Last Friday, On Science Blogs was given over to the many “best of science” lists of 2015. This week’s post is about what bloggers foresee for 2016–and beyond.
THE CANCER MOONSHOT: WELCOME TO 2016
Vice-President Joe Biden softened his announcement that he wouldn’t be running for President last October by vowing to spend the rest of his time in office ending cancer with what he called a moonshot. Kathlyn Stone took him to task at HealthNewsReview, calling a cancer moonshot a false promise.
She quoted doc Steve Miles arguing against the idea that beating cancer for good can be accomplished by a single massive project. He declared that a moonshot “exploits fear, generates marketing stampedes that run roughshod over deliberate research and somehow manages to draw money into those who claim to not be in it for the money.”
But the cancer moonshot appears to be immortal, revived in President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Monday. The next day, Biden outlined his plan at Medium. At the same time, Gina Kolata and Gardiner Harris pointed out at Well that the moonshot analogy doesn’t fit with reality because it implies, erroneously, that cancer is a single disease with a single cure. That simplistic view was long ago abandoned.
At ScienceInsider, Jocelyn Kaiser noted that researchers were predictably thrilled at the idea that a moonshot would bring steady funding for the National Institutes of Health. They’d also like to see medical insurance pick up the tab for genetic testing of tumors.
The hed on Jonathan Gitlin’s post at Ars Technica was “Dear Mr. President: Please stop with these science ‘moonshots’.” History shows “that giving science a large slug of cash in a very short amount of time has horrible—some might say disastrous—consequences,” he argues. “As a result of the past booms in funding, you will find empty lab after empty lab in research institutes and universities all over the land. We’ve trained far more scientists than we have money to sustainably support.”
SPACE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING
And now for a literal Moonshot. At Ars Technica, Eric Berger is certain H. sap is going back to the Moon. Congress has authorized Moon-mining. Several nations, in Europe plus China and Russia, have travel plans. So do private companies. One lure is the water ice we now know is there. It can be exploited “for everything from powering spacecraft with liquid hydrogen and oxygen to accessing a wealth of rare metals or building a space-based solar power network.”
Bad Astronomer Phil Plait links to Universe Today’s list of more than 100 astronomical events due in 2016. For instance, Mercury will transit the Sun May 9 and come within half a degree of Venus in July.
Louis Friedman, co-founder and executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society, says at The Crux that our future in space is exciting. But he also says that humans will never go beyond Mars and won’t even establish colonies there. That’s partly because it would be immensely costly and take hundreds of years, but mainly because virtual travel to distant objects will make it unnecessary. Why take the risk of going to Titan in person when you can go there virtually from home, safe, warm, and in your jammies?
The cancer cure goal is not the only moonshot in the Administration’s arsenal. At the end of 2015 President Obama announced $200 million funding for his previous moonshot, the Precision Medicine Initiative.
And what, you ask, is the Precision Medicine Initiative? The PMI is, briefly, disease treatment and prevention that takes account of individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle. Ricki Lewis notes at her PLOS Network Blog DNA Science that the PMI is supposed to capitalize on next-generation DNA sequencing, information technologies, analysis of the microbiome and epigenetics, and wearable devices to monitor physiology.
Wow. You could argue that’s an even bigger deal than curing cancer. And getting there might be even more challenging. Lewis gives six personal examples of just how far medical professionals still have to go before health care approaches the ideals enshrined in the Precision Medicine Initiative.
The open-access journal PLOS Medicine asked its expert editors to offer medical predictions. Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute foresees that, rather than being freely available, genomic data will be integrated into healthcare systems around the world.
Phillipa Hay notes that stigma remains “a pernicious and persistent force” in mental illness, leading to discrimination and bad attitudes even among medical professionals. Lorenz von Seidlein notes that increasing pesticide resistance insect vectors and artemisinin-resistance in the malaria parasite threaten to wipe out gains against malaria. There used to be only pockets of resistance, he says. Now there are only pockets of vulnerability.
Stem-cell researcher Paul Knoepfler posted his list of 10 CRISPR predictions for 2016. They include, of course, the growing list of gene-edited CRISPR-y Critters, and additional attempts at editing the genes of human embryos. “This double-edged sword means the technology is improving and that is great, but at the same time it may encourage some to be bolder in calling for human modification,” he says.
Bertalan Mesko, whose self-title is “geek medical futurist,” lists the Top 10 medical technologies of 2016 at ScienceRoll. One prediction: Virtual reality and augmented reality will give medical students something close to experience with real patients.
And I’m particularly taken with Mesko’s claim that near-artificial intelligence will relieve radiologists of routine image-checking. AI could hardly do worse than the (presumably human) radiologists who couldn’t distinguish between a cyst and cancer in my mammogram and didn’t realize that the accidentally discovered crack in my ankle bone was actually a very old fracture, fully healed.