Medical Science Brings Us an Unimaginable Opportunity


A Story of Great Possibilities and a Mind-Blowing Opportunity

I came across a remarkable story in recent days from medical science. It left me awe struck, and hopeful. Not a combination we get to experience very often, is it?

During the Clinton Administration we learned that the human genome project had come to fruition. We had in our grasp the roadmap, the architecture to the human creature. It was, and is, a stunning scientific achievement. We knew then that the possibilities were endless with such precious information. Still, we could not forecast what all those possibilities might be.

One of those wonderful new possibilities was shared with us this weekend, on the CBS Show, 60 Minutes.

Sickle Cell Anemia is a terrible, painful disease.

It affects approximately 100,000 Americans. This disease occurs among about 1 out of every 365 African-American births. It also occurs among about 1 out of every 16,300 Hispanic-American births. About 1 in 13 African-American babies are born with sickle cell trait. Those are frighteningly high odds for those susceptible to this disease.

Science to the Rescue

Enter the human genome project and some more eye-popping science after that. We now know that sickle cell anemia is caused by ONE “letter” being wrongly coded. Just one out of millions in the human genome. Thanks to that ground-breaking science, we know which letter and where it is in the sequence. But how to treat it? Before, only bone marrow and blood transfusions helped, and that does not always work.

Another disease offers a solution, thanks to new science. HIV is so deadly because it is remarkably effective in transmitting genetic material. A team has found a way to capture the HIV cell and take out the component that causes AIDS. They then replace that component with genetic material with that errant letter corrected. They then transfuse the modified package into the patient.

Results are a little early and not wide spread yet, but the success rate is phenomenal. The treatment involves compromising the immune system. This is necessary so the new material will be accepted. Therefore, the process is not without risk or discomfort. But it works. If it continues to prove out, the processes will be further improved, easing complications, timelines, and costs. Sickle cell anemia could be eliminated completely, using genetic coding, not drugs.

Now, Think Ahead, About Other Diseases

Here is the truly amazing footnote. There are approximately 6,000 genetic disorders affecting the human race today. As this new approach used, it will be further perfected. The coding errors that cause each of these 6,000 diseases are being identified. Put all that together. There will be the very real prospect of banishing every one of these curses from humanity. Forever. No drugs, no side effects, no lifetimes of treatment regimes. Think about that.

We live in a world wherein people refuse to vaccinate their children from deadly diseases for the most specious reasons. Nice to know that there are dedicated people out there doing the long term, difficult work to save us. Sometimes it seems we need to be saved from ourselves as a species. Who knows, we might pull this off yet, in spite of ourselves.


On The Other Hand…

Coming up shortly in this space, a not such good news medical story we should all be paying attention to right now. This is MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). MRSA is the super bug bacterium that causes treatment resistant staph infections. These infections are particularly in evidence in hospitals and other communal settings.

Thousands of Americans die from these infections every year. More could be done by  hospitals and other institutions than is being done. People are dying as a result. We should demand better. Stay tuned for this one.

       Bill Clontz

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