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by Vivek Wadhwa

Engineering Our Health

New technology and DNA access promise a medical revolution.

Personalized prescriptions and “printed” organs are becoming possible. - Vivek WadhwaIn 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced they had raced ahead of the U.S. government in decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology, plus the data available from the Human Genome project, Celera scientists created a working draft of the genome. These efforts cost more than $1 billion. Today, a complete genome sequence costs about $3,000 and takes about a week. One company, Life Technologies Corp. in Carlsbad, Calif., just announced that it will provide the service for $1,000 and in 24 hours. At this rate, within three years, the cost will be less than that of a simple blood test and the results will be almost instantaneous.

This type of data opens up an amazing set of possibilities.

A genome map is the source code for the software that constitutes living organisms. Imagine doing a Google search on your own genome to learn the health predispositions and likely abilities of people genetically similar to you. You can learn about what medications or lifestyle changes may best prevent a disease.

Today, medicines are generally prescribed on a “one size fits all” basis. When a particular medication causes a significant negative reaction with a small part of the population, it is prevented from being available to anyone. With genetic information, we could be prescribing specific types and dosages of medicines based on a person’s DNA.

And new advances in DNA printing promise to revolutionize biology and more.

Craig Venter, who led the research at Celera, made another stunning announcement a decade later, in May 2010. His team had, for the first time in history, built a synthetic life-form — by “writing” DNA.  The slow-growing, harmless bacterium they created was made of a synthetic genome with 1,077,947 DNA base pairs. Today, a number of DNA “print” providers offer DNA synthesis and assembly operations as a service. Current pricing is by the number of base pairs — the chemical “bits” that make up a gene — to be assembled. Today’s rate is about 30 cents per base pair, but prices are falling exponentially. Within a few years, it could cost 1/100th this amount. Eventually, like laser printers, DNA printers could become inexpensive home devices that enable legions of garage biotechnologists and DIY-ers to solve big health problems.  

Venter is now using “synthetic biology” technology to try to solve the problems of energy by developing biofuels from genetically engineered algae. The idea is to extract “hydrocarbonlike” liquid that can be turned into transportation fuel.
Tissue engineering and 3-D printing technologies are advancing rapidly and beginning to merge. These advances will allow us to print organs and personalized medicines. A company called Tengion synthesized full-size replacement bladders in 2008, and surgeons in Sweden recently carried out the world’s first synthetic organ transplant — a synthetic trachea/windpipe structure created and seeded with the patient’s own progenitor cells.

Soon, we will be able to “print” sophisticated medical devices. And sensor technologies are becoming ubiquitous, so continually monitoring and recording every aspect of our health from the time we wake to when we sleep will be within reach before long.

All of these advances play to the strengths of engineers. The skills needed for diagnosing health problems are similar to those for analyzing the structure of bridges. Search engines for the genome aren’t that different from search engines for text and video. The same rigor needed for programming new bacteria is similar to what’s necessary for building an industrial robot: developing functional requirements, designing and testing components, integrating these components, and testing for effectiveness, reliability, and safety.

With these new developments, it is clear that our engineers have begun using their skills to solve the problems of human health. Now, it’s time they tackled many other grand challenges that face humanity.


Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship. He is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University and is also affiliated with Stanford University, Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, and Emory University.




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