delanceyplace.com 1/23/12 - exponential improvements in medicine
In today's excerpt - medicine is beginning to turn into an information-based science, in contrast to the hit-and-miss laboratory processes of the past. As that transition continues, success in medical treatments will begin to occur at an increasingly exponential pace:
"Today, the computer in your cell phone is a million times smaller, a million times less expensive, and a thousand times more powerful [than the computer at MIT in 1965]. That's a billionfold increase in price-performance. As powerful and influential as information technology is already, we will experience another billionfold increase in capability for the same cost in the next 25 years (rather than the 40 years or so it took for the most recent billionfold increase) because the rate of exponential growth is itself getting faster.
"The other important point to make is that this remarkable exponential growth is not just limited to computer and communication devices. It is now applicable to our own biology, and that is a very recent change. Consider, for example, the Human Genome Project. It was controversial when announced in 1990 because mainstream skeptics pointed out that with our best experts and most advanced equipment, we had only managed to complete one-ten thousandth of the genome in 1989. The skeptics were still going strong halfway through the 15-year project as they pointed out that with half of the time having gone by, only 1 percent of the genome had been completed!
"But this was right on schedule for an exponential progression. ... If you double one percent seven more times—which is exactly what happened—you get 100 percent, and the project was completed not only on time but ahead of schedule. Similarly, the cost for sequencing a single DNA base pair fell a millionfold over the same period, from $10 in 1990 to less than one-thousandth of a penny in 2008.
"We have exactly doubled the amount of the genetic data collected each year since 1990, and this pace has continued since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. The cost of sequencing a base pair of DNA—the building blocks of our genes—has dropped by half each year from $10 per base pair in 1990 to a small fraction of a penny today. Deciphering the first human genome cost a billion dollars. Today, anyone can have it done for $350,000. But, in case that's still out of your budget, just be patient for a little while longer. We are now only a few years away from a $1,000 human genome. Almost every other aspect of our ability to understand biology in information terms is similarly doubling every year.
"Our genes are essentially little software programs, and they evolved when conditions were very different than they are today. Take, for example, the fat insulin receptor gene, which essentially says 'hold on to every calorie because the next hunting season may not work out so well.' That gene made a lot of sense tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when food was almost always in short supply and there were no refrigerators. In those days, famines were common and starvation was a real possibility, so it was a good idea to store as many as possible of the calories you could find in your body's fat cells.
"Today, the fat insulin receptor gene underlies an epidemic of weight problems, with two of three American adults now overweight and one in three obese. What would happen if we suddenly turned off this gene in the fat cells? Scientists actually performed this experiment on mice at the Joslin Diabetes Center. The animals whose fat insulin receptor gene was turned off ate as much as they wanted yet remained slim. And it wasn't an unhealthy slimness. They didn't get diabetes or heart disease, and they lived and remained healthy about 20 percent longer than the control mice, which still had their fat insulin receptor gene working. The experimental mice experienced the health benefits of caloric restriction—the only laboratory-proven method of life extension—while doing just the opposite and eating as much as they wanted. Several pharmaceutical companies are now rushing to bring these concepts to the human market."