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A look to the future

For the record
Science &
Science: A look to the future
Technology: Past and future
Hamdard University
Allama Iqbal Open University
Institute of Business


From Diana J. Choyce
Dec 27, 1999 - Jan 02, 2000

Writing about science advancements over the last 1000 years would fill libraries full of books, and has. Development even in the last decade has been fast and furious. Technology has helped by providing the means to work faster, more efficient, and boost productivity that is unsurpassed. Every area of science has seen major breakthroughs. From eradicating diseases to finding new and devastating ones. From artificial limbs to help one walk again, to walking on the moon. From learning how to preserve and extend life, to cloning new life. It has certainly been a roller coaster ride. And one can expect the next 1000 years to hold the promise of even faster progress. And with it will come things we never dreamed of, and ethical issues and debates that we may never solve.

The biggest debate of late has been in the field of genetics. We have seen the birth of cloned sheep, cows, and the upcoming attempt at cloning a woolly mammoth. The work in genetic agriculture has come a long way in finding general acceptance. But these new attempts with animals have led us to the inevitable path of human cloning. The question of creating a new life form is no longer hypothetical. The scientists at The Institute for Genetic Research in Maryland have determined that the smallest number of genes needed to create a new living organism, that could be sustained in a laboratory environment, is around 300. Humans have between 80,000 and 140,000 genes. They propose creating an organism that has never existed before without human intervention. Their goal is creating living "agents" such as custom-designed microbes that could attack cancer cells, eat up oil spills, or release renewable energy from water by separating hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Even though the potential benefits would be outstanding, the temptation to misuse it are downright scary. The destructive applications could far outweigh the benefits and cause catastrophic results.

As scientists continue to crack the genetic code for humans they are constantly finding new ways to use that knowledge. Again, ethics must play a large role in where this path is leading. In September of this year a teenager died during a genetic treatment for his rare liver disease. Scientists are investigating but still have no idea to his cause of death. While it has never been shown to have cured anyone of any disease, the gene treatment was thought to be a relatively harmless treatment. On the other hand very positive things have been coming from this type of therapy. Targeted Genetics Corp has created a type of synthetic gene delivery technology, when combined with chemotherapy, dramatically reduced the size of ovarian cancer tumors in mice. They hope to use this system in treating other types of cancer as well. It is difficult to predict where this gene therapy will be heading. But one can be sure it will cause great hope and at the same time confusion over whether it is right and good to play "creator".

One area where science needs to concentrate is on the worlds children. It is a travesty to still have children dying of disease that already have treatments and cures. And we should be ashamed of not providing them a way to get the treatment they need. An estimated 1.2 million children under the age of 15 and more than 11 million between the ages of 15 and 24 are living with HIV/AIDS. And More than 600 million children are living on less than $US1 a day. There is absolutely no reason why we can't find a way to help these children. They are our future and yet they have little hope of even seeing a future. The same can be said for most research. The new millennium would be a good time to take stock of where we are spending our research funds. Much money is spent on fruitless and ridiculous projects that could be better spent on very real needs. It would seem a sad state of affairs that most countries put defense spending ahead of spending on the needs of their own people. This is certainly and idealistic stance, but it is not an impossible one

Man has never been in a better position to right the wrongs of ignoring our declining environment. There are only so many resources that our planet can provide. Science has given us many tools to combat the decline. Renewable energy resources are an absolute must if we are to survive here. We have only to recognize and use them. The longer we put it off the harder it will be to fix. Should we be looking for another planet to inhabit when we use this one up? Or should we use that money to clean up our own back yard? When all is said and done, the decision is up to us. We can choose to enter the new millennium with high hopes and dreams. Or we can greet it with cheers and parties and then go on our way with our eyes closed and our hopes buried in denial. It's up to each and every one of us.