Opinion

The New Biotech Revolution: Bountiful Opportunity or Creeping Challenge

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By: Max Bing-Grant

Will advances in biotechnology revolutionize the ways we live our lives by providing greater dangers or opportunities? We are currently living in an age of technological change that has occurred so rapidly that many have declared the world to be in the midst of a “Third Industrial Revolution.” In this revolution, advances in information-related technologies are altering the foundations of modern life the world over and, in the case of biotechnology, our own bodies.

 

 

Some Examples

  • Biotech for development: Emerging technologies in this field hold promise for lessening drastic gaps in healthcare performance between developing and developed states. New technologies, such as Global Goods’ Passive Vaccine Storage Device (PVSD), are improving the longevity of immunizations and treatments which under conventional standards of packaging lasted for no more than a few days. With the PVSD, treatments now have the potential to last exponentially longer, up to a month, in regions lacking electricity. This is allowing for deeper penetration of medical treatments into distant communities within the developing world. The PVSD is only the beginning as rapid change has also been making medical treatments cheaper and more widely available for those living in lower-income countries.
  • Diversification of medical treatment: Advances in genetic research could help reduce the homogeneity of medical treatments for our diverse population – potentially making our medical professionals more effective in remediating health problems.  Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, industry researchers have made significant breakthroughs in biotech-based medicine. This internationally supported research initiative sequenced and identified human genes and recorded their positions on chromosomes. Upon completion, it resulted in a more fundamental understanding of the makeup of human DNA. Following this success, scientists have been able to more specifically tailor experimentation and design of medical treatments for individuals based on the sequencing of an individual’s DNA. This has potential to pave the way for individuals to have customized medical treatments matching their specific DNA.
  • Human Augmentation: Gains in medicinal performance and prescription are accelerating the potential for human augmentation on a major scale. Human augmentation generally refers to technologies that enhance human productivity or capability, or that somehow add to the human body. Scientists are now more capable of accurately identifying which fragments of DNA can be modified to mitigate and potentially eliminate the risks of hereditary illnesses. Human genetic augmentation also has the ability to modify human DNA to minimize the risk of deformity and mutation of children before birth. Improvement in this field could prolong and enhance the lives of individuals who would otherwise be unable to operate normally. It could even create the new soldier (legal and ethical debates pending).

Pros and Cons

The overwhelming potential of biotech innovations in medicine is in their ability to drastically alter the landscape of human health in both developed and developing states. As has already been seen in many advanced economies, improvements in medicine have resulted in healthier, longer-living populations while abetting the continued graying of populations. Unfortunately, this could also harden the economic challenges faced by states which are threatened by increasing pension and healthcare costs which must be supported by a relatively shrinking population of working-age citizens.

Developing states will potentially face circumstances similar to those described for advanced economies. However, a primary factor which may serve to offset the immediate challenges of aging populaces will be the relatively youthful populations of many lesser-developed countries. As detailed in the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 Report, many less-advanced economies face short and mid-term future scenarios in which their current youth bulges will drastically increase working-age populations. Such a “demographic window of opportunity,” can result in both boons and busts for less developed economies. Improved healthcare, resultant of advances in biotech, has the potential to further abet economic growth by strengthening developing states positions as centers of lower-wage labor.

Conversely, healthcare gains could provide formidable challenges due to their abilities to prolong the lives of combatants along with those of civilians. Such a predicament could serve to encourage longer-lasting conflicts in many conflict-plagued regions. This “window,” poses further difficulties by establishing a need to sustain higher rates of economic growth to support fast-growing populations. Once large segments of working-age populations begin to retire, developing states could face the demographic difficulties of supporting an aging population. They could eventually face difficulties similar to those projected for advanced economies. Prevention of a complete economic bust necessitates that developing countries build middle classes capable of sustaining heavy workforce losses. Otherwise, improved longevity could undermine long-term gains with the costs of supporting growing elderly populations.

Greater accessibility, longevity, and customization of medical treatments hold tremendous potential to decrease the healthcare disparities between states while improving human wellbeing globally. Despite these bountiful opportunities, which are just briefly highlighted in this post, key underlying threats created by advancements in biotechnology lie in the demographic dividends of the population growth they support.

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