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Inventing Our Evolution
We're almost able to build better human beings. But are we ready?

Monday, May 16, 2005

The surge of innovation that has given the world everything from iPods to talking cars is now turning inward, to our own minds and bodies. In an adaptation from his new book, Washington Post staff writer Joel Garreau looks at the impact of the new technology.

Some changes in what it means to be human:

· Matthew Nagel, 25, can move objects with his thoughts. The paralyzed former high school football star, whose spinal cord was severed in a stabbing incident, has a jack coming out of the right side of his skull. Sensors in his brain can read his neurons as they fire. These are connected via computer to a robotic hand. When he thinks about moving his hand, the artificial thumb and forefinger open and close. Researchers hope this technology will, within our lifetimes, allow the wheelchair-bound to walk. The military hopes it will allow pilots to fly jets using their minds.

· Around the country, companies such as Memory Pharmaceuticals, Sention, Helicon Therapeutics, Saegis Pharmaceuticals and Cortex Pharmaceuticals are racing to bring memory-enhancing drugs to market before the end of this decade. If clinical trials continue successfully, these pills could be a bigger pharmaceutical bonanza than Viagra. Not only do they hold the promise of banishing the senior moments of aging baby boomers; they might improve the SAT scores of kids by 200 points or more.

· At the Defense Sciences Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, programs seek to modify the metabolisms of soldiers so as to allow them to function efficiently without sleep or even food for as much as a week. For shorter periods, they might even be able to survive without oxygen. Another program seeks to allow soldiers to stop bleeding by focusing their thoughts on the wound. Yet another program is investigating ways to allow veterans to regrow blown-off arms and legs, like salamanders.

Traditionally, human technologies have been aimed outward, to control our environment, resulting in, for example, clothing, agriculture, cities and airplanes. Now, however, we have started aiming our technologies inward. We are transforming our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities and our progeny. Serious people, including some at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, consider such modification of what it means to be human to be a radical evolution -- one that we direct ourselves. They expect it to be in full flower in the next 10 to 20 years.

"The next frontier," says Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology and Society at the UCLA School of Medicine, "is our own selves."

The process has already begun. Prozac and its ilk modify personality. Viagra alters metabolism. You can see deep change in the basics of biology most clearly, however, wherever you find the keenest competition. Sport is a good example.

"The current doping agony," says John Hoberman, a University of Texas authority on performance drugs, "is a kind of very confused referendum on the future of human enhancement." Some athletes today look grotesque. Curt Schilling, the All-Star pitcher, in 2002 talked to Sports Illustrated about the major leagues. "Guys out there look like Mr. Potato Head, with a head and arms and six or seven body parts that just don't look right."

Steroids are merely a primitive form of human enhancement, however. H. Lee Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the recent Athens Olympics may have been the last without genetically enhanced athletes. His researchers have created super-muscled "Schwarzenegger rats." They're built like steers, with necks wider than their heads. They live longer and recover more quickly from injuries than do their unenhanced comrades. Sweeney sees it as only a matter of time before such technology seeps into the sports world.

Human enhancement is hardly limited to sport. In 2003, President Bush signed a $3.7 billion bill to fund research at the molecular level that could lead to medical robots traveling the human bloodstream to fight cancer or fat cells. At the University of Pennsylvania, ordinary male mouse embryo cells are being transformed into egg cells. If this science works in humans, it could open the way for two gay males to make a baby -- blurring the standard model of parenthood. In 2004, a new technology for the first time allowed women to beat the biological clock. Portions of their ovaries, frozen when they are young and fertile, can be reimplanted in their sixties, seventies or eighties, potentially allowing them to bear children then.

The genetic, robotic and nano-technologies creating such dramatic change are accelerating as quickly as has information technology for the past four decades. The rapid development of all these fields is intertwined.

It was in 1965 that Gordon E. Moore, director of Fairchild's Research and Development Laboratories, noted, in an article for the 35th-anniversary issue of Electronics magazine, that the complexity of "minimum cost semiconductor components" had been doubling every year since the first prototype microchip was produced six years before. And he predicted this doubling would continue every year for the next 10 years.

Carver Mead, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, would come to christen this claim "Moore's Law."

Over time it has been modified. As the core faith of the entire global computer industry, it is now stated this way: The power of information technology will double every 18 months, for as far as the eye can see.

Sure enough, in 2002, the 27th doubling occurred right on schedule with a billion-transistor chip. A doubling is an amazing thing. It means the next step is as great as all the previous steps put together. Twenty-seven consecutive doublings of anything man-made, an increase of well over 100 million times-- especially in so short a period -- is unprecedented in human history.

This is exponential change. It's a curve that goes straight up.

Optimists say that culture and values can control the impact of these advances.

"You have to make a distinction between the science and the technological applications," says Francis Fukuyama, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and director of the Human Biotechnology Governance Project. "It's probably true that in terms of the basic science, it's pretty hard to stop that. It's not one guy in a laboratory somewhere. But not everything that is scientifically possible will actually be technologically implemented and used on a large scale. In the case of human cloning, there's an abstract possibility that people will want to do that, but the number of people who are going to want to take the risk is going to be awfully small."

Taboos will play an important role, Fukuyama says. "We could really speed up the whole process of drug improvement if we did not have all the rules on human experimentation. If companies were allowed to use clinical trials in Third World countries, paying a lot of poor people to take risks that you wouldn't take in a developed country, we could speed up technology quickly. But because of the Holocaust -- "

Fukuyama thinks the school of hard knocks will slow down a lot of attempts. "People may in the abstract say that they're willing to take that risk. But the moment you have a deformed baby born as a result of someone trying to do some genetic modification, I think there will be a really big backlash against it."

Today, nonetheless, we are surrounded by the practical effects of this curve of exponential technological change. IBM this year fired up a new machine called Blue Gene/L. It is ultimately expected to be 1,000 times as powerful as Deep Blue, the machine that beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. "If this computer unlocks the mystery of how proteins fold, it will be an important milestone in the future of medicine and health care," said Paul M. Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research, when the project was announced.

Proteins control all cellular processes in the body. They fold into highly complex, three-dimensional shapes that determine their function. Even the slightest change in the folding process can turn a desirable protein into an agent of disease. Blue Gene/L is intended to investigate how. Thus, breakthroughs in computers today are creating breakthroughs in biology. "One day, you're going to be able to walk into a doctor's office and have a computer analyze a tissue sample, identify the pathogen that ails you, and then instantly prescribe a treatment best suited to your specific illness and individual genetic makeup," Horn said.

What's remarkable, then, is not this computer's speed but our ability to use it to open new vistas in entirely different fields -- in this case, the ability to change how our bodies work at the most basic level. This is possible because at a thousand trillion operations per second, this computer might have something approaching the raw processing power of the human brain.

Nathan Myhrvold, the former technology chief of Microsoft, points out that it cost $12 billion to sequence the first human genome. You will soon be able to get your own done for $10, he expects.

If an implant in a paralyzed man's head can read his thoughts, if genes can be manipulated into better versions of themselves, the line between the engineered and the born begins to blur.

For example, in Silicon Valley, there is a biotech company called Rinat Neuroscience. DARPA provided critical early funding for its "pain vaccine," a substance designed to block intense pain in less than 10 seconds. Its effects last for 30 days. Tests show it doesn't stifle reactions. If you touch a hot stove, your hand will still automatically jerk away. But after that, the torment is greatly reduced. The product works on the inflammatory response that is responsible for the majority of subacute pain. If you get shot, you feel the bullet, but after that, the inflammation and swelling that trigger agony are substantially reduced. The company is deep into animal testing, is preparing reports for scientific conferences, and has now attracted venture capital funding.

Another DARPA program, originally christened Regenesis, started with the observation that if you cut off the tail of a tadpole, the tail will regrow. If you cut off an appendage of an adult frog, however, it won't, because certain genetic signals have been switched off. This process is carried out by a mass of undifferentiated cells called a blastema, also called a regeneration bud. The bud has the capability to develop into an organ or an appendage, if it gets the right signals. Early results in mice indicate that such blastemas might be generated in humans. The program, now called Restorative Injury Repair, is aimed at allowing regrowth of a blown-off hand or a breast removed in a mastectomy. (Instances of amputated fingertips regenerating in children under 12 have long been noted in scientific journals.) "We had it; we lost it; we need to find it again" was Regenesis's original slogan.

Snooze and Lose?

There are three groups of people usually attracted to any new enhancement. In order, they are the sick, the otherwise healthy with a critical need, and the enterprising. This became immediately obvious when a drug called modafinil entered the market earlier this decade. It is intended to shut off the urge to sleep, without the jitter, buzz, euphoria, crash, or potential for paranoid delusion of stimulants such as amphetamines, cocaine or even caffeine.

The FDA originally approved modafinil for narcoleptics who fall asleep frequently and uncontrollably. But this widely available prescription drug, with the trade name Provigil, immediately was tested on healthy young U.S. Army helicopter pilots. It allowed them to stay up safely for almost two days while remaining practically as focused, alert and capable of dealing with complex problems as the well rested. Then, after a good eight hours' sleep, it turned out they could get up and do it again for another 40 hours, before finally catching up on their sleep.

But it's the future of the third group -- the millions who, in the immortal words of Kiss, "wanna rock-and-roll all night and party every day" -- that holds the potential for changing society. Will people feel that they need to routinely control their sleep in order to be competitive? Will unenhanced people get fewer promotions and raises than their modified colleagues? Will this start an arms race over human consciousness?

Consider the case of a little boy born in Germany at the turn of this century. As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, his doctors immediately noticed he had unusually large muscles bulging from his tiny arms and legs. By the time he was 4 1/2 , it was clear that he was extraordinarily strong. Most children his age can lift about one pound with each arm. He could hold a seven-pound dumbbell aloft with each outstretched hand. He is the first human confirmed to have a genetic variation that builds extraordinary muscles. If the effect can be duplicated, it could treat or cure muscle-wasting diseases.

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals is testing a drug designed to do just that as a treatment for the most common form of muscular dystrophy. Will athletes try to exploit the discovery to enhance their abilities?

"Athletes find a way of using just about anything," says Elizabeth M. McNally of the University of Chicago, who wrote an article accompanying the findings in the New England Journal of Medicine. "This, unfortunately, is no exception."

Views of the Future

Ray Kurzweil, an artificial-intelligence pioneer and winner of the National Medal of Technology, shrugs at the controversy over the use of stem cells from human embryos: "All the political energy that has gone into this issue -- it is not even slowing down the most narrow approach." It is simply being pursued outside the United States -- in China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Scandinavia and Great Britain, where scientists will probably achieve success first, he notes.

In the next couple of decades, Kurzweil predicts, life expectancy will rise to at least 120 years. Most diseases will be prevented or reversed. Drugs will be individually tailored to a person's DNA. Robots smaller than blood cells -- nanobots, as they are called -- will be routinely injected by the millions into people's bloodstreams. They will be used primarily as diagnostic scouts and patrols, so if anything goes wrong in a person's body, it can be caught extremely early.

As James Watson, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, famously put it: "No one really has the guts to say it, but if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we?"

Gregory Stock of UCLA sees this as the inevitable outcome of the decoding of the human genome. "We have spent billions to unravel our biology, not out of idle curiosity, but in the hope of bettering our lives," he said at a 2003 Yale bioethics conference. "We are not about to turn away from this."

Stock sees humanity embracing artificial chromosomes -- rudimentary versions of which already exist. Right now, the human body has 23 chromosome pairs, with the chromosomes numbered 1 through 46. Messing with them is tricky -- you never know when you're going to inadvertently step on unanticipated interactions. By adding a new chromosome pair (Nos. 47 and 48) to the embryo, however, the possibilities appear endless. Stock, in his book "Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future," describes it as the safest way to substantially modify humans because, he says, it would minimize unintended consequences. On top of that, the chromosome insertion sites could have an off switch activated by an injection if we wanted to stop whatever we'd started. This would give future generations a chance to undo whatever we did.

Stock offers this analysis to counter the argument offered by some bioethicists that inheritable genetic line engineering should be unconditionally banned because future generations harmed by wrongful or unsuccessful modifications would have no control over the matter.

But the very idea of aspiring to such godlike powers is blasphemous to some. "Genetic engineering," writes Michael J. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, is "the ultimate expression of our resolve to see ourselves astride the world, the masters of our nature. But the promise of mastery is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will."

Stock rejects this view. "We should not just accept but embrace the new technologies, because they're filled with promise," he says. Within a few years, he writes, "traditional reproduction may begin to seem antiquated, if not downright irresponsible." His projections, he asserts, are not at all out of touch with reality.

Adapted from the book "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human" by Joel Garreau, to be published May 17 by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. © 2005 by Joel Garreau. Reprinted with permission.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company