Medicine, it seems, is always the last science to the dance. While one guy was establishing the principles of electricity, one of his friends was being bled to death in the name of medicine. When radioactivity was discovered, health practitioners killed countless patients with it.
For most of the history of humanity, doctors were quacks. All of them. The discovery of tiny creatures that live inside us revolutionized the medical biz, but compared to the physics industry and its spinoffs, medicine was still mostly chanting and waving rattles.
Early in the last century, physical science went through a boom so loud our ears are still ringing today. The second half of the 20th century saw technology go nuts as those fundamental discoveries reached market.
That wave gave us the machines we needed to finally dig deep into how we work as organisms. Allow me to tell a rather long story to illustrate.
I have been working to lose weight. If you use the Internet, you’ve seen ads that read, “New scientific breakthrough can help you shed pounds!” and shit like that. I have long made a point of ignoring those ads, but I became curious about the scientific breakthrough. One night I clicked one of the ads.
I was presented with a video. Generally, when I want the answer to a specific question, I HATE video. But in this case, I understood that the video existed for the very reason I dislike them: the producer wants me to go through a lot of shit before providing me the nugget I want. From their point of view, video is perfect.
With the sound off, I watched as cartoon people were drawn and erased, showing a variety of body forms. Finally, a word came on the screen: Leptin. I stopped the video and fired up Wikipedia, where I was offered an explanation with lots of words I didn’t know. I knew enough of them, however, to understand that leptin was created by fat cells, and when leptin levels go up enough to be noticed by the brain, you feel full, and your metabolism cranks up. Injecting leptin into obese mice helps them lose weight; it doesn’t work so well in humans. Also, leptin was found in the 1990’s.
Then there’s Ghrelin, identified about ten years ago. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and slows your metabolism. The Wikipedia article about ghrelin identifies exactly which gene builds it, how it’s matched with a (perhaps unused) counterpart, and where it binds to receptors in the brain. There are drawings of the damn thing.
I trust the drawings, but it all seems vaguely magic.
I think this is just the beginning. The human organism is the most complex thing in the known universe, but we’re starting to figure out how it works. Next comes how to fix it when it’s broken; how to address the exact problem without mucking with other systems. We will move from drugs to viruses — those that attack specific bacteria and those that give the host the ability to produce a particular protein. It’s pretty cool.
That technology explosion? We’re starting to feel the biology echo, and it’s going to change everything.