Computation in the digital form is pervasive. It is in our offices, the screen at the gym, our kitchen counter, our car, and even our pockets (the iPhone was only introduced ~11 years ago). It’s no wonder that when you read a Health:Further piece about healthcare, many of the articles center around digital services for healthcare, which can help increase efficiency, reimbursement, and much more. As a Stanford-trained physician, I know firsthand how digital computation aids in evidence-based algorithmic care, hospital resource management, and laboratory diagnosis among other things.
Personally, I feel another form of computation has traditionally been underserved in our goal of health for all: biological computation. See, DNA, which as you know is the material that is the “source code” of cells (both human and other species such as microbes), instructs cellular computation. What is meant by this runs approximately as such: DNA is the instruction book that gets translated into cellular action, response, sensing, growth, etc… DNA is one amazing piece of matter.
Only recently, have we been able to read and understand DNA of not only ourselves, but all other species, in a high-throughput, cost-effective manner. The first human genome sequence was completed in 2003, and took thirteen years and approximately $3 billion. Today, thanks to digital computation, we can sequence a human genome in a matter of hours and it costs less than $1000. Thanks to this unbelievable technological innovation and cost curve, we are now undergoing a renaissance in understanding the underpinnings of how biology works from the most basic level- the instruction book (DNA).
Out of this exploration, we have discovered many meaningful genetic determinants of diseases and robust drug targets. We have also uncovered a diversity of instructions which can be applied as biological tool sets. Including but not limited to things like CRISPR which were discovered by sequencing and studying an ancient microbial species, that when applied to human disease or diagnostics, yields extraordinary power and promise. Although we are still embarking on our discovery of the computational network that is biology, we are starting to see early, outsized dividends.I find it useful to draw a parallel of where we are today in biology, to where digital computation was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Click To Tweet
I find it useful to draw a parallel of where we are today in biology, to where digital computation was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Currently, we are just beginning to understand the principles of biology-driven computation by our insights into the genome through sequencing. Just as understanding the physics of electrical “chips” and silicon set the infrastructure stage for the digital revolution of the last 40 years. The next phase of digital computation was what I like to consider the “operating system and early application” phase where early applications (like word processing, number crunching, file storage, etc…) were built on top of the electrical chip layer. In biology, we are just seeing some of this today, with cellular “on-off” switches, immunotherapy, cellular “logic gates” (simple IF this THEN that commands), CRISPR driven gene editing, among a plethora of other early operating systems and applications. Many of these early applications have shown step function gains in not only our control of the biological computer, but also in patient outcomes!
Why I became a Venture Capitalist is because as amazing as it is where we are today, tomorrow is even more breathtaking. We see from the past that digital computing moved from early menial applications such as simple word processing, to life changing functionality and dependability thanks to sophisticated application development and other enabling technologies like miniaturization. Similarly, we are entering into a biological renaissance phase, where cells sense and respond to health and disease states, sending commands not only to each other, but also to commensal organisms like bacteria that live in our body. Thanks to the digital computational revolution we have a head start- we understand systems thinking in a way that we never have before and we can leverage the power of digital computers to help us design and understand living (biological) ones. Now that is Health:Further if you ask me.