The Future Postponed: Infectious Disease

by Chris A. Kaiser, MIT

The ability to understand and manipulate the basic molecular constituents of living things has created an extraordinary opportunity to improve human health.

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The ongoing revolution in molecular biology has shown that all forms of life contain the same basic set of molecular parts and operate by the same biochemical rules, which scientists increasingly understand and can manipulate. That has created an extraordinary opportunity to improve human health, both by preparing for and thus preventing epidemics of emerging infectious disease such as Ebola and by finding solutions to the even more deadly threat from drug resistant bacteria.

h1n1900Ebola outbreaks have occurred periodically in rural Africa for many decades, and the cause of this highly transmissible and deadly disease— the Ebola virus—has been known since 1976. As the world struggles to contain the current epidemic in Western Africa, it is clear that there have been many missed opportunities to prepare the tools we now desperately need to detect, treat, and immunize against this still poorly understood disease. How did we come to be so little prepared to confront a disease that posed such an obvious risk to global health?

The answer, in part, may have been over-confidence in the established alliance between publicly funded university and hospital based research and privately funded research in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that has been so successful in developing drugs, tests, and procedures needed to combat the diseases of the developed world. It now seems clear that existing priorities and incentives are not sufficient to prepare for diseases that emerge by jumping from animals to humans in impoverished parts of the developing world— of which Ebola is only one of at least half a dozen equally dangerous threats.

Chris A. Kaiser is the Amgen Inc. Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Excerpted from The Future Postponed, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015

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Categories Medicine