BY PATRICK COX
The CDC has expanded its count of Miami neighborhoods with verified local transmission of the Zika virus. As a result, pregnant women are taking precautions. Some have left the area. Others are donning hazmat suits.
At least one case of locally acquired Zika has been confirmed on Florida’s Gulf Coast where I live, and there are probably more. This is because most people don’t know that they’ve been infected and are carriers.
The mosquito’s role in infectious disease
It’s not clear if the arrival of mosquitos carrying the virus has anything to do with Hurricane Matthew. A new and greater concern is that Matthew passed through Haiti on its way north. This means the storm may have carried mosquitos with a newly discovered virus, Mayaro, through Cuba and the Bahamas to Florida.
Mayaro, like its cousin the chikungunya virus, can produce debilitating and long-lasting pain. University of Florida researchers say they’ve never before encountered this form of Mayaro. They’re not sure if it evolved in Haiti or came from another region. Most known Mayaro outbreaks have occurred in the Amazon.
In Florida, locally spread cases of chikungunya and dengue have been found. And some epidemiologists warn that yellow fever and malaria may spread, as travelers with both diseases have been treated in the state. Cheaper air travel is a major risk factor for the spread of infectious diseases.
Some claim that global warming is causing the spread of mosquitos. But the truth is that mosquitos and tropical diseases are endemic to North America. Even malaria was endemic in every state but Alaska.
After World War II, the use of DDT wiped out most of these diseases, but North American wetlands are the natural habitat of mosquitos. With DDT’s ban, mosquitos and mosquito-borne diseases have begun to return.
Some scientists want to revisit the use of DDT, but I don’t think this is likely. I’m convinced, in fact, that infectious diseases will become more common in the years to come. As such, this trend is important to long-term biotech investors.
Age-Related disease may soon be a thing of the past
Most diseases fall into three categories: age-related, genetic, and infectious. We tend not to think about age-related disease as one category of ailments. Heart disease, macular degeneration, and Alzheimer’s disease look like very different problems—and they are in their specifics. What they all have in common is that they tend to happen when our big biological systems start to malfunction. That is… when we are older.
Our medical institutions have tended to look at the treatment of diseases after they’ve become problems. So in the past, few scientists were looking at how to prevent age-related diseases. Now, this is changing. The scientific and medical establishments are embracing the anti-aging disease-prevention model.
This change is due to research that shows these diseases can be prevented (or at least significantly delayed) by treating the systems malfunctions that lead to the big killers. Even better, we now know that fixing those systems errors can rejuvenate older people.
In fact, more and more scientists are increasingly excited about fairly simple therapies that can achieve “morbidity compression.” This term refers to the elimination of serious age-related diseases until the very last stages of life. In this regard, we have the model of the so-called superagers. These people have genetic traits that cause them to live very healthy lives (with low medical costs) until their bodies just wear out. It seems that many super-agers live long, healthy lives in spite of unhealthy lifestyles.
In time, most people will become super-agers even if their genomes are less than perfect. That means the cost of treating the big age-related diseases (as a percentage of the healthcare budget) will drop. The other disease classes, genetic and infectious, will then gain more focus.
There’s a bit of overlap between age-related and genetic illnesses: we all have genetic predispositions to certain diseases. You may know, for example, that heart disease, arthritis, or dementia runs in your family. That genetic tendency is activated by age-related systems malfunctions. As such, anti-aging therapeutics will avoid or at least delay most of those problems.
Biotech and infectious disease
The last major area of medicine is infectious disease (such as Zika and malaria). Unlike age-related and genetic diseases, their source is nature, so we can’t eliminate them.
Viruses and bacterial diseases constantly mutate in the wild. They can mingle and mix between species as diverse as bats and sea lions. And on occasion, some new pathogen infects human populations… with dreadful results. HIV was one such disease. Now, it is largely treatable. But a new HIV-like virus was recently isolated.
A link has also been found between viruses and cancers. Mouth and throat cancer (which may be fastest growing in terms of incidence) is caused by the human papillomavirus. Already, it causes more throat cancer than smoking.
There is another reason to look for solutions for infectious disease. It is just a matter of time before some international player figures out how to weaponize pathogens as a form of terrorism. With the rise of DIY biotech, the tools exist to easily infect a large group of people and send them out into the world to wreak havoc.
In medicine, we have seen great progress being made by researchers who want to repair the mechanisms of aging. But ironically, it looks to me that infectious diseases will soon grow in importance… as both a cause of mortality as well as a financial sector.
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