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A Birth Control Vaccine? An Author Says It's Just One of the Breakthroughs for the '80s

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“In the 1980s, “predicts Charles Panati, “we’re going to do an about-face and see technology as our savior.” Some of the changes that the 37-year-old physicist turned journalist foresees in the decade are described in Breakthroughs (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95). Panati conceived the book during his six years, 1972 to 1978, as a science writer at Newsweek. Reading up to 20 scientific journals a week, he was surprised by the progress being reported in almost every scientific field. After resigning from the magazine, he edited psychic Uri Geller’s papers and wrote both a study of parapsychology and a psychological thriller, Links, before starting work on Breakthroughs. He doubled his subscriptions to scientific journals and interviewed more than 100 researchers at 35 institutions across the country. The son of a postal worker and a housewife, Panati grew up experimenting with a chemistry set and dissecting hamsters in the garage of his parents’ Atlantic City home. “My mother didn’t set foot in the garage for years,” he laughs. An honor student at Villanova University, he earned his master’s in radiation physics from Columbia University in 1967. He later headed an RCA technological training team for professionals and researched a textbook on optics. Panati, who shares a Manhattan brownstone with architect Stan Fedinick, discussed society’s coming technological harvest with Barbara Rowes of PEOPLE.

What is the most significant breakthrough on the horizon?

Recombinant DNA—the genetic engineering of bacteria to produce the body’s rare drugs and hormones in mass quantities. Scientists have learned how to splice bits of human genes into bacteria to produce these natural substances, and it’s likely to grow into a multibillion-dollar industry.

What will it mean for patients?

Drugs will be dirt cheap. Insulin will cost mere pennies. Pituitary growth hormone, used to treat pituitary dwarfs, is now available only by extraction from the glands of cadavers. In this decade they’ll be turning it out in quantities. The same will be true of the anticancer drug interferon, which now costs $1,500 an ounce.

How safe are these bacteria-produced drugs?

Very. There will be less chance for side effects and rejection than now because the drugs are pure and natural—produced by the same DNA signals that manufacture them in our bodies.

Is relief coming for flu and colds?

There’s some evidence that small molecules from grapes—perhaps phenols—bind to viruses and prevent them from invading healthy cells. It’s far from conclusive, but it gives weight to the old wives’ tale that wine fights colds. Next time you get the flu, drink grape juice and wine and eat grapes. It certainly can’t hurt.

Will aspirin be outmoded?

Quite possibly. Scientists have isolated dynorphin, a substance naturally produced in the body and 200 times more powerful than any painkiller.

Aside from interferon, are there any new cancer therapies on the horizon?

There’s an experimental form of radiation therapy which may prove to be as much as three times more effective than X-ray therapy for certain types of tumors. It’s called pion therapy. Pions, the glue that holds atomic protons and neutrons together, are able to travel to the tumor without much energy loss. There, they cause the nuclei of certain molecules to explode, adding even more radiation energy. They do remarkably little damage to healthy tissue and deliver maximum destruction to cancerous tissue.

What’s new in brain drugs?

One of the most promising is vasopressin, a natural pituitary hormone. Experiments have shown that vasopressin, sprayed lightly into the noses of some types of amnesia sufferers, brings back their memories. It might help us remember little things like where we parked the car and maybe bigger things like moments from earliest childhood.

If memory can be aided, how about attention span?

There are two more pituitary hormones, abbreviated as ACTH/MSH. Each of them has fragments which when combined have been shown to increase powers of concentration. It’s possible that some forms of mental retardation and learning disability are caused by a pituitary deficiency. Scientists, by the way, are also tinkering with amphetamines and mescaline to produce chemicals that enhance creativity without producing a perception-distorting high.

Will there be new developments in birth control?

American scientists expect to begin clinical tests of a vaccine against pregnancy by 1982, and if all goes well it could be on the market by the end of the decade. The vaccine blocks the action of a hormone, HCG, that permits penetration of the egg by the sperm. The unfertilized egg is then flushed out in menstruation. The vaccine, in tests, has been effective on women for as long as one year.

What about dieting?

Scientists have come up with a dream come true. It’s a slenderizer compound. You just take an ounce and a half before a meal. It coats your stomach and intestines so that you don’t absorb a single calorie. So far it’s proven 100 percent effective on animals.

Will we solve the energy crisis in the ’80s?

That’s questionable, but by the end of the decade we should have some minor breakthroughs, with more and larger ones coming in the ’90s. We can expect results eventually from wind power, gasohol, biofuels such as methane gas made from animal waste, and geothermal power—tapping heat energy stored in the earth’s crust. Solar power is even more promising. Researchers are learning to make solar cells from glass-like substances rather than from rare crystals. Solar will be available for mass consumption, but unfortunately not in quantities large enough to satisfy our needs.

What about nuclear power?

Fusion is the answer. By combining the nuclei of certain atoms, it generates more power than current nuclear plants do by fission, or splitting of atoms. And it uses a renewable energy source, hydrogen, rather than a vanishing one, plutonium.

What’s coming in dentistry?

Tufts Dental School has developed a chemical, GK-101E, which softens decay so that it can be removed painlessly without drilling—and without damaging the healthy part of the tooth.

Will there be new ways of monitoring health?

By 1985, analyzing the chemical composition of hair could be as important as blood and urine analysis is now. Many trace elements, such as sodium and chromium, accumulate in hair at concentrations up to 10 times higher than in blood or urine. Thus diabetes, cystic fibrosis and other diseases may be detected through hair analysis. In addition, the hair seems to be an excellent barometer for measuring our exposure to environmental pollutants. Looking at sleep patterns is another burgeoning form of diagnosis.

You mean diseases can be detected by the way we sleep?

Exactly. We now recognize that many ailments—such as heart disease, cancer and schizophrenia—can alter the normal stages of sleep we go through every night. There’s even some evidence that certain sleep patterns can signal that something is drastically wrong with the body and may indicate the approach of death. If we can detect those patterns we can help forestall it. In the future, people will check into clinics for a night and get a checkup while they snooze.

What is the future for computers in medicine?

In psychiatry, they’re going to become indispensable for diagnosis and some forms of therapy. In test programs, computers ask questions and patients type out answers. If the computer detects a high score for, say, paranoia, it shifts to a subprogram and pursues questions on that theme. It turns out that patients are often more honest with the computer than with their psychiatrist. Programs are being designed now to treat minor phobias and depressions. Computer therapy could be as inexpensive as $1 per hour and would be unbiased and available 24 hours a day. And, unlike psychiatrists, computers never go on vacation.

Will two-way TV catch on?

The people hooked up to the Qube cable system in Columbus, Ohio have already bought merchandise, reserved ahead at restaurants and indicated their preferences in political contests and the Academy Awards. The catch is that with convenience comes a sacrifice in privacy—the system knows what you are watching and what you’ve been buying.

How about home computers?

In the latter half of the decade I think we’ll be using them regularly to pay bills, shop, buy theater and airline tickets, order books from the library and send letters instantly.

Won’t all these innovations greatly depersonalize life?

In the late ’50s and early ’60s there was tremendous fear of that, but it hasn’t happened. On the contrary, technology is giving us more time to develop into the people we want to be. The only danger I see is that we could become lazier because life, from a practical standpoint, will be easier.

Are you taking advantage of all these breakthroughs?

Are you kidding? I don’t even own a car or a calculator. I keep my life simple. I guess you can say I’m an old-fashioned technological man.