric influenza remains a leading cause of death.

Even more remarkable is that we may be able to vaccinate against tooth decay. This one wouldn't even take a shot. Swish some vaccine in your mouth as a toddler, and you'd enjoy a lifetime with far fewer cavities.

Little enhancements like this add up. Another time they may develop vaccines for HPV (which causes cervical cancer), for AIDS, and for who knows what else.

We're also making progress on other fronts. We aren't there yet, but targeted cancer drugs, which kill the cancer without the many acute side effects associated with traditional chemotherapy, are in the early stages of coming to market. One can imagine reaching a point where treating cancer, once it is discovered, isn't much different than taking antibiotics. People will still die of cancers discovered too late, but a single class of drugs like these, which would have a significant impact on one of the top three causes of death in this country (and cancer death rates have been stubbornly unchanged for decades while heart disease and stroke deaths have declined greatly), would single handledly extend the life expectancy of everyone in the nation by a decade.

We already know that very simple therapies, like daily mini-Asprin pills, and daily glasses of alcohol, have independent and dramatic effects on heart disease and stroke. Statins also have a similar effect. In a few decades, I suspect that Asprin will be viewed as a vitamin instead of a drug. It will be part of the standard recommendation for every middle aged and older adult. Indeed, serious progress is being made on a single pill that would contain everything in the "drug cocktail" that most older Americans take every week.

There are developments in biotechnology which will be controversial. But, none of these proposed remedies fit that profile. All treat conditions that are nearly universally viewed a diseases that should be banished to the fullest extent possible. By extending the human life span, and reducing the amount of suffering we experience during the course of that life span, they will change our society forever.

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