Room-size computers of the 60s have shrunk to hand-held ones, not to mention innovation leaps in speed, functionality, mobility, and connectivity, among others.
In comparison, we’re at a point where for kidney dialysis, hospitals are still using a dialysis machine the size of a fridge, a size that hasn’t changed much over the last 40-50 years.
We might have better equipment for other procedures, but our treatment choices remain limited: Drugs, surgery or both.
“Historically, drugs and treatments are based on 2 key concepts: herbal, going back 100’s of years, and amputations,” Dr. Ayham Refaat, new Group CEO of Pulse Holdings Group, told Economy Middle East in an exclusive interview.
“Fast forward to 2022, and we are still prescribing chemicals (pharma) which are replacing herbals or performing surgery, which is derived from amputation. We are very late at evolving from the chemical and surgical theories of the past.”
The successful mRNA experiment that allowed our bodies to recognize and attack COVID-19 gives us a glimpse of what Dr. Ayham is referring to – revolutionary treatments performed at the biological levels, signaling a brave new era for genetic engineering in medical treatments.
But do we know enough?
Today’s genetic understanding of the body
“We have a very good understanding of the human body at the genetic level, such as with genome sequencing, DNA mapping, gene mapping, and so on. Following many experimentations at those levels, we can easily cut, edit, and add changes to genes,” Dr. Ahyam assured.
Of course, any time we start talking about treatments at those levels, we begin crossing a few ethical boundaries, which only help in stunting development in that field.
Yet, scientific research and experiments over the past 50 years, since the days of Dolly the cloned sheep, have not slowed down, with related tech booming since the turn of the 21st Century.
Staying on that thorny subject, how is medicine looking at cloning today?
Full versus partial cloning
“Full human cloning will likely not happen in our lifetime. Maybe 100 – 200 years down the road,” Dr. Ayham estimated.
But what if a body is failing as a result of several diseases, such as cancer, tuberculosis, cirrhosis or others, yet the brain is working perfectly?
“Cancer patients are typically subjected to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, which not only remove or kill cancer cells but also perfectly healthy ones. That’s what we call saving a life today,” Dr. Ayham described.
Is cloning a solution? Well, it depends. According to Dr. Ayham, the philosophical debate today is whether humans are identified by their bodies, i.e. limbs and organs, or their brains, i.e. thoughts, memories, and experiences.
“Trials and experiments conducted by Harvard University in recent years are apparently showing success in scanning and downloading human thoughts and memories on a hard drive. But they are unable to upload those yet. However, with computing power increasing by the day, we will, in the next few years, theoretically have supercomputers able to run an accurate simulation of the human mind and able to store digital maps of human brains. Cloning a body in such a case can then be looked at as a way to save lives.”
He further explained that if medicine can clone parts of the body like kidneys, hearts, or lungs, it would be a solution for millions of people.
But, as mentioned earlier, there are unethical ways to look at cloning.
“Cloning for reasons related to non-medical issues is a subject of continuous debate in procedures like regenerative medicine, genes editing, and so on,” Dr. Ayham said.
But it’s not stopping medical researchers. Trials on animals and plants continue in this very realm.
“Some time ago, researchers cloned a kidney and put it in a mouse, and it worked. This is the direction medicine is hoping to make a difference today.”
But It’s not just around cloning that tech has evolved.
The majority of us are vaccinated with mRNA.
The question then arises – why doesn’t our immune system simply remove those abnormal or mutated cells, be it a result of a virus or disease?
“Cancer cells have a way of avoiding our immune system. Gene editing today can change the way cancer cells look so that the immune system can see them. The University of Pennsylvania tested the safety of a similar approach whereby the researchers used CRISPR to remove three genes that help cancer cells evade the immune system.” Dr. Ayham explained.
“Last month, I read about 14 patients suffering from rectal cancer, where GSK (Pharmaceutical company) came up with a medication to block a specific protein (called PD-1) on the T cells of the patients that stops them from recognizing tumors. Thus allowing the immune system to remove it immediately. All 14 became 100% cancer free.”
CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence.
“Lots of trials around that technology have all proven to work. Chinese Geneticist Dr. Liangxue Lai has successfully isolated the genes for hyper muscle growth and managed to create a new breed of “super beagles”,
This could be a solution to muscular dystrophy disease, for example, but it also could be the basis to augment athletic performance or perhaps create super soldiers on battlefields.
Similar research on blood diseases involves cut and paste treatments that change mutated cells allowing blood cells to move oxygen again. Others include ways for medicine to treat humans while reducing or eliminating our reliance on and use of chemicals,” Dr. Ayham said.
“We’re allowing the body to heal itself, to find a way to control the source of the problem rather than trying to cure the symptoms, and it’s where we need to go.”
When will Crispr become a common procedure?
“My recently born son would definitely get those treatments in his lifetime, and we are looking at human lifespans being 100-120 years on average as a norm.”
But is gene editing ethical?
“The technique is ethical, but its usage is questionable. Look, if a car hits and kills a person, does that make cars unethical? The method is here, but the means of using it is where we need to be careful about,” Dr. Ayham warned.
“If using it is to save lives, it’s ethical. If using it is to have a better gene pool of descendants, or to make people live longer or even make them immortal, then today’s generation of humans is not yet ready to accept this.”
This brings out an important question: Aging. Sure, we can cure with molecular-level procedures, but can we make people age less?
Aging and longevity
While cloning body parts and gene editing can allow people to live longer, science and medicine run into the issue of aging.
“We’re less productive as we get older, so the question becomes ‘how to extend lives while ensuring the quality of life?’ ” Dr. Ayham asked.
Well, the simple answer is that we are not there yet.
“Technology today is more focused on longevity in the sense that we want to have a life free of diseases. The focus and investments are on curing diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Ayham said.
“If we focus on living disease-free but not on aging, we will end up in a world full of senior people, and that’s a big burden on the healthcare, finance, and pension systems. We need to treat aging. The cosmetic industry is trying to do that on the outside. But attempts at keeping organs and limbs young, allowing us to stay active and productive longer in life, that’s not happening today.”
Investment opportunities in ‘time’ concepts
Time is the most important asset or commodity that humans, so far, have not been able to control.
“The ability to extend time is very precious and will completely alter how humans live and think,” Dr. Ayham said.
“For example, People usually cite overpopulation when this topic comes up. However, human nature showed us that when people live longer and healthier, they may not feel the need to reproduce as early and as much as they do now. And since we are talking about investments, I think the investment mentality itself will become entirely different. Typical Financial Investors who are, for example, looking at a proposal to treat cancer that would require $1bn, and ROI in 30 years, will reject it without thought today. Naturally, they want a quicker return because the lifespan is shorter. But when the life span increases, this same scenario suddenly becomes a more appealing business consideration.”
This is where regenerative medicine, or methods to regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs, or tissues, including the generation and use of therapeutic stem cells, tissue engineering, and the production of artificial organs, comes in.
“We are in the business of saving lives but also looking at extending them. Our group is investing in technology education, biotech, regenerative medicine, hoping to make and introduce healthcare breakthroughs,” Dr. Ayham revealed.
“I think we are witnessing an era of genetic revolution in which we might have quantum leaps that will alleviate humankind to an entirely new dimension at many levels but will also create lots of psychological challenges for the ‘new’ humans. On the psychological side of things, I haven’t seen a lot of interest in investing there. There is negligence on its importance or its investment worthiness.
For example, Burnout is often used to casually describe how one feels when they have been overworked. “However, Burnout, in reality, is a serious syndrome that has both physical symptoms like loss of energy, waking up tired, having trouble sleeping, feeling pains, and associated emotional symptoms like mental disconnection from work, pessimism, and depression. We need education on mental health to make it a routine part of our investment landscape towards health and longevity,” Dr. Ayham concluded.