In a fascinating interview with biogeneticist Eric S. Lander, the Atlantic’s James Fallows asks how far we are away from using Genomics (DNA sequencing and the study of genomes) to cure fatal afflictions and chronic diseases. Lander’s answer is breathtaking:
Remember in the 1980s, when HIV was a fatal disease? What made it become a chronic, treatable disease? It was a combination of three drugs. Any one of those drugs alone, the virus could mutate its way around. But with the combination of all three, the chance that a virus could find its way around all of them was vanishingly small.
That’s what’s going to be happening in cancer. If you didn’t know the HIV story, you would be depressed: you put all this work into the drug, and a year later the cancer has developed resistance. But if you understand that this is a game of probability, and there is only a finite number of cancer cells and each has only a certain chance of mutating, and if we can put together two or three independent attacks on the cancer cell, we win. If we invest vigorously in this and we attract the best young people into this field, we get it done in a generation. If we don’t, it takes two generations. That’s a very big difference.
With sequestration and drastic cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it’s looking more like two generations, but the implications are still astonishing. According to Lander the cost of sequencing genomes by has gone down by a million-fold in the past 12 years, meaning radical advancements in understanding the genome are now much faster and cheaper. Around 1.7 million cases of cancer are diagnosed every year in America, and just under 600,000 people die – numbers that would be reduced drastically. HIV related deaths reached a peak in 1995, and due to antiretroviral therapy, the number has decreased by 80%. HIV is no longer a death sentence, and many people live productive lives with the disease relatively symptom free. If advanced cancer treatments achieved similar success, it would change our perception of the deadly disease forever. It would of course still be incredibly serious, but no longer the destructive force that ends lives before they’ve really begun.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.