The Cybernetic Immune System
We are all cyborgs.
The phone you hold in your hand is an extension of your brain.
Just like computers have caches and memory, which allow them to quickly access information, they also have hard drives and remote databases, which allow them to access larger quantities information in a slower way.
With us, we have our internal brains, which allow us to quickly access information in our human memory, and then we have our external brains, which allow us to tap into vast expanses of information all throughout the internet.
We have become cybernetic beings and we hardly even notice it.
The Evolution of the Human Cyborg
Our phones may have made us modestly cybernetic beings, but the future holds even more incredible ways in which we will become cyborgs.
One of these ways is something I like to refer to as the cybernetic immune system.
Our bodies have a natural human immune system that takes care of us and combats invaders.
It has served us well for millions of years of our human evolution and for hundreds of millions of years of our mammalian evolution.
But our organic immune system is fallible. It can still fail us and disease can overtake us.
The good news is that we are a species that has the capacity to wield technology to greatly augment our abilities.
With technology, we can augment our natural immune system.
We can build an external auxiliary immune system that protects us when our natural immune system will not.
How Collectives Protect Individuals
Animals are built to promote their own continued existence.
The animal immune system acts throughout the body to ward off invaders and protect the organism.
The fight or flight response is behavioral code that ensures the organism does its best to escape danger or neutralize any given threat.
But these systems and responses aren't limited to an individual's self-preserving actions.
They can also act on a group level.
For example, if ants detect that one of their kin is infected with a parasite, they will carry the infected member away from the colony in order to protect the collective.
Humans can do this too.
When a crazed trucker was barrelling down the highway and trying to ram cars off the road, I received an alert from local law enforcement warning me about it and telling me to get off of the road.
This allowed me to stay out of harm's way without having to personally witness the threat.
And the law enforcement response was able to neutralize the threat on behalf of the collective society.
We can do the same with disease.
The Human Immune System
Here's the way the immune system works:
When the body is exposed to a pathogen, the immune system starts a nanoscopic R&D program to develop specialized machines (antibodies) that can fight it.
This process can work spectacularly.
But of course, it can take weeks to months to start to work and the system can be outsmarted.
Biotechnology as Immune System Augmentation
The good news is that we have incredible innovations that allow us to pool our resources as a species.
We can take the learnings derived from one person's infection and apply them to the rest of the population.
Our first line of biotechnological defense is the vaccine.
We can produce vaccines by killing viruses (inactivated vaccines), weakening viruses (live-attenuated vaccines), or "photocopying" viruses (subunit and nucleic acid vaccines) and then exposing individuals to these safer versions before the actual viruses reach them.
Our second line of biotechnological defense is the antibody.
We can take the antibodies produced by one person who successfully fought off the infection, analyze them, mass produce them and give them to others as a treatment, protecting the individuals before they even witness the threat.
The Cybernetic Immune System
The next level of biotechnological evolution will come when we are able to fully automate the process of vaccine and therapeutic discovery, manufacturing and delivery.
Our bodies have an automated R&D and manufacturing program.
Why couldn't we have one as a species?
In the future, we will have a single cybernetic implant that rests on our arm and protects us from nanoscopic invaders.
The cybernetic immune system.
This machine will constantly monitor our bloodstream for viruses.
It will sequence them and log them to a personal database.
If multiple individuals fall dangerously ill with never-before-seen symptoms, the public health authorities will be alerted and each person will receive a request to share their viral measurements.
Once measurements have been uploaded and processed, if a genuine new public health threat is detected, all other individuals with cybernetic implants will receive a notification about the threat.
They will receive information about the threat and will be able to make an informed opinion about whether they want to protect themselves from it.
The device's app will show a new vaccine that they can download and "install" into their bodies.
All that is required for this vaccine to be manufactured on the person's implant and delivered into the person's arm is the sequence of the virus.
Once the sequence has been downloaded and once the person has started the installation, the cybernetic implant will begin producing the vaccine and then will deliver it into the person's bloodstream, forever protecting them from the viral threat.
Science Fiction or Reality?
The crazy part about this vision is that it isn't as far off as one might think, at least from a scientific research perspective.
The first part of the vision, which simply detects viruses in the bloodstream and relays the sequences to the network, is the closest part and may only be a decade or two out.
The second part of the vision, which involves manufacturing a vaccine on the person's arm, will take more time - likely multiple decades.
The technology required for Vision I, real-time personal sequencing, involves sequencers that are (1) compact (2) reusable (3) inexpensive.
The current most compact and economical DNA sequencer on the market is the MinION by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which is about the size of a wallet and could theoretically be attached to an arm as a strap. With the Flongle adapter, one can perform up to 2GB of sequencing for just $90 in a single reaction.
To close the gap, we'd need a sequencer that could run continuously for a much lower cost per run. But that is extremely achievable. Only advancements in engineering are required. No fundamental leap in research is necessary!
The technology required for Vision II, real-time personal vaccine development, involves (a) a demonstration that safe vaccines can be reliably developed from nucleic acid sequences alone (b) synthesizers that are compact, reusable and inexpensive (c) a device/module that can transform a sequence into an injectable vaccine on a person's arm.
Regarding real-time development of nucleic acid vaccines, Moderna already has a platform to produce "just-in-time" RNA-based vaccines. With simply the knowledge of a virus's RNA sequence, Moderna can crank out a new vaccine in a matter of weeks to even days. The greater challenge for vaccines is proving they are safe and they work.
That said, as we go through more and more clinical trials and perfect our vaccination process as a species, we will get to the point where we don't even need trials for each sequence. We'll be able to have suffient confidence in a given process for manufacturing and delivering the vaccine, and we'll be able to rest assured that any given vaccine that is produced with this process will be safe and effective.
Regarding synthesizers, we still have a much longer way to go before they are as compact and affordable as sequencers. Synthesis is still done off-site at a high cost using very large machines. The industry standard for sequencing relies upon a synthesis method called phosphoramidite synthesis, while new research is being done into a different process known as enzymatic synthesis. In the future, breakthroughs in chemistry and engineering should allow us to move beyond our constraints in machine size and cost.
All of this will not be easy and it will not happen overnight.
It will probably take decades.
But it will happen, and it will allow us to escape the evolutionary cat-and-mouse game of pathogen and host.