Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology




ENGINES OF HEALING

(Chapter 7)




One of the things which distinguishes ours from all earlier generations is this, that we have seen our atoms.

- KARL K. DARROW, The Renaissance of Physics

 

WE WILL USE molecular technology to bring health because the human body is made of molecules. The ill, the old, and the injured all suffer from mis-arranged patterns of atoms, whether mis-arranged by invading viruses, passing time, or swerving cars. Devices able to rearrange atoms will be able to set them right. Nanotechnology will bring a fundamental breakthrough in medicine.

Physicians now rely chiefly on surgery and drugs to treat illness. Surgeons have advanced from stitching wounds and amputating limbs to repairing hearts and re-attaching limbs. Using microscopes and fine tools, they join delicate blood vessels and nerves. Yet even the best micro-surgeon cannot cut and stitch finer tissue structures. Modern scalpels and sutures are simply too coarse for repairing capillaries, cells, and molecules. Consider "delicate" surgery from a cell's perspective: a huge blade sweeps down, chopping blindly past and through the molecular machinery of a crowd of cells, slaughtering thousands. Later, a great obelisk plunges through the divided crowd, dragging a cable as wide as a freight train behind it to rope the crowd together again. From a cell's perspective, even the most delicate surgery, performed with exquisite knives and great skill, is still a butcher job. Only the ability of cells to abandon their dead, regroup, and multiply makes healing possible.

Yet as many paralyzed accident victims know too well, not all tissues heal.

Drug therapy, unlike surgery, deals with the finest structures in cells. Drug molecules are simple molecular devices. Many affect specific molecules in cells. Morphine molecules, for example, bind to certain receptor molecules in brain cells, affecting the neural impulses that signal pain. Insulin, beta blockers, and other drugs fit other receptors. But drug molecules work without direction. Once dumped into the body, they tumble and bump around in solution haphazardly until they bump a target molecule, fit, and stick, affecting its function.

Surgeons can see problems and plan actions, but they wield crude tools; drug molecules affect tissues at the molecular level, but they are too simple to sense, plan, and act. But molecular machines directed by nanocomputers will offer physicians another choice. They will combine sensors, programs, and molecular tools to form systems able to examine and repair the ultimate components of individual cells. They will bring surgical control to the molecular domain.

These advanced molecular devices will be years in arriving, but researchers motivated by medical needs are already studying molecular machines and molecular engineering. The best drugs affect specific molecular machines in specific ways. Penicillin, for example, kills certain bacteria by jamming the nanomachinery they use to build their cell walls, yet it has little effect on human cells.

Biochemists study molecular machines both to learn how to build them and to learn how to wreck them. Around the world (and especially the Third World) a disgusting variety of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and worms parasitize human flesh. Like penicillin, safe, effective drugs for these diseases would jam the parasite's molecular machinery while leaving human molecular machinery unharmed. Dr. Seymour Cohen, professor of pharmacological science at SUNY (Stony Brook, New York), argues that biochemists should systematically study the molecular machinery of these parasites. Once biochemists have determined the shape and function of a vital protein machine, they then could often design a molecule shaped to jam it and ruin it. Such drugs could free humanity from such ancient horrors as schistosomiasis and leprosy, and from new ones such as AIDS.

Drug companies are already redesigning molecules based on knowledge of how they work. Researchers at Upjohn Company have designed and made modified molecules of vasopressin, a hormone that consists of a short chain of amino acids. Vasopressin increases the work done by the heart and decreases the rate at which the kidneys produce urine; this increases blood pressure. The researchers designed modified vasopressin molecules that affected receptor molecules in the kidney more than those in the heart, giving them more specific and controllable medical effects. More recently, they designed a modified vasopressin molecule that binds to the kidney's receptor molecules without direct effect, thus blocking and inhibiting the action of natural vasopressin.

Medical needs will push this work forward, encouraging researchers to take further steps toward protein design and molecular engineering. Medical, military, and economic pressures all push us in the same direction. Even before the assembler breakthrough, molecular technology will bring impressive advances in medicine; trends in biotechnology guarantee it. Still, these advances will generally be piecemeal and hard to predict, each exploiting some detail of biochemistry. Later, when we apply assemblers and technical AI systems to medicine, we will gain broader abilities that are easier to foresee.

To understand these abilities, consider cells and their self-repair mechanisms. In the cells of your body, natural radiation and noxious chemicals split molecules, producing reactive molecular fragments. These can misbond to other molecules in a process called cross-linking. As bullets and blobs of glue would damage a machine, so radiation and reactive fragments damage cells, both breaking molecular machines and gumming them up.

If your cells could not repair themselves, damage would rapidly kill them or make them run amok by damaging their control systems. But evolution has favored organisms with machinery able to do something about this problem. The self-replicating factory system sketched in Chapter 4 repaired itself by replacing damaged parts; cells do the same. So long as a cell's DNA remains intact, it can make error-free tapes that direct ribosomes to assemble new protein machines.

Unfortunately for us, DNA itself becomes damaged, resulting in mutations. Repair enzymes compensate somewhat by detecting and repairing certain kinds of damage to DNA. These repairs help cells survive, but existing repair mechanisms are too simple to correct all problems, either in DNA or elsewhere. Errors mount, contributing to the aging and death of cells - and of people.


Life, Mind, and Machines

Does it make sense to describe cells as "machinery," whether self-repairing or not? Since we are made of cells, this might seem to reduce human beings to "mere machines," conflicting with a holistic understanding of life.

But a dictionary definition of holism is "the theory that reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts." This certainly applies to people: one simpler sum of our parts would resemble hamburger, lacking both mind and life.

The human body includes some ten thousand billion billion protein parts, and no machine so complex deserves the label - mere." Any brief description of so complex a system cannot avoid being grossly incomplete, yet at the cellular level a description in terms of machinery makes sense. Molecules have simple moving parts, and many act like familiar types of machinery. Cells considered as a whole may seem less mechanical, yet biologists find it useful to describe them in terms of molecular machinery.

Biochemists have unraveled what were once the central mysteries of life, and have begun to fill in the details. They have traced how molecular machines break food molecules into their building blocks and then reassemble these parts to build and renew tissue. Many details of the structure of human cells remain unknown (single cells have billions of large molecules of thousands of different kinds), but biochemists have mapped every part of some viruses. Biochemical laboratories often sport a large wall chart showing how the chief molecular building blocks flow through bacteria. Biochemists understand much of the process of life in detail, and what they don't understand seems to operate on the same principles. The mystery of heredity has become the industry of genetic engineering. Even embryonic development and memory are being explained in terms of changes in biochemistry and cell structure.

In recent decades, the very quality of our remaining ignorance has changed. Once, biologists looked at the process of life and asked, "How can this be?" But today they understand the general principles of life, and when they study a specific living process they commonly ask, "Of the many ways this could be, which has nature chosen?" In many instances their studies have narrowed the competing explanations to a field of one. Certain biological processes - the coordination of cells to form growing embryos, learning brains, and reacting immune systems - still present a real challenge to the imagination. Yet this is not because of some deep mystery about how their parts work, but because of the immense complexity of how their many parts interact to form a whole.

Cells obey the same natural laws that describe the rest of the world. Protein machines in the right molecular environment will work whether they remain in a functioning cell or whether the rest of the cell was ground up and washed away days before. Molecular machines know nothing of "life" and "death."

Biologists - when they bother - sometimes define life as the ability to grow, replicate, and respond to stimuli. But by this standard, a mindless system of replicating factories might qualify as life, while a conscious artificial intelligence modeled on the human brain might not. Are viruses alive, or are they "merely" fancy molecular machines? No experiment can tell, because nature draws no line between living and nonliving. Biologists who work with viruses instead ask about viability: "Will this virus function, if given a chance?" The labels of "life" and "death" in medicine depend on medical capabilities: physicians ask, "Will this patient function, if we do our best?" Physicians once declared patients dead when the heart stopped; they now declare patients dead when they despair of restoring brain activity. Advances in cardiac medicine changed the definition once; advances in brain medicine will change it again.

Just as some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of machines thinking, so some feel uncomfortable with the idea that machines underlie our own thinking. The word "machine" again seems to conjure up the wrong image, a picture of gross, clanking metal, rather than signals flickering through a shifting weave of neural fibers, through a living tapestry more intricate than the mind it embodies can fully comprehend. The brain's really machinelike machines are of molecular size, smaller than the finest fibers.

A whole need not resemble its parts. A solid lump scarcely resembles a dancing fountain, yet a collection of solid, lumpy molecules forms fluid water. In a similar way, billions of molecular machines make up neural fibers and synapses, thousands of fibers and synapses make up a neural cell, billions of neural cells make up the brain, and the brain itself embodies the fluidity of thought.

To say that the mind is "just molecular machines" is like saying that the Mona Lisa is "just dabs of paint." Such statements confuse the parts with the whole, and confuse matter with the pattern it embodies. We are no less human for being made of molecules.


From Drugs to Cell Repair Machines

Being made of molecules, and having a human concern for our health, we will apply molecular machines to biomedical technology. Biologists already use antibodies to tag proteins, enzymes to cut and splice DNA, and viral syringes (like the T4 phage) to inject edited DNA into bacteria. In the future, they will use assembler-built nanomachines to probe and modify cells.

With tools like disassemblers, biologists will be able to study cell structures in ultimate, molecular detail. They then will catalog the hundreds of thousands of kinds of molecules in the body and map the structure of the hundreds of kinds of cells. Much as engineers might compile a parts list and make engineering drawings for an automobile, so biologists will describe the parts and structures of healthy tissue. By that time, they will be aided by sophisticated technical AI systems.

Physicians aim to make tissues healthy, but with drugs and surgery they can only encourage tissues to repair themselves. Molecular machines will allow more direct repairs, bringing a new era in medicine.

To repair a car, a mechanic first reaches the faulty assembly, then identifies and removes the bad parts, and finally rebuilds or replaces them. Cell repair will involve the same basic tasks - tasks that living systems already prove possible.

Access. White blood cells leave the bloodstream and move through tissue, and viruses enter cells. Biologists even poke needles into cells without killing them. These examples show that molecular machines can reach and enter cells.

Recognition. Antibodies and the tail fibers of the T4 phage - and indeed, all specific biochemical interactions - show that molecular systems can recognize other molecules by touch.

Disassembly. Digestive enzymes (and other, fiercer chemicals) show that molecular systems can disassemble damaged molecules.

Rebuilding. Replicating cells show that molecular systems can build or rebuild every molecule found in a cell.

Reassembly. Nature also shows that separated molecules can be put back together again. The machinery of the T4 phage, for example, self-assembles from solution, apparently aided by a single enzyme. Replicating cells show that molecular systems can assemble every system found in a cell.

Thus, nature demonstrates all the basic operations that are needed to perform molecular-level repairs on cells. What is more, as I described in Chapter 1, systems based on nanomachines will generally be more compact and capable than those found in nature. Natural systems show us only lower bounds to the possible, in cell repair as in everything else.


Cell Repair Machines

In short, with molecular technology and technical AI we will compile complete, molecular-level descriptions of healthy tissue, and we will build machines able to enter cells and to sense and modify their structures.

Cell repair machines will be comparable in size to bacteria and viruses, but their more-compact parts will allow them to be more complex. They will travel through tissue as white blood cells do, and enter cells as viruses do - or they could open and close cell membranes with a surgeon's care. Inside a cell, a repair machine will first size up the situation by examining the cell's contents and activity, and then take action. Early cell repair machines will be highly specialized, able to recognize and correct only a single type of molecular disorder, such as an enzyme deficiency or a form of DNA damage. Later machines (but not much later, with advanced technical AI systems doing the design work) will be programmed with more general abilities.

Complex repair machines will need nanocomputers to guide them. A micron-wide mechanical computer like that described in Chapter 1 will fit in 1/1000 of the volume of a typical cell, yet will hold more information than does the cell's DNA. In a repair system, such computers will direct smaller, simpler computers, which will in turn direct machines to examine, take apart, and rebuild damaged molecular structures.

By working along molecule by molecule and structure by structure, repair machines will be able to repair whole cells. By working along cell by cell and tissue by tissue, they (aided by larger devices, where need be) will be able to repair whole organs. By working through a person organ by organ, they will restore health. Because molecular machines will be able to build molecules and cells from scratch, they will be able to repair even cells damaged to the point of complete inactivity. Thus, cell repair machines will bring a fundamental breakthrough: they will free medicine from reliance on self-repair as the only path to healing.

To visualize an advanced cell repair machine, imagine it - and a cell - enlarged until atoms are the size of small marbles. On this scale, the repair machine's smallest tools have tips about the size of your fingertips; a medium-sized protein, like hemoglobin, is the size of a typewriter; and a ribosome is the size of a washing machine. A single repair device contains a simple computer the size of a small truck, along with many sensors of protein size, several manipulators of ribosome size, and provisions for memory and motive power. A total volume ten meters across, the size of a three-story house, holds all these parts and more. With parts the size of marbles packing this volume, the repair machine can do complex things.

But this repair device does not work alone. It, like its many siblings, is connected to a larger computer by means of mechanical data links the diameter of your arm. On this scale, a cubic-micron computer with a large memory fills a volume thirty stories high and as wide as a football field. The repair devices pass it information, and it passes back general instructions. Objects so large and complex are still small enough: on this scale, the cell itself is a kilometer across, holding one thousand times the volume of a cubic-micron computer, or a million times the volume of a single repair device. Cells are spacious.

Will such machines be able to do everything necessary to repair cells? Existing molecular machines demonstrate the ability to travel through tissue, enter cells, recognize molecular structures, and so forth, but other requirements are also important. Will repair machines work fast enough? If they do, will they waste so much power that the patient will roast?

The most extensive repairs cannot require vastly more work than building a cell from scratch. Yet molecular machinery working within a cellular volume routinely does just that, building a new cell in tens of minutes (in bacteria) to a few hours (in mammals). This indicates that repair machinery occupying a few percent of a cells volume will be able to complete even extensive repairs in a reasonable time - days or weeks at most. Cells can spare this much room. Even brain cells can still function when an inert waste called lipofuscin (apparently a product of molecular damage) fills over ten percent of their volume.

Powering repair devices will be easy: cells naturally contain chemicals that power nanomachinery. Nature also shows that repair machines can be cooled: the cells in your body rework themselves steadily, and young animals grow swiftly without cooking themselves. Handling heat from a similar level of activity by repair machines will be no sweat - or at least not too much sweat, if a week of sweating is the price of health.

All these comparisons of repair machines to existing biological mechanisms raise the question of whether repair machines will be able to improve on nature. DNA repair provides a clear-cut illustration.

Just as an illiterate "book-repair machine" could recognize and repair a torn page, so a cell's repair enzymes can recognize and repair breaks and cross-links in DNA. Correcting misspellings (or mutations), though, would require an ability to read. Nature lacks such repair machines, but they will be easy to build. Imagine three identical DNA molecules, each with the same sequence of nucleotides. Now imagine each strand mutated to change a few scattered nucleotides. Each strand still seems normal, taken by itself. Nonetheless, a repair machine could compare each strand to the others, one segment at a time, and could note when a nucleotide failed to match its mates. Changing the odd nucleotide to match the other two will then repair the damage.

This method will fail if two strands mutate in the same spot. Imagine that the DNA of three human cells has been heavily damaged - after thousands of mutations, each cell has had one in every million nucleotides changed. The chance of our three-strand correction procedure failing at any given spot is then about one in a million million. But compare five strands at once, and the odds become about one in a million million million, and so on. A device that compares many strands will make the chance of an uncorrectable error effectively nil.

In practice, repair machines will compare DNA molecules from several cells, make corrected copies, and use these as standards for proofreading and repairing DNA throughout a tissue. By comparing several strands, repair machines will dramatically improve on nature's repair enzymes.

Other repairs will require different information about healthy cells and about how a particular damaged cell differs from the norm. Antibodies identify proteins by touch, and properly chosen antibodies can generally distinguish any two proteins by their differing shapes and surface properties. Repair machines will identify molecules in a similar way. With a suitable computer and data base, they will be able to identify proteins by reading their amino acid sequences.

Consider a complex and capable repair system. A volume of two cubic microns - about 2/1000 of the volume of a typical cell - will be enough to hold a central data base system able to:

  1. Swiftly identify any of the hundred thousand or so different human proteins by examining a short amino acid sequence.
  2. Identify all the other complex molecules normally found in cells.
  3. Record the type and position of every large molecule in the cell.

Each of the smaller repair devices (of perhaps thousands in a cell) will include a less capable computer. Each of these computers will be able to perform over a thousand computational steps in the time that a typical enzyme takes to change a single molecular bond, so the speed of computation possible seems more than adequate. Because each computer will be in communication with a larger computer and the central data base, the available memory seems adequate. Cell repair machines will have both the molecular tools they need and "brains" enough to decide how to use them.

Such sophistication will be overkill (overcure?) for many health problems. Devices that merely recognize and destroy a specific kind of cell, for example, will be enough to cure a cancer. Placing a computer network in every cell may seem like slicing butter with a chain saw, but having a chain saw available does provide assurance that even hard butter can be sliced. It seems better to show too much than too little, if one aims to describe the limits of the possible in medicine.


Some Cures

The simplest medical applications of nanomachines will involve not repair but selective destruction. Cancers provide one example; infectious diseases provide another. The goal is simple: one need only recognize and destroy the dangerous replicators, whether they are bacteria, cancer cells, viruses, or worms. Similarly, abnormal growths and deposits on arterial walls cause much heart disease; machines that recognize, break down, and dispose of them will clear arteries for more normal blood flow. Selective destruction will also cure diseases such as herpes in which a virus splices its genes into the DNA of a host cell. A repair device will enter the cell, read its DNA, and remove the addition that spells "herpes."

Repairing damaged, cross-linked molecules will also be fairly straightforward. Faced with a damaged, cross-linked protein, a cell repair machine will first identify it by examining short amino acid sequences, then look up its correct structure in a data base. The machine will then compare the protein to this blueprint, one amino acid at a time. Like a proofreader finding misspellings and strange characters (char#cters), it will find any changed amino acids or improper cross-links. By correcting these flaws, it will leave a normal protein, ready to do the work of the cell.

Repair machines will also aid healing. After a heart attack, scar tissue replaces dead muscle. Repair machines will stimulate the heart to grow fresh muscle by resetting cellular control mechanisms. By removing scar tissue and guiding fresh growth, they will direct the healing of the heart.

This list could continue through problem after problem (Heavy metal poisoning? - Find and remove the metal atoms) but the conclusion is easy to summarize. Physical disorders stem from mis-arranged atoms; repair machines will be able to return them to working order, restoring the body to health. Rather than compiling an endless list of curable diseases (from arthritis, bursitis, cancer, and dengue to yellow fever and zinc chills and back again), it makes sense to look for the limits to what cell repair machines can do. Limits do exist.

Consider stroke, as one example of a problem that damages the brain. Prevention will be straightforward: Is a blood vessel in the brain weakening, bulging, and apt to burst? Then pull it back into shape and guide the growth of reinforcing fibers. Does abnormal clotting threaten to block circulation? Then dissolve the clots and normalize the blood and blood-vessel linings to prevent a recurrence. Moderate neural damage from stroke will also be repairable: if reduced circulation has impaired function but left cell structures intact, then restore circulation and repair the cells, using their structures as a guide in restoring the tissue to its previous state. This will not only restore each cell's function, but will preserve the memories and skills embodied in the neural patterns in that part of the brain.

Repair machines will be able to regenerate fresh brain tissue even where damage has obliterated these patterns. But the patient would lose old memories and skills to the extent that they resided in that part of the brain. If unique neural patterns are truly obliterated, then cell repair machines could no more restore them than art conservators could restore a tapestry from stirred ash. Loss of information through obliteration of structure imposes the most important, fundamental limit to the repair of tissue.

Other tasks are beyond cell repair machines for different reasons - maintaining mental health, for instance. Cell repair machines will be able to correct some problems, of course. Deranged thinking sometimes has biochemical causes, as if the brain were drugging or poisoning itself, and other problems stem from tissue damage. But many problems have little to do with the health of nerve cells and everything to do with the health of the mind.

A mind and the tissue of its brain are like a novel and the paper of its book. Spilled ink or flood damage may harm the book, making the novel difficult to read. Book repair machines could nonetheless restore physical - health" by removing the foreign ink or by drying and repairing the damaged paper fibers. Such treatments would do nothing for the book's content, however, which in a real sense is nonphysical. If the book were a cheap romance with a moldy plot and empty characters, repairs would be needed not on the ink and paper, but on the novel. This would call not for physical repairs, but for more work by the author, perhaps with advice.

Similarly, removing poisons from the brain and repairing its nerve fibers will thin some mental fogs, but not revise the content of the mind. This can be changed by the patient, with effort; we are all authors of our minds. But because minds change themselves by changing their brains, having a healthy brain will aid sound thinking more than quality paper aids sound writing.

Readers familiar with computers may prefer to think in terms of hardware and software. A machine could repair a computer's hardware while neither understanding nor changing its software

Such machines might stop the computer's activity but leave the patterns in memory intact and ready to work again. In computers with the right kind of memory (called "nonvolatile"), users do this by simply switching off the power. In the brain the job seems more complex, yet there could be medical advantages to inducing a similar state.


Anesthesia Plus

Physicians already stop and restart consciousness by interfering with the chemical activity that underlies the mind. Throughout active life, molecular machines in the brain process molecules. Some disassemble sugars, combine them with oxygen, and capture the energy this releases. Some pump salt ions across cell membranes; others build small molecules and release them to signal other cells. Such processes make up the brain's metabolism, the sum total of its chemical activity. Together with its electrical effects, this metabolic activity underlies the changing patterns of thought.

Surgeons cut people with knives. In the mid-1800s, they learned to use chemicals that interfere with brain metabolism, blocking conscious thought and preventing patients from objecting so vigorously to being cut. These chemicals are anesthetics. Their molecules freely enter and leave the brain, allowing anesthetists to interrupt and restart human consciousness.

People have long dreamed of discovering a drug that interferes with the metabolism of the entire body, a drug able to interrupt metabolism completely for hours, days, or years. The result would be a condition of biostasis (from bio, meaning life, and stasis, meaning a stoppage or a stable state). A method of producing reversible biostasis could help astronauts on long space voyages to save food and avoid boredom, or it could serve as a kind of one-way time travel. In medicine, biostasis would provide a deep anesthesia giving physicians more time to work. When emergencies occur far from medical help, a good biostasis procedure would provide a sort of universal first-aid treatment: it would stabilize a patient's condition and prevent molecular machines from running amok and damaging tissues.

But no one has found a drug able to stop the entire metabolism the way anesthetics stop consciousness - that is, in a way that can be reversed by simply washing the drug out of the patient's tissues. Nonetheless, reversible biostasis will be possible when repair machines become available.

To see how one approach would work, imagine that the blood stream carries simple molecular devices to tissues, where they enter the cells. There they block the molecular machinery of metabolism - in the brain and elsewhere - and tie structures together with stabilizing cross-links. Other molecular devices then move in, displacing water and packing themselves solidly around the molecules of the cell. These steps stop metabolism and preserve cell structures. Because cell repair machines will be used to reverse this process, it can cause moderate molecular damage and yet do no lasting harm. With metabolism stopped and cell structures held firmly in place, the patient will rest quietly, dreamless and unchanging, until repair machines restore active life.

If a patient in this condition were turned over to a present-day physician ignorant of the capabilities of cell repair machines, the consequences would likely be grim. Seeing no signs of life, the physician would likely conclude that the patient was dead, and then would make this judgment a reality by "prescribing" an autopsy, followed by burial or burning.

But our imaginary patient lives in an era when biostasis is known to be only an interruption of life, not an end to it. When the patient's contract says "wake me!" (or the repairs are complete, or the flight to the stars is finished), the attending physician begins resuscitation. Repair machines enter the patient's tissues, removing the packing from around the patient's molecules and replacing it with water. They then remove the cross-links, repair any damaged molecules an structures, and restore normal concentrations of salts, blood sugar, ATP, and so forth. Finally, they unblock the metabolic machinery. The interrupted metabolic processes resume, the patient yawns, stretches, sits up, thanks the doctor, checks the date, and walks out the door.


From Function To Structure

The reversibility of biostasis and irreversibility of severe stroke damage help to show how cell repair machines will change medicine. Today, physicians can only help tissues to heal themselves. Accordingly they must try to preserve the function of tissue. If tissues cannot function, they cannot heal. Worse, unless they are preserved, deterioration follows, ultimately obliterating structure. It is as if a mechanic's tools were able to work only on a running engine.

Cell repair machines change the central requirement from preserving function to preserving structure. As I noted in the discussion of stroke, repair machines will be able to restore brain function with memory and skills intact only if the distinctive structure of the neural fabric remains intact. Biostasis involves preserving neural structure while deliberately blocking function.

All this is a direct consequence of the molecular nature of the repairs. Physicians using scalpels and drugs can no more repair cells than someone using only a pickax and a can of oil can repair a fine watch. In contrast, having repair machines and ordinary nutrients will be like having a watchmaker's tools and an unlimited supply of spare parts. Cell repair machines will change medicine at its foundations.


From Treating Disease To Establishing Health

Medical researchers now study diseases, often seeking ways to prevent or reverse them by blocking a key step in the disease process. The resulting knowledge has helped physicians greatly: they now prescribe insulin to compensate for diabetes, anti-hypertensives to prevent stroke, penicillin to cure infections, and so on down an impressive list. Molecular machines will aid the study of diseases, yet they will make understanding disease far less important. Repair machines will make it more important to understand health.

The body can be ill in more ways than it can be healthy. Healthy muscle tissue, for example, varies in relatively few ways: it can be stronger or weaker, faster or slower, have this antigen or that one, and so forth. Damaged muscle tissue can vary in all these ways, yet also suffer from any combination of strains, tears, viral infections, parasitic worms, bruises, punctures, poisons, sarcomas, wasting diseases, and congenital abnormalities. Similarly, though neurons are woven in as many patterns as there are human brains, individual synapses and dendrites come in a modest range of forms - if they are healthy.

Once biologists have described normal molecules, cells, and tissues, properly programmed repair machines will be able to cure even unknown diseases. Once researchers describe the range of structures that (for example) a healthy liver may have, repair machines exploring a malfunctioning liver need only look for differences and correct them. Machines ignorant of a new poison and its effects will still recognize it as foreign and remove it. Instead of fighting a million strange diseases, advanced repair machines will establish a state of health.

Developing and programming cell repair machines will require great effort, knowledge, and skill. Repair machines with broad capabilities seem easier to build than to program. Their programs must contain detailed knowledge of the hundreds of kinds of cells and the hundreds of thousands of kinds of molecules in the human body. They must be able to map damaged cellular structures and decide how to correct them. How long will such machines and programs take to be developed? Offhand, the state of biochemistry and its present rate of advance might suggest that the basic knowledge alone will take centuries to collect. But we must beware of the illusion that advances will arrive in isolation.

Repair machines will sweep in with a wave of other technologies. The assemblers that build them will first be used to build instruments for analyzing cell structures. Even a pessimist might agree that human biologists and engineers equipped with these tools could build and program advanced cell repair machines in a hundred years of steady work. A cocksure, far-seeing pessimist might say a thousand years. A really committed nay-sayer might declare that the job would take people a million years. Very well: fast technical AI systems - a millionfold faster than scientists and engineers - will then develop advanced cell repair machines in a single calendar year.


A Disease Called "Aging"

Aging is natural, but so were smallpox and our efforts to prevent it. We have conquered smallpox, and it seems that we will conquer aging.

Longevity has increased during the last century, but chiefly because better sanitation and drugs have reduced bacterial illness. The basic human life span has increased little.

Still, researchers have made progress toward understanding and slowing the aging process. They have identified some of its causes, such as uncontrolled cross-linking. They have devised partial treatments, such as antioxidants and free-radical inhibitors. They have proposed and studied other mechanisms of aging, such as - clocks" in the cell and changes in the body's hormone balance. In laboratory experiments, special drugs and diets have extended the life span of mice by 25 to 45 percent.

Such work will continue; as the baby boom generation ages, expect a boom in aging research. One biotechnology company, Senetek of Denmark, specializes in aging research. In April 1985, Eastman Kodak and ICN Pharmaceuticals were reported to have joined in a $45 million venture to produce isoprinosine and other drugs with the potential to extend life span. The results of conventional anti-aging research may substantially lengthen human life spans - and improve the health of the old - during the next ten to twenty years. How greatly will drugs, surgery, exercise, and diet extend life spans? For now, estimates must remain guesswork. Only new scientific knowledge can rescue such predictions from the realm of speculation, because they rely on new science and not just new engineering.

With cell repair machines, however, the potential for life extension becomes clear. They will be able to repair cells so long as their distinctive structures remain intact, and will be able to replace cells that have been destroyed. Either way, they will restore health. Aging is fundamentally no different from any other physical disorder; it is no magical effect of calendar dates on a mysterious life-force. Brittle bones, wrinkled skin, low enzyme activities, slow wound healing, poor memory, and the rest all result from damaged molecular machinery, chemical imbalances, and mis-arranged structures. By restoring all the cells and tissues of the body to a youthful structure, repair machines will restore youthful health.

People who survive intact until the time of cell repair machines will have the opportunity to regain youthful health and to keep it almost as long as they please. Nothing can make a person (or anything else) last forever, of course, but barring severe accidents, those wishing to do so will live for a long, long time.

As a technology develops, there comes a time when its principles become clear, and with them many of its consequences. The principles of rocketry were clear in the 1930s, and with them the consequence of spaceflight. Filling in the details involved designing and testing tanks, engines, instruments, and so forth. By the early 1950s, many details were known. The ancient dream of flying to the Moon had became a goal one could plan for.

The principles of molecular machinery are already clear, and with them the consequence of cell repair machines. Filling in the details will involve designing molecular tools, assemblers, computers, and so forth, but many details of existing molecular machines are known today. The ancient dream of achieving health and long life has become a goal one can plan for.

Medical research is leading us, step by step, along a path toward molecular machinery. The global competition to make better materials, electronics, and biochemical tools is pushing us in the same direction. Cell repair machines will take years to develop, but they lie straight ahead.

They will bring many abilities, both for good and for ill. A moment's thought about military replicators with abilities like those of cell repair machines is enough to turn up nauseating possibilities. Later I will describe how we might avoid such horrors, but it first seems wise to consider the alleged benefits of cell repair machines. Is their apparent good really good? How might long life affect the world?

© Copyright 1986, K. Eric Drexler, all rights reserved.
Original web version prepared and links added by Russell Whitaker.