Business Times

tomorrow BEAUTIFUL : Perfectly genetic

By Jagdish Hathiramani

While the last edition of the Business Times' tomorrowSERIES features delved into the world of tomorrowMEDICINE, there was, to our mind, one very interesting side effect of our story: the discovery that much more than an inordinate amount of new medical research was being funded by cosmetics companies of the caliber of L'Oreal, Lancome, and Proctor & Gamble. In fact, some scientists, including Sri Lankan ones, are already suggesting that, while the widespread application of nanotechnology in many fields are still far off into the future, this has already come to pass with the use of nano particles in sunscreens and skincare creams on the shelves of any supermarket today. It is also a widely accepted fact that as of now the most nanotechnology patents are held by cosmetics companies.

This, to us, was startling for two reasons: First, because many quarters are unclear of the harm of using new technologies such as nanotechnology. However, nanotechnology has already been implied to have been used in skincare creams and sunscreens despite organisations such as USA's Food and Drug Administration, which has extensive, long term protocols for any new consumer product, currently signaling it was unconvinced as to the safety or efficacy of this technology. At the same time, potentially, and arguably, life-saving therapies such as stem cell research are being limited due to religious fervour and the like.

Second is the fact that many research avenues currently being explored in the so-called hallowed halls of the world's finest and most cutting-edge medical facilities is being funded, and so directed, by the needs of cosmetics companies and not by the human imperative to cure suffering brought on by disease and malnourishment. An interesting thought to say the least.

Meanwhile, research and development (R&D) spending by cosmetics companies and other marketing behemoths have created paths even undreamed of by those scientists foretelling iconic chapters of the history of the world, such as the space age and the information age. Many conjectured the coming of the flying car but, honestly, no one ever wrote of the benefits to humanity of silicone breast implants. Incidentally, the aesthetics medical devices industry is currently estimated at US$ 1.8 billion and is expected to grow to US$ 2.8 billion by 2016.

However, putting personal morality aside, it is interesting to note the many future applications of science that could apply to either making us more appealing in terms of current standards, as embodied by models displayed in popular media, or even in changing our perception of the body beautiful into the future. So, we therefore present the flight of fancy that is tomorrowBEAUTIFUL.

Today's researchers are already using private sector funding to further chart the human genome in a bid to isolate, and later, possibly manipulate genes. As such, those genes responsible for the skin, eyes, hair, etc. may be treated to affect a number of changes. One possible application of this is age reversal, the literal incarnation of the mythical fountain of youth that has been much sought after throughout the ages. Based on a current theory that skin ages due to the build-up of a protein which, when blocked, reverses the effects brought on by age, this protein may be permanently blocked by gene therapy or even nanotechnology being used to target the protein once it is identified and better understood.

Other suggested applications for genetics in future beauty range from the more mundane, such as using genetic manipulation to change eye or hair colour, to the more radical such as designer babies and even body morphing, whereby the molecular structure of bodies is altered to take on a more perfect visage. Or at least it will appear so in the eye of the beholder.

Have an irrational fear of the more drastic recourses such as genetic manipulation? No matter, the future also offers a number of nonsurgical alternatives such as light therapies, etc. These have been shown to have promise in reducing visible wrinkles. But these will surely become obsolete as society gets more comfortable with gene manipulation, which is said to be a possible cure-all for everything.
Meanwhile, tomorrowBEAUTIFUL will not only apply to human beings but also to what we surround ourselves with: Future fashions such as smart textiles will allow us to change our apparel's colour and even shape, thanks to almost-there innovations like memory cloth, all the while also being conveniently self-cleaning. In addition, our pets may also be influenced. Not interested in having a dog or a cat as a pet? How about one which was previously endangered or even extinct? What about a dinosaur? What about a pet from that you imagine and create? Anything may be realised through gene manipulation, whether the product has two legs or four or even possibly five.

Tomorrow’s beauty
If the full potential of genetics is realised, it is inevitable that physical perfection will also become universally achieved. At least in terms of what we believe it to be today. Hence, it is logical that the paradigm of what we perceive as beauty will also change.

While today's perception of beauty tends towards flawless skin; tomorrow’s may tend towards scarred or even leopard patterned skin. Another suggested fad may the one towards transhumanism. This is when the human body is modified using technological or bionic implants, voluntarily. In other words, humanity’s more perfect merging of man and machine, with the aim of improving oneself.

In addition, there is the belief that, in the future, other more ingrained traditions may also be changed to reflect changing times: Why participate in the genetically inefficient ritual of courting when genetic matching is a more feasible and less painful method of facilitating the ideal offspring? In fact, why even alter what you look like physically at all if you live your whole life in a virtual reality. Meanwhile, your physical body can be stored and your virtual presence or avatar will become your real self, existing in a world where anything is possible. A world where you can take the form of anyone or anything your heart desires.

This is the ultimate promise of tomorrowBEAUTIFUL, whether good or bad. A world where we have the choice to eventually use the power we have accrued to work together for the betterment of all and even rectify our species' track record of destruction. Or, where the good of the whole is abandoned in pursuit of a possibly immortal existence only centred on then one’s own instant gratification.

Even worse, we can choose to land somewhere in the middle of both extremes and blindly continue on our path of selfishness and greed and delude ourselves into acting like we are all that matters on planet Earth.

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