September 18, 2014
Biotech Still Lags Far Behind Computer Tech In Our Lives

We are still waiting for the biotech revolution to start. So far it exists mainly as press releases extolling research papers. Where the rubber meets the road (our daily lives) it is pretty much missing in action while computer tech continues to transform our lives Computers and fiber optic cables have made a variety of big impacts on our social lives and have increased the convenience and pleasure of living.

By contrast biotech has made somewhere between little and no impact. Okay, Bt corn has probably sliced some number of cents off the price of beef and pork. But otherwise I'm hard pressed to point at a significant biotech advance that has done something measurable to my quality of life. Have you noticed a personal impact from biotech?

Speaking as someone who does over 90% of his spending online (with perishable foods still driving me into grocery stores) the computer and communications revolution has saved time, money, and made the search for better products and services much easier. I read more books, better books, more articles, and better articles because of advances in computing. I've got probably 200+ books on Kindles, Nexus tablets and smart phones (and, yes, I have redundancy in each computer device type). I've got many gigabytes of classical, jazz, rock, and other music on smart phones and tablets. I'm about to buy a 64 GB phone just so I can put more music on it (hate to wait for downloads while music is playing). Need more space so I can start to get into baroque and old folk music. Plus, the internet provides easy access to on-demand movies, documentaries, and other video. Love it.

Emails, Twitter, and blog comments let me and billions of others communicate regularly with people all over the world from a large variety of backgrounds with some impressive skill sets. This is great. Search engines and online encyclopedias make searching for answers far easier than it used to be. Really, this is great.

Computers aren't just about entertainment, commerce, information search, and social networks. Because of computers my next car will be safer and the one after that safer still. To get the highest safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cars must now come equipped with computerized systems to reduce collision risks. Why did IIHS raise the bar for their highest safety rating? Because computers made it possible to do. Now an increasing list of companies have a least one car model that can reach this higher bar. If we are to believe the car companies then in the 2020s robotic cars will be chauffeuring us around and cutting our risks of death from car accidents.

By contrast, what has genetic engineering, stem cells, gene therapy, and tissue engineering done for you lately? If you are like me: Nothing. Not a thing.

I've got a list of biotechnological wants. For example, A service to fully rejuvenate my eyes back to teen level would be handy. No more need for reading glasses. No shortage of demand for such a treatment. A few hundred million people in industrialized countries would pay for it. I know other people who have bad backs, bad elbows, bad knees, torn ligaments, failing hearts, tinnitus, chronic skin conditions, allergies, blood sugar problems, high blood pressure, and other stuff they'd like to get fixed. But the fixes remain many years into the future. In what decade will useful products from biotech start letting us fix and enhance our bodies?

The promising lab advances keep happening. For example, researchers at University of Edinburgh recently grew replacement thymus glands for mice. Doing this for humans would partially rejuvenate aged immune systems. But like with so many seemingly successful lab mouse experiments we will have to wait many years before this is available for this one gland for humans.

Is there some area of biotech which will start delivering useful services in the foreseeable future? I think so. In vitro fertilization combined with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis should be able to make a big impact on reproduction starting some time in the next 10 years because of the plunging cost of DNA sequencing. The identification of genetic variants for intelligence, personality, heath, and physical appearances will lead to wide use of embryo selection for offspring with the most desired traits. The upper classes especially will aim for super kids.

But how many years before organ replacement and stem cell treatments become widely available for enough conditions and diseases that most people will get multiple of these treatments? In other words, when will spending on real body upgrades (not just appearance alteration) become mainstream? Still waiting.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 September 18 05:53 PM 

destructure said at September 19, 2014 2:10 AM:

Tremendous advances are being made. They just haven't translated into real world application yet. At some point, a crucial breakthrough will be made and the floodgates will open. My bet is that something will happen to create a revenue stream and that will finally blow the lid off. I'm thinking the first revenue streams will be genetically modified viruses that attack cancers. Adding stem cells to produce insulin and cure diabetes. Or pigs that have been genetically modified to produce human organs for transplant. Believe it or not, they can already do those. Its in development/testing

vaccines said at September 19, 2014 12:20 PM:

Curing disease versus Enhancements.....that seems to be your issue. Be happy to be will thank bio tech soon enough as you age...much sooner if you catch HIV.. the way...did you get your avian and swine flu shots yet?

Faruq Arshad said at September 21, 2014 3:09 AM:

i look forward to the day that biotech can find a cure for my incessant OCD.

sturt said at September 21, 2014 6:10 PM:

A few thoughts about why the distinction between ICT applications and biotech:

. It takes, on average, eleven YEARS to obtain regulatory approval to release a biotech trait into public commerce - whether that be for agriculture or medicine. And even that figure is in countries that have favorable regulatory regimes. There are OLD biotech traits that never got approved in Europe before the term of the original patent ran out, thereby obviating the value of commercializing the innovation.
You can get an app up on the Android store within a day.
. Innovation in the physical world is not necessarily cumulative whereas innovation in computer technologies inherently build on what's gone before. Innovations in fiber-optic enable network innovations which enable platform and application etc. In biotech there is some cross-fertilization (heh) but for biopharma, most research is a set of parallel lines. Some advances use techniques, but fundamental knowledge of biologic interventions doesn't always proceed in linear fashion.

brendan said at September 25, 2014 5:51 AM:

"It takes, on average, eleven YEARS to obtain regulatory approval to release a biotech trait into public commerce ..."

And tremendous amounts of money.

Lets face it. Its the regulatory state that is slowing this down. If I was a big biotech firm, I would bypass the US and other over regulated countries and go to places like Mexico, that have just minimal regulatory over site, and build my firm there. You would find many willing test subjects (no, you wouldn't perform inhuman experiments) - if it seems to work in animals with minimal side effects, then you apply it on humans, and cut down on the turnaround time from over a decade to a few years. That's the only way to get it going.

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