Breakthrough Technologies for 2023

Technologies under development could revolutionize healthcare by editing humans' genomes to eliminate common diseases and providing "organs on demand."

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The MIT Technology Review's always-interesting annual list of 10 breakthrough technologies to watch contains two this year that could revolutionize healthcare. 

One is a use of CRISPR to just edit away people's problems with high cholesterol by rewriting a sliver of their DNA. The other is work that could produce what the magazine calls "organs on demand" -- basically, a farm that would grow all the hearts, kidneys, livers and so on that we need, ending chronic shortages and making the lives of millions of people better. 

The CRISPR development is based on what's known as CRISPR 2.0. The first version, developed roughly a decade ago, could already do the nearly miraculous -- cutting out a small section of DNA to shut off a gene that was causing a health danger. The 2.0 version can actually substitute a base in a person's DNA for one that's already there, so 2.0 has far broader potential. 1.0 tends to be used in tests on rare genetic diseases, while 2.0 is being aimed at far more common problems, such as a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol.

While we know the technology works, it will still take many years before CRISPR 2.0 will go into wide deployment on medical issues, mostly because rewriting DNA creates so much potential for unintended consequences. We may think a genetic sequence we're editing has a single function, but who really knows? It'll take a long time and a lot of trials before we'll know conclusively enough for widespread use.

Still, as the Technology Review article explains, the potential is vast. And CRISPR 3.0 is on the way. It will allow us to add chunks of DNA to our genome that are thought to protect against high blood pressure or other diseases.

The possibility of "organs on demand" relates to a story you may have seen from last year: A man whose heart had failed and who wasn't eligible for a transplant was hooked up to a genetically modified pig heart and survived for two months. Some biotech companies, including the one that supplied that heart, are setting up farms where they plan to raise herds of pigs whose DNA has been altered so their organs are compatible with humans' and won't be rejected by our immune systems.

As you can imagine, plenty of obstacles lie ahead here, too. Even if the genetic modifications all work to make pig organs usable in humans, the herds still have to be raised in germ-free environments -- it was a virus from the pig whose heart was used, not a problem with the heart itself, that killed the transplant patient after two months. 

But, again, there is potential here to reinvent healthcare -- and, thus, the companies that provide health and life insurance. 

You'll likely find many of the other breakthroughs intriguing, too. Some are a bit far afield from insurance, such as the descriptions of the possibilities posed by the James Webb telescope, the development of mass market military drones and the decoding that's being done of ancient DNA. But a couple of others will bear heavily on insurance, too. What the Technology Review describes as "the inevitable electric vehicle" will turn the auto industry upside-down over the next decade-plus, and the advancements in battery recycling that the article describes will remove one of the final obstacles that are holding us back from a full-scale switch to EVs.