Bioengineering: The Lifespan-Gap Between Classes

Many sci-fi films such as In Time (2011) predict a reality in which people could buy time and live seemingly-forever, as Bioengineering capabilities advance into the realm of health care this could soon be a reality. Many advancements in Bioengineering are already helping treat diseases such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes and much more helping people live healthier, happier, and longer.  However, all of this is not without a hefty price tag that is far too great for many lower class people to afford, leaving a gap between the poor and the rich in the type of health care that can be afforded, and therefore the average lifespan of each class. The issue of an ever-growing lifespan gap is a violation of basic human rights, as stated in article three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that humans have the right to liberty, personal security, and most importantly life (http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/edumat/hreduseries/hereandnow/Part-5/8_udhr-abbr.htm).   This problem is quickly growing as Bioengineering advances and saves more lives, all while remaining just as expensive. Bioengineering is important as it can help treat lethal diseases and ailments and could save many lives, however, the lower classes cannot afford these treatments and in time, the life span gap will widen between the lower and higher classes. 

Bioengineering is important because it has already played a major role in treating a wide range of life-threatening diseases. Currently biotechnology treatments that have been approved by the FDA can treat or help prevent “heart attacks, stroke, multiple sclerosis, leukemia, hepatitis, congestive heart failure, lymphoma, kidney cancer, cystic fibrosis, and other diseases” (https://www.phrma.org/press-release/over-900-biotechnology-medicines-in-development-targeting-more-than-100-diseases). These treatments and preventions come in many forms, including 300 monoclonal antibodies, which are lab-made versions of immune system proteins that neutralize foreign invaders, 298 vaccines, as well as antisense drugs and interferons, which both interfere with the ability of unwanted cells or proteins to reproduce. (https://www.phrma.org/press-release/over-900-biotechnology-medicines-in-development-targeting-more-than-100-diseases).  Many of the best-selling drugs are a result of biotechnology and bioengineering, including Humira, which in 2014 was the number 1 best selling drug and is used to treat such ailments and diseases as arthritis, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and ankylosing spondylitis. Number five on the list was Lantus, which is used to treat diabetes, and number seven was Herceptin, used to treat breast cancer and stomach cancer (https://www.biospace.com/article/top-10-best-selling-biotech-drugs-/). Bioengineering is extremely effective at saving lives, as vaccines prevent 10.5 million cases of infectious illnesses every year (https://www.bio.org/articles/healing-world) and with further developments, there is a greater amount of lives that could be saved. As bioengineering and biotech develops the number of cures and treatments are growing as there are now “901 biotechnology medicines and vaccines in development to target more than 100 debilitating and life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, arthritis, and diabetes” (https://www.phrma.org/press-release/over-900-biotechnology-medicines-in-development-targeting-more-than-100-diseases). These medicines in development include 353 treatments for cancer, 187 for infectious diseases, 69 for autoimmune diseases, and 59 for cardiovascular diseases (https://www.phrma.org/press-release/over-900-biotechnology-medicines-in-development-targeting-more-than-100-diseases). These developing treatments are valuable to the public as they treat potentially lethal diseases that were once untreatable, and for the most part the treatments available now are quite affordable for everyone. However, as more treatments come out, the cost of treating diseases is going up.

The rising cost of treating diseases is becoming more prevalent as treatments such as gene therapy, stem cell therapy, and nanomedicine are soon going to be the most effective treatments for potentially lethal diseases. Gene therapy is a treatment that “involves inserting genes into the cells of patients to replace defective genes with new, functional genes” (https://www.drugpatentwatch.com/blog/top-6-issues-facing-biotechnology-industry/). Gene therapy could treat such diseases as cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart disease, diabetes, hemophilia, AIDS, and could potentially be a cure for blindness or other hereditary disabilities. Each year of gene therapy could cost a patient anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/gene-therapy-cost-rare-genetic-diseases-treatment-expensive-research-a8275391.html). The next upcoming form of therapy is stem cell therapy which involves using stem cells, that are unspecialized cells “that can mature into different types of functional cells. Stem cells can be grown in a lab and guided toward the desired cell type and then surgically implanted into patients,” the goal of stem cell therapy is to replace diseased cells with new healthy cells (https://www.drugpatentwatch.com/blog/top-6-issues-facing-biotechnology-industry/). Stem cell therapy could potentially treat Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, or other neurological disorders, and could eventually grow new human organs. Stem cell treatments currently cost around $2,500-$10,000 or more per treatment (https://ipscell.com/2018/04/update-on-stem-cell-treatment-cost-for-2018-from-ongoing-poll/). Finally, there is nanomedicine, which “aims to manipulate molecules and structures on an atomic scale,” (https://www.drugpatentwatch.com/blog/top-6-issues-facing-biotechnology-industry/) which can be used to treat cancer. A drug such as Doxil, a nanoparticle containing doxorubicin (which is used to treat lymphatic, bone, blood, and other organ cancers) costs about $5,594 per bottle (http://www.thepipettepen.com/blog/nanomedicine-how-much-are-we-willing-to-pay/). Treatments such as these are important for the future of biotech medicine and have the potential to save millions of lives and improve the quality of life of many people as well. However, gene therapy is only covered by insurance when recommended by a doctor, which is rare (https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/testing/insurancecoverage), stem cell therapy is rarely covered by insurance, as it is deemed too risky and is performed at for-profit clinics (https://ipscell.com/2018/12/does-insurance-cover-stem-cell-injections-at-clinics/), and nanomedicine is not covered by insurance at all yet (https://www.covermagazine.co.uk/cover/feature/2333036/the-science-of-small-nanomedicine-and-insurance/page/2). The already high cost of these life-saving treatments and the lack of insurance coverage poses the issue of affordability for the lower class. 

The people of the lower class often struggle to pay for health care today, and with such high costs, it will be even more difficult for them to afford access to such life-saving treatments. Currently, people in central Colorado have “the highest life expectancy at 87 years,” while people in certain counties of North and South Dakota, “typically those with Native American reservations,” die “far younger, at only 66” (https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/may/08/life-expectancy-gap-rich-poor-us-regions-more-than-20-years). One of the main factors for this gap in life expectancy is because the American health system relies on for-profit insurance companies, and healthcare is among the most expensive in the world (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/06/us-healthcare-wealth-income-inequality-lifespan). This is not just an American issue, the life span gap can be found in many first world countries, like how in England, “a boy born in the most affluent areas will outlive one born in one of the poorest by 8.4 years” (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43058394). The fact that the life span gap already exists today is a monumental issue as it is getting worse, trends show that the statistic from England is up from 7.2 years in 2001 (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43058394) and if health care gets more advanced, and with it more expensive, the life span gap between the rich and poor will only widen. This is a violation of a basic human right, human beings have a right to a life-saving treatment according to the rules stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, human beings should not be denied access to life-saving treatments because to deny them such treatments is to deny them life itself. 

This rapidly widening gap in life expectancy is not a warning to stop progress on life-saving medicines or a reason to bash the rich for being able to afford their treatments, however it is a wake up call for pharmaceutical companies, for-profit insurance companies, and for-profit clinics who are withholding life-saving treatments and therapies from people because of their own greed, to rethink how important money is when they are committing an ethical crime against countless underprivileged people. Bioengineering and biotechnology are phenomenal and has the potential to save millions of lives, although it is too expensive for lower class people to afford, and needs to be price checked so that no one is deprived of a basic human right, which is life-saving health care.