The past and the future

AS 2009 FADED and the New Year dawned, let me reminisce the momentous events of the past and contemplate the promises of the future. Join me as I dig into the years before 2009 and look into 2010 and beyond.

A pivotal change. In 1989, civilization changed its pivot. The Berlin Wall was torn down and Western liberal democracy surged –leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Since then, peace, if at times disturbed by some regional upheavals, reigned in the planet without any immediate threat of a major world war (other than George Bush’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Globalization became the mantra as national economies and businesses were integrated. More than the economy, technology helped people connect to enjoy life. Mobile phones began as status symbols but soon became social equalizers when prepaid loads became the norm. Now, no one can land a respectable white-collar job without knowing how to push computer keys and operate Microsoft’s Office.

Early on, I had to learn how to text so I could instantly reply to my 4-year-old grandson Rafa P. Yaptangco who could punch his messages without looking at the keyboard. I thought that if my geeky grandson could so easily operate a cell phone, so could his aging grandfather.

So too, I had to learn to use my personal computer, especially after I left the Court. I never imagined that I would be checking my e-mail twice a day. I now carry my personal laptop with SmartBro in my car, and hang my Nokia E63 in my belt ready for use 24/7. The Internet has revolutionized communications, learning and research. I can easily check facts, judicial decisions (both local and foreign), scientific advances, healthcare advice, current and past news, etc. wherever I am.

And since my electronic address is now public property, I get a hundred e-mails a day, most of them junk. I quickly respond to letters commenting on my columns but respectfully decline to discuss personal legal problems. Long-lost friends – even those in the far ends of the globe – are now able to reach me, something taboo during my judicial stint.

Dawning of the Bio-Age. Even more life changing, physically and otherwise, is the blossoming Bio Age. The structure of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA was first described in a paper written by James Watson and Francis Crick on April 25, 1953.

With the completion of the human genome sequencing project on April 14, 2003, scientists now have the complete list of the relevant elements of the human gene. It is as if all the parts of a jet plane have been inventoried, thereby presaging the inevitability of assembling them into a new flying machine or – if such machine has already been assembled – of scientifically repairing a worn-out one. Theoretically at least, the completion made it possible for scientists to study, experiment on, modify or alter genetic structures to prolong life and hasten the pace of evolution.

Like the Information Revolution, the Bio Age has impacted on the judiciary. In December 2003, I wrote a book, “The Bio-Age Dawns on the Judiciary” to assess how the new sciences could spawn novel disputes and stymie laws and jurisprudence. This was followed a year later in December 2004 by “Leveling the Playing Field,” in which I discussed, among others, five lectures I delivered in Chile during two international bio-technological symposia sponsored by the United National Industrial Development Organization (Unido) and the government of Chile.

Regenerative medicine. Now in retirement, my interest has shifted to ways of saving, improving and prolonging life. This means a continuing look at the frenetic pace of stem cell therapy especially for heretofore-incurable ailments like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

For a while, because of religious issues in the use of embryonic stem cells, research into this field slowed down. But the development of adult stem cells has quieted the objections.

Recently, researchers at Harvard University led by Dr. Douglas Melton and in Kyoto University led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka found a way to reprogram fully matured cells to develop into new kinds of tissues, thereby bypassing stem cells altogether. When a starfish loses one of its limbs, it simply re-grows it. I hope science can coax human cells to do the same.

In any event, it is now possible to secure a patient’s stem cells and turn them into any of the cells the body might need to repair or replace destroyed or sick tissues, and do away with wayward genes that can cause cancer when improperly implanted into the body.

Instead of relying on toxic chemicals or devices to combat diseases or donated organs to restore lost functions, the patients’ own cells may now be used to combat their cancers or regenerate their own organs. Regenerative medicine aims not only to treat diseases but also prevent illnesses and improve the quality of life. It is the wave of the future.

But the real good news is the emergence of a truly eminent Filipino-American in regenerative therapy, Dr. Samuel Bernal, an acclaimed professor of medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles. Amazingly, he holds doctoral degrees in medicine, law (JD) and philosophy (PhD in biochemical pathology) plus a Masters in Business Administration from pedigreed US universities. And the even better news is that he visits the country regularly as a consultant-adviser on regenerative medicine, especially cancer, at the Medical City in Pasig.

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