The Benefits of Falling Costs in Biotechnology

The material cost of performing tasks and procedures in biotechnology is falling in much the same way as is the cost of computing hardware, and for more or less the same reasons. We can see this most obviously in the plummeting cost of DNA sequencing, but it extends throughout the field.

The most important benefit of this trend, to my eyes at least, is that it will lead to a robust garage biotechnology and applied research industry, skilled amateurs working to produce new technologies in medicine, collaborating and expanding in the same way as the open source movement in software. Perhaps not in the US, given the characteristic regulatory response of the FDA to anything new in medicine, but certainly in many regions in the world. Costs will fall to the point at which small groups of reasonably intelligent people can educate themselves and work to apply to humans metabolic, genetic, and other biotechnological manipulations developed in mice or primates.

Consider myostatin knockout mutants and their muscles, for example. Or the mice with tinkered p53 and telomerase that live 50% longer. Or the mice with additional mitochondrially-targeted catalase that also live longer. Or the efforts by SENS Foundation funded researchers to move mitochondrial DNA into the nucleus and thereby remove that contribution to the aging process: that'll be done in the lab in a handful of years if all goes according to plan.

There are many people who would - given the opportunity to proceed - carefully assess the risk / reward scenarios and use these technologies on themselves after they are proven in mice. There are others who would wait another decade for primate studies. But there exists a large pool of potential human volunteers willing to be one of the first to use potential longevity technologies or other improvements to our biology. So I believe that this will happen in many locations despite the likely outcome of regulators effectively outlawing such activities in the US and similar countries. There is no real technical obstacle to adapting these and many other strategies to human use over the next decade or so.

The advent of completed mouse life span studies for some of the items I mentioned above, let us say a decade from now for the sake of argument, will coincide with a wide array of biotechnologies becoming cheap enough for part-time, educated amateur work. The comparatively small open and distributed biotech communities that presently exist will grow vastly in size and capabilities as costs fall - though again, perhaps not in countries like the US, where the urge is to lock people up for possessing children's chemistry sets, never mind personal gene therapy labs.

But you can't stop economics. Lower costs and potentially great rewards for successfully applied medical technologies will ensure that diverse communities of developers spring up, and that they will work hard to bring new biotechnologies to human usage. They just won't do it in places where the authorities invest a lot of effort in shutting them down. I think that in the present environment of abitrary and oppressive regulation, this is the best way forward to see meaningful progress in our lifetime: escape and then ignore the regulators. Achievement is the best form of revenge. Work on what seems most promising. Take the personal, well-informed risks on new medicine that you feel are good. Don't let uncaring bureaucrats dictate the future of your access to medical technology, or the future of medical technology period.

The future of medicine powered by advancing biotechnology will, I think, look much like the past of the open source movement powered by the fall in computing costs. With the difference that many (but not all) governments made it illegal to write your own code. That level of repression cannot last forever in the face of material results achieved by a distributed community of biohackers and regions that permit application of their work, however.