Today we have the ability to modify the DNA in any organism we can isolate. Yet we still don’t have the knowledge to be able to precisely know how these changes will translate into new behaviors.
In the latest example, the people of Key Haven, Florida are about to be part of new medical experiment, approved by the FDA, and to be carried out by a company called Oxitec. This company is planning to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild in hopes of containing the spread of the Zika virus. Really cool idea, but do we know if there are any potential negative consequences? Well according the FDAs Environmental Assessment the people of Key Haven have nothing to worry about. How exactly was the FDA able to make such a call?
Most of the ability to say that certain genetic modifications in other species (or even humans) will not have an impact on human health is based on laboratory data and existing biological theory, not on actual direct evidence, like human clinical trials. There would be no problem with this except for the fact laboratory data rarely translates into the clinic and our existing biological theory is incomplete, routinely riddled with “exceptions” that are only understood in hindsight. The process therefore banks on a scientific consensus that boils down to an educated prediction. So when the FDA reviewed Oxitec’s data and the theories they cited, it is simply not possible for them say with certainty that releasing genetically modified mosquitos into the wild will not have an impact on human health or the environment; no direct evidence exists to support such a claim or even a solid theory to back it up.
As scientists, we want to test our ideas and challenge our theories, but we have to do it wisely. We have to do it with foresight and we need to accept that we may need to move more slowly towards the really exciting experiments. It is our job to ensure we don’t become cowboys firing off experiments with unknown consequences whenever we gather enough support or have a nice financial incentive (Oxitec looks to make $400M off this technology). We need to be humble, we need to move forward, but we must always remain cautious when our experiments are potentially playing in a sandbox we’ve never played in before.
In order to move forward properly we need to accept we probably don’t know as much as we think we do. If we are going to continue to mess with the DNA of organisms and the nature of ecosystems let’s at least make sure we are doing our best to collect all the data about what is changing when we do this and obtain consent from the people potentially affected. If we do that, we can use the information to better inform our policies on how to appropriately design and manage these new “experiments”.
Pandora’s box is open and the situation surrounding the use of the Oxitec mosquito is just the hot issue in the news today. We need a strategy to fill our gaps in the knowledge of biological sciences and in how to manage this awesome power over how life on this planet exists and evolves.
Currently there is no dedicated industry or government effort aimed at creating a more fundamental understanding of health. Such an effort could provide the knowledge we need to create cures to the 10,000 known diseases. If nobody else will step up, maybe what we need is an “Ice Bucket Challenge” to fund efforts that seek to do this.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a huge success. In 2014 alone, the concept raised $100+ million dollars for ALS research, which is over twice as much money as NIH put towards the same cause. This week the ALS Association is reporting that money from this campaign funded research that found a significant gene, which appears to be a major factor in ALS. The takeaway is that it is possible to accelerate research for health related issues outside the “limelight” by looking to things like crowdsourcing via social media as unique funding streams.
Now, not to downplay the finding of this new gene related to ALS, but as exciting as this might seem, this finding isn’t likely going to lead to a cure anytime soon. This is simply because finding a gene is only one piece in complicated puzzle that is disease.
Let me explain.
Genes can be compared to players on a sports team. Teams are made up of a variety of players and work together to achieve some goal (e.g. win a championship). Often there are all-stars that really make the team what it is, but a team is always more than one player. And just like one all-star really can’t win you a championship, a single “all-star” gene likely won’t be all you need to find a cure to a disease.
Furthermore, teams need coaches, a person that understands how the game is played and why the team works like it does. In general, this is the problem with all disease, we lack the knowledge of how and why disease occurs. If we want the championship of medicine (i.e. cures) then we need to a real scientific understanding of health.
This is why we need an Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures. We need to stop waiting for others to see the importance of funding a cause that attempts to integrate all known theories of health and disease; one that provides some sort of physical, mathematical basis for human biology.
Let’s dump ice on our heads to fund the search for Maxwell’s equations for biology!
Let’s spread the love on social media promoting the quest for health’s E=mc^2!
Creating a real theoretical understanding of health/disease that can be traced to the fundamental properties of matter will not just help find cures to diseases like ALS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc., it will provide the pathway to find cures to any and all disease.
Let’s start this journey with an Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures!
Radical Islamic terrorism is the most dangerous form of radicalism in the world today. The greater it grows, the longer it persists, the more justification it gives to other forms of radicalism to use violent extremes to get their way. As long as this cancer to a free, fair, and stable global society exists, the justification to kill, rape, and enslave to promote your ideology has a fertile breeding ground to grow. This is not a threat you can deal with passively or subtly. This is a threat you have to treat like all other ideologies that have threatened the ability to live in a free, equal and just society. This threat threatens our survival.
My heart hurts for those in Nice, France today, as well as all those over the years that have been hurt by the evil that radical Islamic terrorism spreads. Yesterday at least 84 people were killed and hundreds were injured when a cowardly terrorist used a semi-truck to bulldoze innocent people celebrating a national holiday, prompting celebration by the radical Islamic terrorist group ISIS. This was a town that promoted western values and had just finished celebrating the French National Day, a day which commemorates the Storming of Bastille, a pivotal moment in the French Revolution that catalyzed a future where the French could be free. And that was probably the point. The radical Islamic ideology despises the ideology celebrated on Bastille Day, one that promotes the concepts of equality and freedom for all. Every time radical Islamic terrorism strikes, be it at night clubs in Orlando, the streets of Paris, or bombings in Istanbul, it reminds us that this ideology only cares about one thing: bringing death to all those that oppose their beliefs and views of the world.
War isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be. Going to war is meant to hurt. War is how societies protect their cultures and ideologies. Radical Islamic terrorists are waging a war on all of us and it is time we fight back. This means treating this threat like we did in 1930’s with fascism, in 70’s and 80s with communism. This means recognizing that the spread of the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism literally threatens our survival and as such we have to respond in full force to preserve all we’ve worked to create. We should be using every single weapon we have, from boots on the ground, to cyberwarfare, to economic weapons, etc. in order to destroy this cancer. Yes, going all in means people’s children will die and innocent victims will be harmed, but again, war is meant to hurt. We aren’t supposed to want to go to war. We are supposed to go to war when there is no other way.
Radical Islamic terrorism is spreading and providing the justifications for other forms of radicalism that threaten freedom and equality for all. The longer we wait to combat this reality, the more it will destroy us, slowly from the inside, just like cancer. You don’t cure cancer by talking to it, rationalizing with it, or haphazardly fighting parts of it. You cure cancer by destroying all cancer cells. It is time we get serious about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and destroy it before it destroys us.
Everyone should walk in the shoes of the other side. What other side? I don't know, but it sounds really profound so I guess we should look for the opportunity.
Today, I had the great privilege and opportunity to walk on the illegal side! I was found to be “not legal” for the purposes of receiving a driver’s license in the Commonwealth of Virginia!
I started the day with the idea I would get a Virginia driver’s license (DL) to replace the expiring Maryland one I have. I moved here 17 months ago, but neglected to get a Virginia DL because my Maryland DL was good until this year. Aren't DLs from any state good and recognized in all states? I assumed the process for turning in the Maryland DL for a Virginia one would be trivial.
I walked into the Virginia DMV with my Maryland DL, my Retired Military ID, and the Official Virginia registration of my car.
I waited, of course, for thirty-five minutes to see the information desk person who would direct me to the right station for further processing. She assessed my IDs and proof of residency only to pronounce that they were not appropriate.
I argued (I do that a lot) that the Maryland DL was still current and a valid ID in 50 states, the DoD ID was current and valid in all 50 states and most of the world, and the proof of residency was issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia. She responded that DLs from other states are not recognized as IDs for Virginia DL purposes and the military ID was not green (active duty) so not recognized by Virginia either.
My only conclusion from this conversation was that the Commonwealth of Virginia does not recognize Maryland DLs. That is a violation of federal law! Also, that the Great Commonwealth of Virginia does not recognize the validity of a USA/DoD issued Retired Military ID. That should cause about 10% of Virginia's population, which are retired military, to move!
She also told me that my official Commonwealth of Virginia car registration, that listed my Virginia residence was not recognized as proof of residence. They would rather I provide a monthly utility bill!
When did proof of residency, citizenship, etc. become utility bills instead of Military IDs, or official state issued documents?
I was therefore deemed not legally entitled to a Virginia DL.
Color me, "considering a move back to Maryland", and legality.
5:00- My alarm clock on my iPhone goes off 5:01- I check my phone for emails 5:01 to 5:30 – I respond to emails and start opening up apps 5:30 to 6:30 – I explore the apps on my phone in the same ways I always do 6:30 to 7:00 – I put my favorite music on my iPod, shower and get ready for work 7:00 to 8:00 – I stream my favorite TV shows from my iPhone to my TV while I make and eat breakfast 8:00 to 8:30 – I listen to my audiobook on my train ride into the office 8:30 to 6:30 – I spend all day searching the Internet and writing on my computer 6:30 to 7:00 – I listen to my audiobook on my iPhone on my ride back. 7:00 to 8:00 – I stream my favorite TV show from my iPhone to my TV while I make and eat dinner 8:00 to 2:00 – I stream my favorite TV show from my iPhone to bedroom TV while I also play on my iPhone until I eventually fall asleep
This is my life. This is my existence. I spend all of my life it seems staring down and spend almost no time staring up. I can’t help but think about how odd that would seem to my ancestors only a couple generations ago. People, like myself, grow up and never really look at the stars anymore.
The stars have always been the greatest seed of wonder and imagination for the human mind. They likely prompted the first real “bizarre” thoughts, things like, “Where are we?”
Who could explain why every time the giant fireball in the sky went away the same smaller fires in the sky seemed to light exactly where they were the night before? Who could explain why throughout the night they moved across the sky? Who could explain that after many moons, certain fires no longer appeared in the same place each night? Nobody could and so it made us wonder.
Now I don’t wonder, I Google. Now I don’t imagine, I watch. Now I don’t question, I listen and read. I don’t have time to wonder, imagine or question. The computer has given me access 24 hours a day to the Internet and I don’t know how to escape its allure. It attracts me. It is like a sick game. It is like the creators of the Internet and all the computing devices which act like portals to bring us there knew that the mind couldn’t resist access to that kind of stimuli, to that kind of information. If we just stopped adding things to the Internet it’s suggested it would take me 57,000 years to read everything. If we didn’t add any more videos to YouTube it’s estimated it would take me 60,000 years to watch everything. This requires me to do nothing else but read and watch. The average human life span in the US is about 72 years. This means if I used these years to read and watch as much as I could starting from when I couldn’t even understand what I was reading and watching, I’d only be able to tackle about 0.06% of all the reading and watching I’d need to read and see it all.
I’m trapped in a computer. I’m trapped in a digital world. I look down instead of up. I type instead of speak. I watch instead of dream. When I die the tombstone people will visit will be on Facebook instead of a cemetery. I love this world and I hate it too.
Maybe the solution for myself is to simply take the next step, to figure out how to virtualize myself so that I can live inside my computer. Maybe if I could live there in a virtual state I wouldn’t feel trapped because I’d be free to explore the vastness of the digital world. I wouldn’t have to waste my time with all the other things that keep me from spending all 72 years of my existence looking down. Maybe this is the next phase, the pressure to drive human evolution to a new form, an immortal existence in a digital environment.
Maybe I’m not trapped in a computer today, but rather maybe I’m trapped in a mortal human body. Maybe the key to my existence is to finally escape to a virtual reality, a universe where everything exists and anything is possible. At least then I’d have time to read it all, see it all, and still look up.