In 2013, Angelina Jolie, Oscar-winning actress, shocked the world when she announced the removal of her breasts after finding out she was genetically predisposed to having breast cancer. In a New York Times op-ed, she explained she carried a “defective” BRCA1 gene, which sharply increases her risk of breast cancer:
My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman. Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.
Could the advancement in computers and genetics help eradicate diseases and prolong human life? Sounds far-fetched? Not at all. In fact, computers are fundamental to untangling our DNA – instructions in our cells that tell our body how to grow and live – and they are able to foresee what our health would look like in the future.
According to the World Health Organization, mutated genes are responsible for causing many diseases. These diseases – like hepatitis, AIDS, Cancer and Diabetes – are hereditary, meaning they are passed down to us by our parents through the said dysfunctional genes.
In the past, there was no easy way to identify which genes were responsible for what disease. But now, with advances in computing, we can unravel – or sequence – the human DNA. And when the DNA of millions of people has been sequenced, we can use statistics to associate specific diseases to certain genes. In other words, we are able to distinguish which genes causes a certain illness.
To give you an idea of why computing technology matters so much in genetics, it took days and cost up to $10 million to sequence a human DNA several years ago. Today, it takes only hours and we can sequence our own DNA if we have $1000 in our pocket, all thanks to quantum leaps in computing power.
Now, each of us is able to predict what disease we may get in the future based on our defective genes, and take action to protect ourselves before any ailment rears its ugly head. Here are some the diseases that we can predict with varying degrees of confidence:
- Cancers: breast, colon, lung, prostate, skin
- Immune system: lupus, multiple sclerosis
- Cardiovascular: aneurysm, heart disease
- Aging: macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, arthritis
- General health: obesity, migraine, diabetes
So how can we look after our health should we discover we have a defective gene that makes us more at risk of getting a disease? It depends on the disease itself. For instance, if it is cancer, we can schedule more frequent screenings and make changes to our lifestyle. If it is Alzheimer’s – there is no cure for Alzheimer’s yet, still, we can make certain life choices with regards to our insurance coverage, profession and family planning.
Will the continued advancement in genetics and computing destroy all diseases and ultimately lead to human beings living forever? In the next decade, genetics can prolong our lives by 20 to 30 years. We should also be able to identify the genes that cause aging in the next couple of years; however, we still need to know how they work, and how to repair and protect them. When we learn how to overcome these challenges, immortality becomes theoretically possible.
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