Engineering a Better Body and the End of Disease

There are two kinds of people in Washington, DC, says entrepreneur Dean Kamen. There are the policy experts, whom he calls cynics. And there are the scientists, whom he deems optimists.

Kamen, speaking at the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, places himself in the latter camp. Unlike policy wonks and politicians who see diseases like Alzheimer’s or ALS as unstoppable scourges, Kamen points out that previously terrifying diseases were all toppled by medical innovation. The plague, polio, smallpox — all were civilization-threatening epidemics until experimental scientists discovered new ways to combat them.

If that sounds like the kind of disruption that the tech industry has unleashed across the rest of the world, that’s no accident. Kamen, the founder of DEKA, a medical R&D company, says that the same trends that have empowered our computers and phones and communication networks will soon power a revolution in health care. He says that medical innovation follows a predictable cycle. First we feel powerless before a disease. Then we seek ways of treating it. Then we attempt to cure it.

Take a look at how we think about renal failure. It took decades to develop the process of dialysis, in which patients travel to a clinic and hook themselves up to machines. It treated the medical condition but was, Kamen asserts, “a horrible way to live.” Insulin pumps took an unwieldy and expensive process and made it cheaper and easier. Now, Kamen says, it’s time to move past the treatment phase and develop a cure. “How about if you can grow a new kidney?” Kamen asks. “There’s 300,000 people waiting for them.”

The Time Is Now
The Frontiers conference is a one-day symposium intended to encourage Americans to use technology to face the biggest challenges of the next five decades–medicine, climate change, space travel, artificial intelligence. Kamen, who says he employs 500 engineers, paints the current moment in historical terms. “If you think of the phases of the golden age of humanity,” he says, “once we started to understand the basic laws of physics and made engineering rules to apply them, we saw exponential growth of energy and power use–what we call labor.” Last century we saw a similar breakthrough in our understanding of electricity. Now, he says, we are ready to tackle another frontier. “Medicine is the last,” he says, “because it is the most sophisticated and complex.”

As we collect more data and learn more about our bodies, Kamen says, our health will benefit from the same kind of rapid innovation that has defined the tech industry. “We’re going to get to the fundamental laws of life,” Kamen says. “You’re going to be leveraging engineering in a way that’s unimaginable today.”

As biology and technology intersect, Kamen says, “I think you’ll start to see life sciences start to embrace engineering and start to grow at the same exponential pace we’ve seen in communications.” When you buy a new computer, he points out, you don’t expect it to perform as well as last year’s model; you expect it to be better, faster, capable of doing more. Soon, you will have that same expectation of your own body. You will expect to play better tennis at 80 than you did at 50, as your knees are upgraded to the latest model.

That’s why, Kamen says, the cynics will be proven wrong about the threat posed by today’s diseases. As long as scientists continue to innovate, we will soon see Alzheimers or heart disease or the Zika virus as no more of a threat than we think of polio or smallpox. “Despite what all the pundits say as they look fearfully backward,” he says, “we the innovators need to look optimistically forward.”

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