How coronavirus is accelerating the coming biotech revolution
Early in the year, I felt so optimistic I wrote Hope for the 2020s: Why the next 10 years may be the best decade ever. I covered some of the progress that happened during the past decade— incredible progress that usually got drowned out by more dramatic headlines. I was hopeful.
Then an epidemic hit. The world went into a shutdown, uncertainty skyrocketed, and markets plummeted. Optimism is not the prevailing sentiment on Facebook these days. Despite modern advancements, we’re struggling to halt the progress of this tiny virus.
As the tragedy unfolds, however, there may be a silver lining: As leaders and thinkers across the world scramble to boost healthcare, the current crisis will accelerate a revolution that is already emerging.
The first half of the twentieth century was a revolution in the world of physics and chemistry, from the discovery of the atom to the development of the atomic bomb. The last half of the twentieth century witnessed an incredible digital revolution that has exponentially expanded access to information.
The next big revolution will be in biology. In his recent essay, A Spur to the Biotech Century Ahead, Walter Isaacson writes, “The effort to defeat the coronavirus will focus the attention of a new generation of scientific pioneers…The coronavirus plague will hasten our transition to the third great innovation revolution of modern times.”
Major breakthroughs in the world of bioengineering, genetics, and medicine promise to completely transform society, just like the industrial revolution drastically changed our cities. From new treatments to promising longevity research, biology is bringing big changes to all of us.
In medicine, the FDA has recently approved new drugs to treat peanut allergies in children, schizophrenia, and muscular dystrophy. These are very specific advances on diseases that have plagued us for some time. And CRISPR gene editing technology has opened up new hope for new treatments for diseases like cancer that have proved difficult to cure. Unless you’re closely tracking bionews, you’re likely to miss developments like these, which get buried under the 24-hour-news avalanche.
More dramatically, futurists are predicting rapid increases in life expectancies. Global life expectancies have already gone up roughly twenty years since the 1960s, from 52 years to 72 years. But the changes coming may not only increase the number of people who reach extreme ages; it appears we’re about to extend what’s possible in the first place.
Last year, the World Health Organization declared aging a treatable condition.
Many scientists are now aggressively searching for ways to “cure” aging. Studies in mice have been promising, including ones that have been able to cure age-related diseases with gene therapy. With these advances, some scientists claim life expectancies could shoot up to 200 years, using technology that is already available.
Will longer life just mean being “elderly” longer? It appears not. Many of these treatments are designed to not only extend life, but also create a much longer “youth”. Just weeks ago, researchers at Stanford University announced they’ve been able to reverse aging in human cells by “reprogramming them” to a youthful state. Two of my great-grandparents lived into their late 90s. Understandably, they slowed down considerably in their later decades. If my children live to those ages, will they feel more like 30 than 90?
This biology revolution will create many changes in society. What will it mean to live life well over centuries? What will families be like if you have as many as 32 great-great-great grandparents alive simultaneously? Will retirement itself transform into multi-careering? How the financial planning profession would change!
If we live until 200, with 170 to 180 of that in prime health, what will our careers look like? Do you work for 50 years, then take a 20-year sabbatical to go back to school and find something new to do? How does the meaning of “family” change when you’re able to live alongside so many of your ancestors? And what if you’re able to have children for 100 years? Do you have them all at once? Or could someone have a sibling 100 years older? Will our population boom if our life expectancies drastically increase? Where will we all live?
Other moral dilemmas arise. What happens if the technology is readily available to some but is out of reach for the poor? Would current inequities deepen? Already, “How far should we go to preserve lives?” is a major discussion during the coronavirus shutdown. But what steps should we take to preserve a life that can last 200 years?
These are all questions we can’t answer right now. We may be facing them sooner than most realize. But like the dilemmas posed by the industrial and nuclear transitions of the previous centuries, I have hope we can figure them out and make equitable progress. Overall, especially when considering the possibilities around improved disease cure & prevention, these advances should lead to more human flourishing on the whole.
The potential of this biotech revolution is one reason we include biotech funds in our investment portfolios. As the technologies advance, it will be interesting to see who will be the big companies of the 21st century. Will the digital behemoths who replaced the giants of previous generations be replaced by emerging industries in biology? Only time will tell. But while the short-term health news seems particularly depressing, we can remind ourselves of all the positive advances that continue. When bad news threatens to overwhelm us, remember crazy-good things are happening!
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