Curing Death, for it’s Just a Disease

Vanity Fair April 2011 Interview with Edward Cullen aka Robert Pattinson

The following TedTalk by Anthony Atala tells us of a revolutionary technology that prints human kidney, bladder, skin and bones, inspired by the 3D printer. A 3D printer that prints human organs such as the bladder, and experimentally, small kidneys, bones and skin grafts.

Another video demonstrates a technology called skin gun that sprays layers of skin on to burn patients using their own stem cells. Second-degree burn victims, who would earlier been writing in pain for months before their own skin healed enough, now have access to an experimental therapy that simply takes four days to regrow their natural skin.

The slightly weird but compelling film ‘The Fountain’ directed by Darren Aronofsky, has the lead character Hugh Jackman playing a medical scientist, trying to find the cure for cancer as his beautiful wife, played by Rachel Weisz, nears her death. Jackman doesn’t believe in death – yes, he thinks it’s just a disease for which a cure hasn’t been found yet.

The premise of this film never struck me as preposterous. Growing up on a diet of science fiction books from Isaac Asimov to Orson Scott Card, for me it was but inevitable that science would eventually surpass sci-fi to make real the wonders of cloning, life-extending drugs, anti-age cures, A.I and emotionally intelligent robots, teleportation and eventually space travel.

But the science fiction worlds of Asimov were hinged to reality. The Foundation Series teaches us that power structures and the social construct of the ‘ruler and the ruled’ will never be dismantled – at least not in the next millennium, only transform from the monarchy to the clergy and from the bureaucrats to the sciento-technocrats.

So, what’s the connection between these science-fiction novels and the videos? Well, it seems we are right on track with following the blueprint of technological progress detailed by the fantasy writers. As technology breaks old boundaries, society is plagued with morally ambiguous debates about the meaning of quality of life and future of humankind – is cloning moral, is human engineering god’s will, are designer babies ethical, pro-life, pro-choice, euthanasia, treatment of persons with disabilities, surrogacy, sex-change, sex-determination.

While scientists are busy finding ways to re-grow a burn victim’s tissues and engineering humanoid robots that are bound to change the ways we work, live, play and think about what it means to be a human, we have politicians stuck in the thick of what is morally correct! The citizen never gets to decide what is necessary or beneficial for their life, the state will have the final word based on laws, morality and religious lobbies.

Here’s another news that got me cheering from the rooftops. You know how pharma and drug companies patent life-saving drugs right? If one pharma company has a patent on anti-retroviral drugs (used in the treatment of HIV-infected patients) then any other company can’t use the same composition of chemicals or formula and create the same drug – that would be patent infringement. What this means is that one company ends up ruling the market; they decide where the drugs are released, at what price and to what markets. Plain and simple commoditization of health and treatment.

Well, India’s patent office just pulled a jinx on Bayer. “In a first-of-its-kind move, a government agency has invoked the compulsory licensing (CL) provision of the Patents Act to allow Hyderabad-based Natco Pharma to sell its generic version of German multinational Bayer’s patent-protected cancer medicine, Nexavar (sorafenib tosylate), at a fraction of the cost of the latter drug in India.” (http://business-standard.com/india/news/natco-to-sell-bayer-patented-cancer-drug-nexavar-/467537/).

But this news is not really going to be a watershed moment as many of us hope. Instead it will be a one-off victory, we shall lose the larger battle. Bayer is considering legal options of appealing this decision as it’s worried about its intellectual property rights. What it’s really worried about is how it can recover a ripe cancer-driven market of $2 billion in India alone.That’s considerable loss of revenue from one geographic region and for one disease – multiply this by the other countries and the plethora of diseases that plague us and we are talking about a trillion dollar industry. Pharma companies will just be better prepared in handling such patent claims in the future.

Sad? Angry to hear that a company would care more about profits than healing sick cancer kids? But you are not surprised, right? You are digesting this news as if it’s an everyday weather update – unbearable heat but expected weather.

You don’t have to be a cultural theorist to understand that it simply wouldn’t make economic sense at a global level to keep so many billions of humans alive over a sustained period of time and have them accessing amazing technologies that would level the playing field. In order for the powerful to keep being that social inequities must – and will – continue. We are grappling with endemic issues of poverty and social iniquities not just since the last 100 years, or since the advent of the industrial revolution, or since the Dark Ages but since the history of mankind. Millions of us were born disadvantaged due to class, race, caste, sex or economic backgrounds – and to believe that technology will come and rescue us is a utopian dream.

Technology is as good as the hand that wields it. But it’s also inherently political in its agency and design.

Fear of death levels us all and in the future, life-prolonging technologies (cloning, genetic engineering, 3D printing of organs!!) would be used as trump cards by the elite. The videos on the breakthrough medical technologies leave me with an impending sense of doom actually. It doesn’t fill me with joy that my children, family and the whole world – all the sick, dying, disease-ravaged people – would now have access to previously incurable conditions. It doesn’t give me a sense of hope that we can beat this thing, that we can deal with being ill temporarily because the good medical researchers have bent over backwards inventing miraculous technologies for the people.

No, the good scientists won’t be knocking on your doors anytime soon. They will sell off their technology to multi-billion dollar bio-engineering corporations, who will patent the design and execution and delivery and forbid anyone from hoping for a miracle. Death is a disease and billions of us would continue to die from it. Those who will raise a toast to “The Fountain” will be the ones who can afford to wine and dine death for a couple of days.

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