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September 29, 2005

More-with-less Innovation: A little dab will do it

Stems cells of all varieties hold great promise for fixing many health problems, if only you can persuade them to become what you want them to become. What’s the right approach? Should you give them a bath, or just a little pinch of something?

Electronic miniaturization is the classic example of technological innovation enabling human society to do more-and-more with less-and-less. Most people are familiar with Moore’s Law, which holds that computing power doubles roughly every 18 months. Another version of this “law” states that the cost of computing power will roughly halve during the same time period. This prediction has held up so far, and shows signs of continuing for the next decade or two, especially as we learn to do more things on the nano-scale.

The cells of our bodies already do incredible things at the nano-scale. Each of our cells is a veritable factory of thousands of types of nano-machines, and these factories, when assembled together, make up even larger machines, like your liver, your heart, your lungs, and even your skin. We can repair and renew these larger organs if we can learn how to program stem cells, which are cells capable of becoming any type of tissue, to become the type of tissue we need (liver, heart, lung, skin). So far this has been done by bathing stem cells in the chemical signals that tell them what kind of tissue they should become. But this is like using a large sledgehammer to do a job more suited to a really small jewelers screwdriver. If we could somehow learn to apply just the right amount of chemical signal on just the right spot on a stem cell, then we could more quickly and precisely build exactly the kind of tissues we want.

This is where the technology of electronic miniaturization may merge with the nano-technology of bioengineering stem cells. Scientists at Stanford are gaining success using silicon chips to open and close tiny gates to let precise amounts of signaling chemicals reach stems cells in a very controlled way. The potential for this technology is tremendous, as it may allow us to build tissues in layers, the way they grow naturally in our bodies, and even to join two different kinds of tissues together, as occurs where bones, ligaments, and tendons join together.

Once again, by using less, we are learning how to do more, and solving more-and-more problems that have troubled and defeated the Big Government “Manhattan Project” approach. More-with-less solutions to health care problems, provided mainly by the voluntary sector, will increasingly diminish the justification for big, expensive interventions by the coercive sector. You can find more about this emerging technology here.

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