Jeffrey Epstein: Understanding Evolution, Understanding Medicine

Medicine_Main Jeffrey Epstein is no stranger to scientific philanthropy—and, in particular, to the funding of evolutionary research. It is through the work and support of his Foundation that the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics was founded in 2003 at Harvard University. Why is it though, that the continued study of evolution is so worthy of financial support? The reasons are myriad, but chief among them is the fact that by better understanding evolution, we can better provide medical services and care.

Evolution and HIV

There is perhaps nowhere better seen than in the ongoing research into HIV and AIDS. The very reason why no cure for HIV currently exists is that the virus evolves so rapidly—but by understanding how it adapts, doctors will be better able to catch up with HIV, preempt its growth, and perhaps put a stop to it once and for all. In addition to helping scientists understand where HIV is headed, evolutionary research also aids them in understanding where it came from; understanding HIV’s origins, which is known to have developed in simian species, researchers obtain critical clues into seeing how viruses grow on a macro level amongst species and habitats. Such studies allow scientists in a range of fields to better limit the spread of a virus before it escapes its initial locality.

Vaccines and Evolving Diseases

Another area in which evolution improves medical research is in the development of vaccines. Many of us take vaccines for granted: we know that polio is something we will never have to deal with because vaccines have proven so effective against it, for so long. However, what many of us forget is that diseases evolve—and with them, so must our vaccines. Understanding viral and bacterial evolution therefore, such as how cell receptors or replication capacity mutates, allows researchers to keep vaccines current, targeting the secondary and tertiary mutations before they even occur.

Evolution and Infection

Understanding evolution is critical in the field of fighting infectious diseases. Today, many bacterial and viral diseases have become completely resistant to antibiotics. Indeed, where penicillin was once heralded as a miracle drug, the reality is that in our modern world, many diseases are impervious to it and to a slew of other regularly prescribed antibiotics. Furthermore, not only is resistance widespread across a range of antibiotics but can develop rapidly with the development of new antibiotics. Scientists therefore, have to stay on top of bacterial and viral mutations, alert to the constant and manifold methods of adaption. In fact, many antibiotics today are tailor-made to the patient, where lab technicians test the resistance of the disease sample to several different types of antibiotic, before prescribing it. Indeed, it is only from keeping the pulse of disease evolution, can scientists truly protect public health.

Nowhere is this more true than with “emerging” diseases. Emerging diseases spread and cause devastation immediately since populations are largely not immune. Think back a couple of years to the outbreak of the so-called “swine flu.” Scientists were able to respond to it quickly, by testing and preempting resistance patterns and solely through understanding the ways in which disease-causing organisms evolve over time.

Research and Development

Comparing the evolution of human cells to those of animals and even plants has had a huge impact on research and development. Jeffrey Epstein notes that it is largely due to the parallels drawn between the three categories, which have allowed scientists to test animal and plant cell cultures before testing drugs and treatments on human patients and the population at large. Indeed understanding evolution across all forms of living organisms is critical for understanding modern medicine—and according to Jeffrey Epstein, this is reason enough to support further studies in evolutionary science.

Jeffrey Epstein is an industry leader in scientific philanthropy. For more information visit his site or check him out on Twitter!

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