Updates Fridays

Medical Research and the Future of Humanity

Okay everyone, gather in, have a seat, settle down. We need to have a little chat about something very serious.

Medical testing. And also the future of humanity. (Just hang in there, I’ll explain how these are connected, I promise)

The current system we use for testing new drugs and medical treatments is deeply flawed. Yes, it’s obvious that testing brand new innovations in medicine on human beings before you even know what the side effects might be is wrong. But animal testing isn’t much better. It’s cruel. I don’t want to diminish or obfuscate this crucial reality. But it’s also horribly ineffective. Even chimps just aren’t enough like human beings to give researchers really accurate predictions about how a drug will actually interact with all the complexities of a human body. Petri dish testing isn’t much better: yes it removes the cruelty of animal testing, but if anything it’s less effective then using the complex environment of a living creature.

We need a third option.

Well, now we have one. Researchers at Harvard have created a way to replicate human organs on microchips.

The term “microchip” here is misleading. This isn’t a computer simulation, or a digital projection. Yes these miniature organs are created using techniques borrowed from the computer chip industry, but these chips aren’t computer chips. They are real living cells that mimic the structures and functions of human organs on a minute scale. Lung cells, or kidney cells, or skin cells are exposed to blood and air in a way that replicates the conditions present in a human body. Only a few cells at a time, but unlike in petri dish testing these cells aren’t just languishing in a nutrient bath completely unlike the human body. The cells are fed through a culture medium that mimics blood, that reaches them through capillary-like channels. Lung cells are exposed to air through a mechanical process that mimics breathing, etc. You should read the article I linked to if you’re interested in the details, it’s fascinating.

This is all totally real. A whole human organ, replicated in a chip about the size of a thumb drive.

We live in a world that has a lot of problems. Illness and disease are just a tiny portion of the torments that plague our human existence. Poverty, hunger, and war come quickly to mind as other issues that seem to be endemic to our existence on this planet. Utopian Science Fiction has long suggested the possibility of a future where technology could help us to overcome these things. I had always thought such images of the future were impossibly far fetched.

I’m starting to wonder if I was wrong.

Today I find myself asking the question, “what if human organs on microchips could make it possible to develop more effective medicines inexpensively, without having to torture animals along the way?” From there it’s just a small leap to asking, “what if there’s a solution out there to every problem we face, we just have to keep looking for it?”

I feel strange, thinking about these things. A part of me wants to believe it, wants to hope. Another part of me is suspicious and hostile, ready to dismiss every innovation I hear about as one step further down the road to a technological apocalypse. Change is scary. We’ve made mistakes before. Something could go wrong.

But something could also go right.

And if we don’t hope, if we don’t at least try, then nothing can possibly go right.

I’m saying this to you mostly because it’s something I need to hear. Because I’m often frightened by change, and overwhelmed by the speed at which the world is changing. (You wouldn’t want to have to watch the fit I threw when I recently got a new computer and couldn’t figure out how to make it do the things I needed it to do: it was ugly.)

But I am also afraid that we aren’t changing fast enough. I can see the effect that climate change is already having on the world around me. Not in a “look at this data, see the trend?” sort of way, but in a “this isn’t how it was five years ago” way. Technology moves so slowly, how can we possibly figure out a way to halt this process in time, much less reverse the damage we’ve already done?

But technology also moves so fast. I can’t keep up with all the new things I hear about every day. I have a list of future blog topics as long as my arm, and it’s growing faster then I can write. We are coming up with so many solutions to so many problems, most of which I wouldn’t even believe were possible if they didn’t already exist.

So are we learning and innovating fast enough to save ourselves from ourselves? I don’t know. Is our headlong plunge into the new and untested reaches of technology setting us up for disaster? I don’t know. Can we navigate all the pitfalls of the unknown while still making progress towards a better future? I don’t know.

But I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m going to find out. Like the fate of humanity might actually be decided in my lifetime. And that is terrifying.

But…it’s also amazing.

So I’m going to let myself be scared, and impressed, and inspired, hopeful and frightened, overwhelmed and full of anticipation all at once. It’s very human of me, after all. We humans, and our complicated emotions, are the one’s who got us into this mess in the first place, and we are also the only ones who can get us out.

I promised you I would explain the link between medical research and the future of humanity. The link is hope.