Future looks small to experts

Changes zero in on individuals

Staff WriterJanuary 2, 2010 

The last time a new decade dawned, in 2000, people were struggling along without iPods, Facebook or YouTube.

More waves of change - touching areas including the ways people deal with disease, communicate and worship - are certain to roll through the next 10 years, some brave Triangle experts say.

In health care, the trend of technology-driven personalization is likely to have deep impact.

The completion during the 2000s of the Human Genome Project, the sequencing and mapping of all human genes, should lead to a basic redirection of medicine toward more precise diagnoses and treatment, said Dr. Geoffrey Ginsburg, founding director of the Center for Genomic Medicine in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.

"When we have more precise methods of diagnosis, the paradigm will shift from providing care in acute crisis in the emergency room to earlier in the course of the disease," Ginsburg said.

If costs for genetic mapping are reduced as some predict, doctors would have tools for much more defined strategies and treatments, he said. In addition, patients could be monitored through molecular-level sensors that send information directly to health-care professionals, data that today is gathered in office visits.

"Once every three to six months, a patient could put a drop of blood on one of these sensors and have it sent wirelessly to the doctor," Ginsburg said, adding that patients could have devices implanted to transmit information in real time. "I see that all under the umbrella of personalized medicine."

Also likely to have broad reach are molecular-level imaging that can much more quickly measure the effects of medication, and increased use of robotics, both for operating rooms and as artificial limbs, Ginsburg said.

Another Duke physician, Nelson Chao, chief of the division of cellular therapy, said the use of stem cells in diseases other than cancers will increase in years to come.

"They can be used for heart attacks, for strokes, spinal cord, injuries, diabetes - I think we will get those much closer to the clinic," Chao said.

Another advance to look for is the use of cellular therapies, not involving stem cells, that can treat tumors and repair damaged tissue.

"The potential to reprogram cells is very exciting," Chao said. "If you have a heart attack, with dead cardiac tissues, you could have a much better repair process if you could turn the scar cells to making more heart cells."

Your own news

In communications as in medicine, gee-whiz developments will be built on previous breakthroughs, said Ryan Thornburg, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies online journalism and the future of news.

"What I see a lot of today is the realization of ideas that were being tried unsuccessfully in 1999," Thornburg said. "A lot of the ideas we see as trends today were dismissed as flops 10 years ago."

Among the trends to look for in information and news, Thornburg said, will be the rise of content targeted to a user's location at a given moment, via ubiquitous high-speed Internet access. Other possibilities include new markets for buying and selling small pieces of information, and a divide between high-quality information that people pay for and free lower-end news - often focused on social and political points of view, entertainment or sports.

"One of the interesting questions is, how do we match people with information that is useful to them?" Thornburg said.

Losing our religion

A trend to watch in the field of faith is a decades-long increase in Americans who say they have no religion, said Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religion and divinity. From about 3 percent of people in the 1950s, that group has grown to 15 percent to 20 percent in the last decade, according to a long-running survey by the University of Chicago.

"It's unambiguously growing," Chaves said. "It's one of the most striking trends."

The National Congregations Study, a survey Chaves released last summer, showed an increase in the 2000s of predominantly white churches with some minority members.

"I would expect that to trend further in that direction," he said.

Congregational growth has increasingly occurred in larger churches for decades; Chaves' study showed that the largest 10 percent of churches contain half of all churchgoers.

"The interesting question is, have we hit a plateau or are we going to continue to see that increase?" Chaves said. "It can't go on forever - we can't all wind up in one big church."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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