January 28, 2015
It was 1903 when Albert Michelson, the first American recipient of the Nobel Prize in the sciences, stated “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered,” although acknowledging there were “apparent exceptions to most of these laws.” Just two years later Einstein proved him wrong by proposing the theory of special relativity. Since then, with the discovery of the atomic nucleus and with the theories of quantum mechanics, Big Bang, and the standard model of elementary particles, the fields of physics, chemistry, and astronomy have undergone several other major paradigm shifts.
Consequent to the new understanding, several inventions revolutionized the society. Among the most notable were the discoveries of uranium fission, photoelectric effect, and superconductivity. They all affect how we work and live today, from television, computers, solar panels, to nuclear energy.
To my knowledge no one has made a prediction similar to Mr. Michelson’s about the life sciences. Building on a chemistry and biology background myself, I did my Ph.D. in a theoretical biology field and was surrounded by physicists. There I learned today’s physics is so well understood that experimental physicists too have changed the way they work. They explained that they often begin their work with computer simulations to predict the experimental outcome based on current theories, before they actually go in the laboratory to test how that matches the reality.
Much like physics at its time, biology and related medicine have also been developing relatively slowly, only to gain in speed around mid-19th century. However, the level of maturity of biology and medicine today hardly matches that of physics, electronics, and computing. If you’re like most people you’ve probably been to your doctor a few times, who most likely did a preliminary inspection, maybe even ran a few tests, before sending you home with a prescription. He or she may have told you then on the way out ‘If it’s not getting better in a few days, come back again.’ Science fiction fans may recall the medical technology featured in Star Trek; but unless you live on the 24th century’s USS Enterprise spaceship, your doctor probably didn’t do a full body scan prior to diagnosis to see how your organism will react to the treatment prescribed.
Personalized medicine may mostly be a matter of science fiction these days, but nowadays medical and biological research is in the forefront of the world’s governments’ research programs. Similarly to the development of physics, a number of paradigm shifts occurred in the last centuries in the life sciences too, ranging from Darwin’s theory of evolution to the recent sequencing the human genome. The turning point was the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA (1953), which allowed biology to be understood at a finer, molecular level using concepts from the highly developed science of chemistry.
Biology and Medicine in Antiquity
Starting with the ancient Greek philosophers who aimed to understand life around them and followed by medical and agricultural developments in the Arab world throughout the Middle Ages, biological and medical research is not a recent endeavor. That is perhaps naturally so, given our own species’ curiosity for how we function and concern with repairing our own ailments. The first dissection of a human body is recorded in the 13th century, and the Renaissance and Enlightenment brought medical treatments for a number of diseases of the time (syphilis, scurvy, and malaria).
It wasn’t until about the 18th century, when the proof of blood circulation was put forward, that medicine became a highly regarded scientific field; previously the medical field had been marred by various forms of charlatanry (witchcraft, dubious practices, etc.). This societal development was compounded by a major change in how life was understood as the light microscope was invented in the 16th century. It was this breakthrough that allowed biology to be studied at the cellular level. Only now could bacteria be identified, and only later were they understood as the cause for epidemics. Several branches of biology and medical specialties also developed around this time, including fields such as anatomy, cell structure, and genetics. As most of the other fields of knowledge, biology and medicine developed relatively slowly during that time.
During the 100-year period between the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the end of World War II, biological and medical discovery greatly sped up. X-rays, electrocardiograms, and blood transfusion (facilitated by the discovery of blood types) were critical during World War I. The repertoire of treatments available during World War II grew with surgery entering its modern phase (antiseptic surgery and open-hearth surgery) and with the discovery of insulin, antibiotics, and steroids. These medicines provided relatively easy-to-deploy treatment to the deadliest diseases of the time. The 1918 flu pandemic killed 50 million people, and provided the basis for understanding and treating epidemics. The foundation of the World Health Organization in 1948 marked the point where governments worldwide have agreed to a concerted effort for eradicating treatable illnesses.
Following the wars biological research and developments in the medical field accelerated at a rate unprecedented in history. For example, Watson and Crick’s double-helix theory of DNA in 1953 allowed DNA to be recognized as the biochemical basis of gene inheritance. As a direct result of this discovery, genetics started to develop quickly. Paralleled by major breakthroughs in physics, electronics, computer science, and chemistry, and aided by ensuing technical developments, it has become possible to understand biology at a molecular level. For instance 1974 marks the first in vitro fertilization and with it the beginning of genetic experimentation: Dolly the sheep was cloned from an adult cell in 1996.
The transplantation of most organs was performed in premiere, and has been complemented very recently by the use of microtechnology (e.g. minimally invasive viewing of internal tissues during surgery). HIV was identified in 1983, and in 2013 the first cured patient was reported. Life span greatly expanded to a 2010 average of 67 years worldwide, ranging from Swaziland’s 49 years to Japan’s 83 years. That also changed the focus of medical research, as the most common causes of death today are no longer the epidemics of early 20th century, but old age diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
In the forefront of biomedical research are, to name a few, stem cell research, bioinformatics (fast-developing information technology tools applied to a growing pool of biomedical data), bionic organs, and robot surgeries. These branches of current biomedical research are today subject to much political debate, as their respective revolutionary discoveries have been at their time. A discovery that triggered one such debate was the release of the human and other organisms’ genomes, which triggered a range of responses from the public and governments world-wide about issues such as genetic discrimination (would insurance companies charge more the individuals who are genetically susceptible to diseases), concerns regarding human consumption of genetically-modified crops, and the health-care opportunities that an affordably cheap patient DNA sequencing technology might provide. For instance, while current medical techniques are still far from the full-body scan available on board USS Enterprise, DNA sequencing companies today accept saliva samples at an affordable price (~ 100 USD) to perform genetic analyses of an individual’s DNA. These companies are able to predict genetic predisposition to a range of diseases and individual responses to various therapies and medications currently used. With this information available to the public, one can only speculate the many directions that biological research and medicine may take.
Future progress in the life sciences will affect our society and day-to-day life in this century. The shape of late 21st century society will be determined by the interplay of a number of factors, amongst which: an ageing society and faster pace of life in the Western world, greater demands for improved and universal health care in the developing world, and potential major political and economic landscape changes. Electronics, telecommunications, and computing have ushered us last century into the modern era. However, whether life sciences will bring about a social revolution in much the same way remains an open and intriguing question.