Killer Cells and Designer Babies

  • 40 years of scientific struggle, and the payoff for Jimmy Carter
  • Making rules for “the most controversial scientific development of the 21st century”
  • “There is no more OPEC,” says Byron King. So now what?
  • Small business trades one problem for another
  • David Stockman’s reality check with the job numbers… miscellaneous musings about soggy 500-euro notes… a curious note from a frustrated reader… and more!

Not too long ago, a cancer diagnosis at age 91 amounted to a death sentence.
No more. As you might have heard over the weekend, former president Jimmy Carter says he’s cancer-free — barely six months after he started feeling poorly.
That was in May. In June, he got the diagnosis. Doctors removed part of his liver. Then he had an MRI that revealed the cancer had spread to four spots in his brain. By August, he broke the news — first to the Sunday school class he teaches, and then to the public at large. He said his fate “is in the hands of God, whom I worship.”
Last month, the most Carter’s doctors at Emory University could say was the cancer hadn’t spread.
But now? “My most recent MRI brain scan did not reveal any signs of the original cancer spots nor any new ones,” he said Sunday. “I will continue to receive regular three-week immunotherapy treatments of pembrolizumab.”
How far immunotherapy has come in such a short time.
Scientists spent 40 years spinning their wheels — tinkering with the “killer cells” in our immune systems so they can seek and destroy cancer cells just as they do with an infection.
But no breakthrough came until 2011 — when researchers developed a successful treatment for melanoma. By 2013, the prestigious journal Science was calling immunotherapy the breakthrough of the year. By this year, Ray Blanco of our science-and-wealth team could say with confidence, “We’re now in the midst of a complete revamp of how we deal with cancer.”
For one thing, immunotherapy means no chemotherapy — and all the miserable side effects that come with it. With the drug President Carter took, the side effects are mostly fatigue and a rash. And in Mr. Carter’s case, they were even more slight: He had some shoulder pain after the 30-minute infusion… but he slept well that night.
But even more important, immunotherapy promises a near-term future in which cancer is not treated… but cured. Going into 2016, our research team is following no fewer than three companies on the case.
Longer term, the future is one in which cancer ceases to exist. Ditto for heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
That’s the promise of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, aka “gene editing,” that we’ve mentioned a couple times recently — most recently in an Overtime briefing yesterday. Not only could the technology zap any genetic predisposition you have for cancer, but you’d pass those genes on to future generations.
Still, “this technology is extremely controversial — quite possibly the most controversial scientific development of the 21st century,” said our fearless leader Addison Wiggin yesterday. Think “designer babies,” for instance.
The controversy — and the limitless potential — brought together hundreds of scientists last week at a meeting in Washington, D.C. Their aim — to develop some guidelines.
“The rules,” says a summary from Wired, “probably won’t mean big changes. The U.S. government will continue its prohibition on funding for gene-editing research in human embryos. The Chinese government will allow it to continue. Other nations will continue to debate how far to allow their scientists to go.”
In any event, concerns about “designer babies” are overblown: “For making babies, you still need an IVF clinic,” Stanford’s Hank Greely tells Wired. “It is not easy to hide, it’s already licensed and regulated. If the goal was to prohibit human germline editing, countries have the tools to be able to do that. If the goal were to allow it for some purposes, that shouldn’t be difficult to do.”
We’ve only begun to hint at the potential for gene editing. Experts we’re not… but we’ve called on people who are to help make sense of it.
And the first person we called on was venture capitalist Juan Enriquez. If you’re a longtime Agora Financial reader, you’ve surely read or watched interviews Addison has conducted with him at The Daily Reckoning.
He’s the guy who set up the private financing for the mapping of the human genome in the 1990s — a project that accomplished in 18 months what the government couldn’t pull off in 20 years. So he knows this stuff inside out.
To help wrap your mind around gene editing, Addison has bought a huge portion of the production run of Juan’s book Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life on Earth. And he’s worked with our science-and-wealth team to help you get started on investing in the life-science breakthroughs of the future for only $250.
It’s an unbeatable package. Claim your book and your investment dossier right here.
To the markets… where oil is once again proving a drag on stocks. At last check, the Dow had shed another 150 points, down to 17,578. The Nasdaq is holding up better, down only a quarter percent at 5,090 — the Nasdaq is still solidly in the green for the year.
After a 5% drop yesterday, crude tumbled again overnight — a barrel of West Texas Intermediate dipping below $37 a barrel, although it’s recovered as we write to $37.75. To hear The Wall Street Journal tell it, the driver yesterday was El Nino and fresh forecasts of a mild winter.
Then again, maybe it’s the realization that “There is no more OPEC — well, not as a functioning, price-setting oil cartel,” says our resident oil field geologist Byron King.
OPEC’s decision on Friday “essentially ratified ‘whatever’ is going on in oil patches across the globe. Some early news reports stated that OPEC set a production ceiling of 31.5 million barrels per day. Actually, OPEC set no firm number. Right now, it’s just everyone from OPEC pumping whatever they pump, which happens to add up to about 31.5 million.
“After over 40 years of controlling global oil pricing, OPEC is utterly adrift. There’s no captain in the wheelhouse. There’s no direction to the engine room. The crew of the OPEC tanker ship has mutinied. Sauve qui peut.”
Result? “It’s a fire sale on oil, and oil shares are getting clobbered,” Byron goes on. “We’re seeing the same thing in natural gas shares, as well.
“For how long will oil shares get clobbered? Hard to say… Few weeks. Month or two. Maybe more. I don’t know, and nobody else knows, either. The only thing to ‘fix’ the situation is less supply and/or more demand.”
Small-business owners aren’t feeling much holiday cheer, judging by the latest Optimism Index from the National Federation of Independent Business.
After holding steady around the 96 level the last three months, the November number has slipped to 94.8.
“This month’s index continues to signal a lackluster economy and shows that the small-business sector has no expansion energy whatsoever,” says NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg.
We usually find the “single most important problem” part of the survey to be revealing… and that’s definitely the case this month.

Small Business Challenges

For the first time since the Panic of 2008, “poor sales” has fallen out of the top four. Taxes and regulations remain more or less tied for No. 1, followed by “quality of labor” — a sign employers are under pressure to keep wages up to attract good people.
Meanwhile, the cost and availability of insurance has pushed up to No. 4. That’s the sound of employees squawking at open-enrollment time, no doubt. (We’re certainly hearing it around Agora Financial HQ.) Thanks, Obamacare!
“This ‘Jobs Friday’ ritual is getting truly absurd,” says David Stockman — once again finding less than meets the eye to the monthly employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“These artifacts of the BLS’ seasonally maladjusted, trend cycle-modeled, heavily imputed, endlessly crafted and five times revised ‘jobs’ numbers have precious little to do with the real health of the Main Street economy.”
As evidence, David points us to this chart, which comes from BLS figures. “But it measures actual labor hours employed, not job slots.

Fifteen Years of No Growth

“The fact is labor hour inputs utilized by the U.S. nonfarm business economy have ‘grown’ at the microscopic annualized rate of 0.08% since the turn of the century.
“That’s as close as you can get to zero even by the standards of sell-side hairsplitters, and it compares to a 2.02% compound annual growth rate during the 17 years period to Q3 2000…
“The contrast between the two periods shown in the chart could not be more dramatic. Nor do these contrasting trends encompass a mere short-term aberration. The death of the U.S. jobs market has been underway for a decade and one-half!”
[Ed. note: Despite this anemic real-world job indicator, David has every expectation the Federal Reserve will finally raise interest rates on Dec. 16 — one week from tomorrow.
And that will bring a sea change for investors in 2016.
To help you prepare, Agora Financial is working with David to organize a live online briefing next Monday evening — with recommendations you can act on ahead of the Fed meeting Wednesday.
Details to follow. For now, just save the date: 9:00 p.m. EST this coming Monday.]
Found: More than 100,000 euro bank notes. Danube River, 22nd District of Vienna. Contact Vienna Police.
The story begins on Saturday, when a young man noticed cash floating in the Danube and he dove in to retrieve it. Bystanders, thinking it was a suicide, called police.
“The boy said he wanted to bring it to the police, but the question is whether the police found it or the boy,” says a police spokesman.
Police recovered a sizeable stash denominated in amounts of 100 and 500 euros. “Of course, it is likely that the bank notes come from a criminal offence,” the spokesman said. “But for now, we will have to wait for completion of tests, and the gathering of evidence.”

Someone’s soggy bank notes, drying off at the cop shop [Vienna Police photo]

Under Austrian law, anyone who finds cash and brings it to the police can claim up to 10% of it… and if the rightful owner can’t be found, he’s entitled to the full amount.
Here at The 5, we’re more struck by the fact that 500 euro bank notes are commonly circulated. At today’s exchange rate, that’s about $545.
Americans, meanwhile, are stuck with $100s. “The Treasury announced on July 14, 1969, that it would quit issuing the $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 notes immediately, since the bills were so sparsely circulated,” says the website Mental Floss.
“It’s not like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had to stop the presses, either; the bills hadn’t seen an actual print run since 1945.”
Interesting context for the “war on cash,” no? It would take $645 in 2015 to equal the purchasing power of a $100 bill in 1969.
Meanwhile, cash transactions higher than 1,000 euros are banned in France and Italy.
“GOOD GRIEF!” writes an outraged reader, whose all-caps at the start of his message we’ve faithfully preserved. “Do you ever stop dreaming up things to push on your readers?
“If you spent as much time coming up with good investing ideas and financial suggestions, it might be tolerable. As it stands now, all you do is hack me off.
“Quit already! Oh, you won’t, as that is how you make your money. Now I remember why I cancelled my subscription last time.”
The 5: Uhh… What was it that brought you back?
Best regards,
Dave Gonigam
The 5 Min. Forecast
P.S. What will happen to big drug companies when new DNA-based editing technology allows us to erase some diseases from our germlines?
Will the drug companies that millions of older Americans now depend on go bust? Or will they adapt, invent and thrive as we “delete” many diseases that kill us today?
Those are among the questions Juan Enriquez tackles in his book, Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Changing Life on Earth.
If you plan to have money in the markets in the next 10 years — heck, if you plan to keep living on Earth in the next 10 years — you need to read this book.
We feel so strongly about it, we’ll send you a copy free.

Dave Gonigam

Dave Gonigam

Dave Gonigam has been managing editor of The 5 Min. Forecast since September 2010. Before joining the research and writing team at Agora Financial in 2007, he worked for 20 years as an Emmy award-winning television news producer.

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