This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Click here for part 1.
II. Biotech 2.0 is IT
Biotech 2.0 describes the world now opened by the fusion of biotechnology with information technology. My favorite example is that of sequencing the human genome. As Kurzweil tells the story of Craig Ventner’s project:
“And halfway through the project, skeptics said, ‘Well, this is not working out. You’re halfway through the genome project and you’ve finished one percent of the project.’ But that was really right on schedule. Because if you double one percent seven more times, which is exactly what happened, you get 100 percent. And the project was finished on time.”
Although Moore’s Law does not directly pertain to DNA sequencing, this shows the familiar exponential patterns of IT permeating biological science.
Everyone knows that Ventner and his team sequenced the human genome. But did you also know that they also created a new form of life entirely from chemicals?
Another incredible illustration is in the area of brain science. Here, Tan Le unveils a headset that reads brainwaves and allows people to control physical objects with their minds. A paraplegic can control his wheelchair with thought control. It’s a great example of improving health outcomes without (I would assume) requiring an FDA approval process.
I was fascinated to hear Tan Le state that the real breakthrough was developing an algorithm that accounts for the unique folded structure of each person’s cortex (like a fingerprint). Computing power helped make this outcome possible. IT progress begets biotech 2.0 progress.
I’m equally blown away to see Sheila Nirenberg demonstrate a prosthetic device that allows a blind person to see her child. Her team’s device encodes images that a damaged retina cannot; then it transmits corresponding impulses directly to the brain.
In an interesting case of symbiosis, brain science is also expected to drive the sixth paradigm of computing power, allowing Moore’s Law to extend its run after semi-conductors. Jeff Hawkins’s Numenta and a Stanford group’s Neurogrid system are among those vying for that prize.
Stem Cells >> Tissues >> Organs
In 2008, UCLA scientists reprogrammed skin cells into cells with the same unlimited properties as embryonic stem cells. This represents a potentially limitless source of raw materials for new tissues and organs without having to use or destroy embryos.
When I heard that, I was impressed. But it wasn’t until I saw this Juan Enriquez video that the true impact really hit home. Scientists took the raw cartilage of a heart, then sprayed on stem cells from a mouse. Those stem cells self-organized and the heart started to beat. Are you kidding me??? Warning: This video will blow your mind.
Continue along a little ways in Juan’s video above and you’ll gain a sense for where we will go with prosthetics. Whether or not you share Juan’s views on the future of human evolution, one can envision prosthetics that tap into these amazing technologies. A double amputee sprinter was already denied a shot at the Olypmics for being too fast, thanks to his prosthetic limbs.
Click here for part 3, a look at the inexorable coming changes to healthcare, plus policy and investment implications.