As humankind has evolved, so have the microbes that plague us. The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 rocked the trajectory of our species by providing a powerful frontline against infectious bacteria, however, since then antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria have become a growing problem, with diseases like Methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) on the rise.
Most recently, gonorrhea joined the ranks of diseases that have developed serious and multi-drug resistance. According to a report by NPR, in late March 2018, a man from the United Kingdom contracted a strain of gonorrhea that is resistant to both ceftriaxone and azithromycin, the two main drugs used to treat the disease. Hopefully, there is another drug, ertapenem, which may prove to be an effective treatment for this condition.
According to Health Testing Centers, gonorrhea is actually quite common with ~820,000 people in the U.S. getting a new gonorrhea infection every year. Up to 80 percent of women and 10 percent of men who are infected with the organism do not have symptoms. If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause damage to the urethra in men, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, and infertility in both sexes. There’s also the likelihood of infection of infants during birth.
This is the type of problem that, if left completely unchecked, could leave large swaths of the population infertile. Worst-case scenario, this is the type of problem that could decimate the human race. Fortunately, the homo sapiens’ knack for creativity and problem-solving means that we’re always on the cutting edge of innovation and resolution, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of medicine.
Technology Offers Innovative Solutions
While the threat of antibiotic-resistant bugs shouldn’t be taken lightly, you have to marvel at the multiple approaches we’ve come up with to solve the problem. Genetic reprogramming, for example, is one way to combat these superbugs. Genetic reprogramming works by changing an organism’s environment. Those changes, in turn, affect which genes are turned on and off, a biologic phenomenon known as epigenetics.
As Yu-Hsuan Tsai, a lecturer in Organic Chemistry at Cardiff University writes,
“Once we verify the link between specific epigenetic changes and bacterial infection, we can begin looking for substances that alter bacteria’s epigenetics in this way to make it less harmful. There are already several molecules targeting human epigenetics in a similar way under preclinical development or in clinical trials. So a drug that ‘turns off’ bacteria’s ability to cause infections may not be too far away.”
Just as impressive as innovations in medical processes are innovations in medical technology. Scientists at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany have been exploring using nanoparticles as a possible solution to antibiotic resistance, while a team of researchers from Queen’s University Belfast have developed a different strategy. In an article on Medical Xpress, Professor Ryan Donnelly writes,
“One of the biggest problems is that the huge majority of the drugs are taken orally. This means that a small quantity of the compound often finds its way into the colon, creating the perfect breeding ground for drug-resistant bacteria. However, it is clearly impractical to expect patients to inject themselves at home, especially considering that >20% of people are needle-phobic. Admitting patients to hospital every time they need an antibiotic would quickly bankrupt healthcare providers.”
Donnelly’s solution? An antibiotic patch that you wear on your skin.
According, again, to Medical Xpress: “On the surface of the antibiotic patch will be tiny needles that painlessly pierce the skin, turning into a jelly-like material that keeps the holes open and allows delivery of antibiotics into the skin for absorption into the bloodstream, thus bypassing the gut bacteria.”
Wearable medicine. Nanoparticle injections. All of this sounds like high science bordering on fiction, right? Just wait — it gets weirder.
Novel approaches combine technology and biology
According to The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, “Synthetic biologists use tools and principles of engineering to program biological systems, and are increasingly able to draw on the natural diversity of sensors and regulators employed by living organisms to monitor and respond to their environments. This work will engineer and rewire microbial circuits to create synthetic microbes capable of sensing and responding to bacterial pathogens—in essence, designing bacteria to fight dangerous infections.”
This term, “synthetic biology,” is immensely interesting. When examined, it could be said that people who exist in the developed world live “synthetic” lives. Think about it: wearables like smartwatches directly track our health and give us readouts of steps taken, heart-rate, etc., and even augment our workouts by boosting motivation. Smartphones keep us connected to the internet and to each other at all times. We use this internet to buy goods, figure out directions, consolidate travel plans, watch television, conduct business — to do pretty much everything.
It’s not just healthcare that technology is merging with and changing … it is everything. The question, naturally, then becomes:
“When will technology merge with and change us?”
It might be sooner than you think.
A group of people called “transhumanists” are focused on body augmentation, and, according to Sarwant Singh, writing for Forbes, they could be changing the world by 2030. Their practices include things such as installing RFID chips and small computers below the skin or using CRISPR gene-editing technology to change our genes.
These body augmentations could even include nanotechnology, which are tiny robots the size of cells which can alter your biology. There’s also the possibility of implantable brain-machine interfaces, which will make “telepathy” possible — or at least will allow us to send emails via thought.
While these aren’t necessarily all innovations that will benefit people’s health, they will change human biology forever …
On frying pans, fires, and open cans of worms
The advancement of the human race via technology is absolutely necessary in certain instances, such as in the eradication of superbugs and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Without adaptations, could die as a species. Technology is literally helping us evolve.
On the other hand, we have to make sure that we don’t inadvertently create new problems as a result of the introduction of new technology or processes. For example, let’s take a look at one of the biggest problems facing the healthcare industry today: cybercrime.
In our attempt to streamline patient health data and better serve those in need, we decided that electronic health records (EHR) were to become a federally standardized feature of American healthcare. Unfortunately, while providing one solution, we opened the door to a whole slew of new problems.
“Cybercrime, in a health care context, refers to strategies utilized by criminals to access sensitive information — typically patient details stored in electronic medical records. So why are cybercriminals so eager to procure such details?” ask the experts at Bradley University. “ … criminals are interested in health care data due to its high monetary worth on the black market. For example, personal information such as Social Security numbers, home addresses, and health insurance details all can be used for identity theft purposes.”
Now imagine what would happen if people weren’t just hacking our records, but were instead hacking us. What if somebody were to send a virus to a wireless insulin pump, or a pacemaker?
The truth is that we need technology and innovation to survive as a species — but if we continue to create and implement these technological solutions without measuring how they can impact us negatively, we’ll only create worse problems.
Case in point: The reason why antibiotic-resistant bacteria exists in the first place is misuse of and over-reliance on penicillin — an innovative solution to a major problem — in the first place.
We should all support new technological aims, but we should also remember the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
We would do best not to forget that.
Andy is health, tech, and futurism enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest. When he's not writing, you can find him on a run, drinking craft beer, or reading Kurt Vonnegut. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.