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25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More

The inventors, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are changing (and maybe saving) the world one brilliant idea at a time

25 People Shaping the Future

Fifty years after Rolling Stone published its first issue in November 1967 – and one year after the cataclysmic election of Donald Trump – we’re still looking ahead with determined optimism at the next half-century. Anchored by a cover story on Elon Musk, the 2017 edition of our Future Issue puts the spotlight on 25 visionaries, revolutionaries, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are already changing (and maybe saving) the world in politics, economics, tech, science, agriculture, medicine and more – from an “all-natural architect” to the frontwoman for tomorrow’s Democratic Party to the startup king looking to eliminate healthcare bureaucracy. Wonder what the future looks like? This list gives us a good glimpse.

the future issue

Cheap Science: Prakesh with a paper microscope

Ryumin Alexander/ZUMA

Manu Prakash: High-Tech for Low-Cost Medicine

Manu Prakash, a Stanford bioengineering professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2016, was visiting a medical clinic in Uganda several years ago when he saw something alarming: Staffers were using an expensive centrifuge – vital in the detection of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis – as a doorstop. They had no electricity to power it, he said. Prakash, 37, has grown accustomed to scenes like this while traveling through resource-starved parts of the world. To help, he’s devoted himself to what he calls “frugal science: the idea that if you make science accessible and scalable, it will have impacts on global health and education beyond our imagination.”

Prakash’s experience in Uganda led him and his team of researchers to develop a cheap centrifuge that anyone could use, despite limited funds and minimal training. First, they scrutinized a variety of simple spinning toys, eventually settling on the centuries-old whirligig as their model. The result is the Paperfuge: paper discs fitted with tubes that can hold blood samples, connected to twine strings that allow a user to spin the discs at up to 125,000 rpm, thereby separating out, say, malaria parasites. To study those parasites, a user might deploy another ingenious invention of Prakash’s, the Foldscope – an origami-inspired paper microscope capable of high-powered imaging, the component materials of which cost just $1.

At least 50,000 Foldscopes have been distributed in 135 countries. Someone used one to study air pollutants in China; others have tested for counterfeit drugs and diagnosed animal and plant diseases. Tools like these, Prakash says, represent “a means of creativity. Sometimes we forget how wonderful this world is. If we can bring that to people, we can change their attitudes toward problems. If we make people curious, I’d call it a success.” JW

the future issue

Gene doctor: Zhang in his CRISPR lab at the Broad Institute.

Tony Luong

Feng Zhang: Medicine’s New Frontier

In 2013, when MIT molecular biologist Feng Zhang was just 32, he became the first scientist to successfully edit human cells using CRISPR, a gene-modifying technology that could ultimately be used to fix cellular mutations. The technology is now leading breakthroughs in treating HIV, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases – to say nothing of its potential for re-engineering coral reefs and harnessing algae’s biopower. “It’s like a renaissance period,” Zhang says. “We have wanted to do this for a long time, and we are now reaching a stage where we can.”

CRISPR uses a bacterial system to snip DNA with the simplicity of an Easy-Bake Oven. To treat diseases like leukemia and Alzheimer’s, scientists foresee targeting genetic mutations with, well, near-surgical precision. At the same time, the tech is being used to research seed size, advance microscope resolution, modify pig organs and develop virus resistance. Another godfather of CRISPR, Harvard’s George Church, is investigating whether CRISPR might even revive extinct species like the woolly mammoth – he’s splicing its DNA into Asian elephant cells. CRISPR will soon become part of an emerging line of cancer gene therapies. “It’s the holy grail for cancer,” says Rick Young, whose MIT lab has deployed CRISPR to close in on a key genetic cause of the disease. “We’re doing the best work of our careers – we’re at the epicenter of a revolution.”

Revolutions, though, can go awry. Recently, DARPA, a military research agency, began funding technology to thwart genetic catastrophes. Intelligence agencies reportedly have started their own development teams as well. “A thousand dollars of CRISPR stuff and a toilet, and you have a bioweapon,” says Hank Greely, a Stanford bioethicist. “That makes me nervous.”

For now, Zhang is leading a search for genomic tools that could one day surpass CRISPR, systems that work with even greater accuracy, speed and bulk. “It is an exciting time to be a biologist,” he says. BW

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