Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have recently announced an ambitious aim to completely eradicate disease by 2100, but is such a thing really possible? Since 2015, the pair have pledged over $1.6 billion dollars to charity, and have promised that in the fight against disease they will devote $3 billion to medical research over the next 10 years. Last December they also pledged 99% of their Facebook shares into improving the world. This is admirable to say the least. However, the total UK spending on health-focused research, amounts to around £8.5 billion per year. This puts the meagre $3 billion into perspective.

The Challenges faced by Zuckerberg and Chan

Professional opinion on the issue is relatively mixed, and there are a number of highly respected individuals who agree with Mark Zuckerberg that such a thing is possible. At the forefront of the plan is Cornelia Bergmann, neurobiologist at The Rockerfeller University in New York City. Bergmann has been selected as head of the initial project which will bring together some of the USA’s leading scientists and engineers “to help cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.

There are others, however, that see numerous issues arising from such a zealous aspiration. Dr. Sheena Cruikshank, lecturer in Immunology at the University of Manchester, has stated that, “the problem with treating diseases is that it’s not a ‘static field.’” The goal posts are always changing as our immune systems evolve and diseases follow suit. Today we are faced with the challenges of mutations and drug resistant diseases, all of which a complete cure would need to address. Antibiotic resistance is at an all-time high, with no new antibiotics having been developed since the 1980s.

In addition to this, Dr. Cruikshank points out that there are some diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes, which would require significant lifestyle changes for millions of people before a true cure could be found. There are vast numbers of diseases which are caused by the effects of environment and lifestyle that would require more than just medical research. Even more financial help than what Zuckerberg and Chan are offering is needed.

Reasons to be hopeful

There are reasons to be hopeful, however. In the last 100 years, we have eradicated small pox, developed vaccines against tens of diseases including tetanus and diphtheria, and developed highly effective antibiotics. In 1900, 30% of all children died before their first birthday. Today, infant mortality rates are the lowest ever recorded. In addition to this, we can now carry out bypass surgery to counteract the effects of cardiovascular disease, and we have brilliant technology that can keep people alive when 100 years ago they would never have survived. Without ambition, and a considerable amount of monetary backing, such things could never have come to fruition. As Steve Caddick, Professor of Chemical Biology at University College London, says, “We have to be bold about the scale of the challenge we face in improving human health.”

Ambition and Investment – The real cure?

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have taken a step in the right direction. Even if they are not able to completely eradicate disease in the next century, they have joined a group of wealthy philanthropists who have promised to do what they can to at least move the world on to a better place. Joining them are the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, who aim to rid the world of polio and malaria. Microsoft have taken it even further, saying that they will ‘solve’ cancer within the next 10 years. Through investment by people like these, we may well be able to deal successfully with some of the biggest killers.

To make this an even more realistic aim, however, individuals would need to begin to make better lifestyle choices. It would be unrealistic to suggest that no one would ever smoke, or drink alcohol, or eat unhealthy food again. In order to rid the world of disease, we would need to pay more attention to what we are putting into our own bodies, how we treat the environment by reducing emissions, disposing of hazardous waste effectively, and assisting developing countries in their fight against famine and drought.

Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow philanthropists are certainly making a positive choice, and the possibilities are huge. Although we can only speculate as to how possible such aims really are, we are not going to know what is possible until we carry out research into all possibilities.

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