The sun will come out tomorrow – but can we handle this?

By Nahum Kovalski

In the movie “I am legend”, the writers begin with a brilliant two-minute clip where a cancer specialist is speaking about the purported discovery of a cure for cancer. The next scene throws us into the world of the character played by Will Smith, where 90% of the world’s population has been killed off by this very cure, and half of the remaining surviving humans have been turned into, effectively, zombies.

If you have not seen the movie, it is in my opinion and that of many others, worthy of an Academy award for Mr. Smith. He literally carries the entire movie for most of its length and his range of emotions are phenomenal. The movie is not about mindless zombies eating people. The movie is about how a single person handles the end of the world that he was partially responsible for.

This movie also came to mind when I saw yet another movie called “Charlie Wilson’s War”. Yes, I have too much time on my hands. In any case, this was another brilliant film that ends with the following exchange between two of the key characters:

There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t, cause his legs all messed up. And everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.” Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

From the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War

I referenced these two movies in relation to an article I read yesterday, titled “SCIENTISTS MANAGED TO CUT OUT HIV VIRUS FROM RATS“. This article goes on to describe how researchers at the Lewis Katz school of medicine at Temple University have managed to extract  HIV-1 genes from rodent genomes. The article goes on to state that this is a proof of concept study that demonstrates that gene editing technology will likely one day, relatively soon, help us cure one of the most devastating diseases we know.

Almost needless to say, is that the experience of such research will likely spill over  into other fields of medicine and finally make it possible to genetically fix a wide range of chromosomal-based diseases. In some cases, these fixes will be applied after the child is born, but in other cases, these fixes will be applied even before fertilization or while the fetus is still gestating within the mother’s uterus.

One cannot help but be [appropriately] excited by such potential. Mastering our own DNA makes it possible to cure diseases  that are otherwise incurable or incredibly difficult to treat. In a recent blog post, I spoke of modern day technology finally curing cancer, via a melange of varied approaches. There is no inherent reason why there should be just one type of cure for the whole collection of diseases that we refer to as cancer, just as there is the need for a whole range of antibiotics to treat all of the various types of infections that we come across.

In the field of infectious diseases, we are now dealing with a very serious problem related to an overreaching resistance to the litany of antibiotics that we have. We may very well have to resort to DNA modifications to make bacteria sensitive to our antibiotics. We are not there yet, but it is easy to imagine needing such new science to deal with the growing number of “super bugs”. It may turn out that all of the science that we have mastered due to HIV, will end up saving us when aggressive bacterial and even other viral illnesses start to run rampant.

The reason I bring the quotes at the beginning of this post is to remind people that scientists do not live in a bubble. Researchers in the life sciences are more than aware of the fact that any time you play with mother nature, she might very well strike back with an even more aggressive illness. When antibiotics first became ubiquitous, suddenly a whole host of patients was discovered to have other underlying diseases, from leukemia to immunocompromising congenital abnormalities, and much more.

Overall, the numbers were clearly in favor of using antibiotics. For every 10 patients saved by penicillin, maybe one would be discovered to have an underlying and much more severe disease. But we had clearly made progress, and we benefit from that progress until today. My wife’s own mother would have likely died in a post-second world war DP camp had it not been for penicillin. Instead, she lived on to become the grandmother of two dozen grandchildren.

Not surprisingly, like most things in life, there is a trade-off between the good and the bad when dealing with medical technology. But anyone who questions the overall benefit of modern medicine only needs to travel to the developing world, far away from any form of modern hospital, to see what life was like for everyone, until very recently.

I was born at a very fortuitous time in history. I have been witness to a world before and after the advent of modern medical technologies. When I was a medical student, HIV was just beginning to be discussed and taught as part of the medical school curriculum. At the time, there were many more questions than answers. During the course of my career, we have come to understand the properties of the viruses that lead to AIDS. More so, with modern medicine, HIV has been transformed into much more of a chronic illness. It is still infectious and still deadly. And it still reduces the lifespan of sufferers. But the degree to which HIV interferes with a normal life has been drastically reduced.

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will be one decade or three decades or more, until an HIV vaccine is fully implemented. In the event that someone is already infected, it will be possible to reverse that infection via gene modification. I know that I overuse the phrase “this is nothing short of miraculous”, but I feel I am correct in making this statement. We should not allow ourselves to become complacent about disease based on the thoughts that medical science will eventually be able to cure everything.

Everyone, including myself, should make an effort to eat properly and to get a reasonable amount of physical activity. Everyone, including myself, should stop making excuses for not doing what people should do as a minimum, to protect themselves from a whole long list of controllable illnesses. I guess we all need a pill that counters laziness and halfhearted excuses.

For decades, there have been senior researchers who have spoken of the dangers of playing with our own chromosomes. There were far more than a “few” people who saw “test tube baby” technology as letting the genie out of the bottle. Whereas today, no reasonable person would question the value of this fertility technique, at the time, people  were speaking of such manipulation of nature as the beginning of the end.

And maybe it was. Maybe, in 100 years from now, we will see a man-made apocalypse whose foundation was in fertility technologies. But that’s not how we live. Whether people openly realize it or not, we have collectively accepted the potential risk associated with gene manipulation, in order to benefit, at least in the short term. To live in fear of possible long-term complications of any technology would be to stifle all progress. I for one am not willing to live as our ancestors did, due to a fear of the unknown. And although this might sound strange, I am hopeful that whatever progress damages, progress will fix. And what if I’m wrong? Well, there might not be anyone around to complain.

If anything,  the world has seemed to come to terms with the fact that we will succeed in curing more and more diseases and extending lifespan significantly. People are already talking about the need to dramatically change the numerical cut off for retirement. Even at younger ages, robotic technology threatens [or better said, promises] to alleviate mankind of any extreme physical labor.

There are many jobs that require significant risk to humans, but are still nevertheless absolutely necessary for certain projects. Deep-sea divers still fulfill critical roles in many businesses that the world’s population depends on for day-to-day functioning. On the other hand, if a fully dexterous undersea robot can perfectly mimic the actions of a human who is immersed in a virtual reality environment, then why would anyone risk life and limb?

Robot technology will unquestionably continue to spread and will eliminate a wide variety of jobs. There are many people who have not physically entered a bank for years, alternatively making use of ATMs and the Internet to do all of their banking. I would not dare presently get into the discussion of what this will mean long-term, in relation to employment and the social structure of our lives. But all of these advancements are happening, and the arguments against them are getting weaker by the day. As I’ve said on many other occasions, I strongly suspect that my children’s, G-d willing, future children will find it almost impossible to believe how much we used to do without the benefit of AI and independent robots. Whether my future potential grandchildren will be employed or will be living in a strange mix of socialism and capitalism, is a whole different discussion.

I will finish off this post on a philosophical point. As described in Genesis, there was a concern in the heavens that humankind would become like G-d, if Adam and Eve were allowed to also eat from the tree of life. The understanding was that having both the knowledge of right and wrong as well as immortality would make humans like G-d, and thus lead them to challenge the natural hierarchy of the universe.

But surely, G-d knew that with knowledge, mankind would one day conquer the limits on life expectancy. Why then was there such a concern over Adam and Eve eating from  the second fruit?

Perhaps immortality is something that needs to be earned so that it does not become a destructive force. I am open to any other suggestions. But one thing is clear – progress, due to our very nature, is inevitable. And the inevitable outcome of progress over the coming millennia is effectively unimaginable.

Depending on your definition of godlike, I think it’s fair to say that we will achieve this status at some point in the nearer or further future. What comes after that? I guess the beginning of the movie Prometheus is as good a guess as any. As I said, I clearly have too much time on my hands.

Thanks for listening.

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