Next week, scientists from around the world will fly into Philadelphia to attend a two-day conference starting on March 18. If, 20 years ago, you had told any one of them what the conference would be about, chances are none of them would have believed you.
It would have read like science fiction.
The subject is genetic science — wild, rollicking, surprise-a-month genetic science. The kind that is churning out earth-shattering discoveries so fast that it's making medical textbooks, even some printed just two months before, out of date.
Or just flat wrong.
At the conference, "Therapeutic Insights from New Diabetes Gene Discoveries," the discoveries scientists will share on the subject of diabetes is about to turn treatment for the disease on its head. There aren't just two kinds of diabetes, as the medical textbooks instruct. It turns out there may be as many as 12. That means everything known about diabetes — what medicines work for it and what lifestyle changes help and what diet is best — may be about to change.
And it's not just diabetes treatment that's on the cusp of radical readjustment.
There have been similar international conferences, and more planned every day, on genetic breakthroughs in cancer, arthritis, macular degeneration, HIV, Alzheimer's, heart disease, mental illness, and the list goes on. And on and on and on. Genetic science is on a roll.
"This is going to be for the 21st century what the discovery of antibiotics was for the 20th century," Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health said. And he should know — he helped guide science to this point.
Collins is, more specifically, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute of the NIH. He led the massive "Human Genome Project," which presented the map of the entire human genome — the complete collection of DNA in a person's body — in 2003.
There were many people who doubted that map could ever be made. The expense was enormous: hundreds of millions of dollars. The surprises along the way ranged from exciting to overwhelming to stupefying to nearly catastrophic. But it got done, and medical scientists ever since have been building on that framework. As fast as they can.
"I've never seen anything this rapid," said Dr. Eric Topol, who leads the Scripps Genomic Medicine Program in California, among the dozens of research centers around the globe racing to unlock genetic answers to illness.
"The way we give medicine today will be considered the dark ages," he said. "What we are seeing right now, in the past year, is more breakthroughs in understanding the pathways of disease and health than we have had in many decades."
What has scientists nearly giddy about these discoveries is not just the potential for Nobel prizes and popularity and profit — although all of those, certainly, are much more likely in a specialty that has taken off like a rocket. What prompts most of them to use language such as "spectacular," "earth-shaking" and "revolutionary" is that their discoveries today are likely to completely alter medical care in the very near future. And change lives.
For instance, on the subject of diabetes: It is well known in the medical community that many of the drugs available to diabetics today are inconsistent. In other words, a drug may be enormously helpful to one diabetic, and of absolutely no help to another. In fact, it might even harm them.