Letter From Discover

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Miraculous Quarter Century

One of the wonderful things about science is that it stubbornly resists sentimentality. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Discover magazine. In our culture of recycled music, retro fashions, and remade movies, such milestones typically inspire soft-focus tributes to the good old days. But as we look back on our rich history, we feel a lot of pride, a lot of excitement—and absolutely no longing to return to the world of 1980.

To understand why, just turn to this month’s Think Tank (page 66), the first of a yearlong series, where 11 of today’s leading medical and biological researchers talk about the greatest advances in their field over the past quarter century. The list is a staggering reminder of how far we have come. Cardiologist Mehmet Oz of Columbia University singles out the minimally invasive endoscopic tools and robot-guided scalpels that have replaced crude and debilitating open-surgery procedures. Anyone who’s recently had to deal with a bum knee or a blocked gallbladder knows the result: a brisk outpatient operation and rapid recovery instead of agonizing days or weeks languishing in a hospital.

The story is the same in virtually every area of medicine. Tiny implantable defibrillators drastically reduce sudden death as a result of an out-of-rhythm heart. Drugs such as Ritalin and Ambien regulate behavioral disorders that were once accepted as harsh realities of life. PET scans and MRIs bring previously invisible internal injuries and brain disorders into plain view. Even one of the grimmest public-health stories of the past 25 years—the spread of AIDS—has sparked amazing successes in testing the blood supply, understanding the natural history of HIV, and developing drugs that drastically reduce the suffering and death the virus can cause.

Yet all of these advances probably pale compared to the ones Discover will report over the next quarter century. Drugs tailored to your own DNA, even new organs built especially for your body, are likely to be available by then. We may soon understand the exact links between genes and schizophrenia, genes and fear, even genes and love. We will face once-unimaginable potentials and once-unimaginable ethical issues: “I think the debate about whether we should design our children will replace the debate over abortion in the United States,” says bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania.

Although we at Discover are thrilled to celebrate our 25-year history, we have our eyes securely and eagerly fixed on the future.

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