The cover of The Postmortal is one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a long time. Death impaled by his own scythe – be not proud, indeed.
The idea behind Drew Magary’s great new book is simple: aging, as it turns out, is caused by one gene. Shut that gene off and you stop aging; accidents and disease are still a problem, but you’ve cured death by natural causes. Now compound that discovery with the fact that any person who gets the Cure simply stops aging. People don’t become younger, they just don’t get older, frozen at their “Cure age.” What happens next?
In an effort to find out, Magary takes us through the life of John Farrell, a New York lawyer who gets the Cure for aging at the age of 29 in the year 2019. From that point on, things go rather poorly for John and the rest of humanity. As one might expect, curing aging doesn’t cure social ills, over-population, ennui, or a host of other human hangups. Mark Frauenfelder has an excellent synopsis of the book over at boingboing.net, and I share his opinions about the book’s bleak tone and high quality.
Magary’s argument through the text is essentially this: death creates meaning. Not mortality, but guaranteed natural death due to aging. The idea that no matter what you do, how you live your life, the concept that you will be born, mature, grow old, and die creates human meaning. Magary has a point: from the riddle of the Sphinx to Tyler Durden to the final books of Harry Potter, aging and death seem to be at the epicenter of human thought. I don’t deny him that at any moment any one of us could meet a tragic end. Life is precious in part because it is not meant to last.
But here is where I struggle. The Postmortal is not about a post-mortal society, it is about a post-aging society. Lots and lots and lots of people die in Magary’s vision. In fact, he seems to argue that in the absence of death, people will not only seek death but will create circumstances that create death and thereby, create meaning. It is only when Farrell’s life is most in peril that he finds purpose in existence. But Farrell is never immortal, no one is. So my question is: is the process of aging as meaningful as the condition of being mortal? Read More
The future is impossible to predict. But that’s not going to stop people from trying. We can at least pretend to know where it is we want humanity to go. We hope that laws we craft, the technologies we invent, our social habits and our ways of thinking are small forces that, when combined over time, move our species towards a better existence. The question is, How will we know if we are making progress?
As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds. Not everyone supports every aspect of transhumanism, but you’d be amazed at how neatly current political struggles and technological progress point toward a transhuman future. Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.
But how will we able to tell when the pieces finally do fall into place? I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution was asked a while back by his readers: What are the exact conditions for counting “transhumanism” as having been attained? In an attempt to answer, I responded with what I saw as the three key indicators:
As I groped through the intellectual dark for these three points, it became clear that the precise technology and how it worked was unimportant. Instead, we need to figure out how technology may change our lives and our ways of living. Unlike the infamous jetpack, which defined the failed futurama of the 20th century, the 21st needs broader progress markers. Here are seven things to look for in the coming centuries that will let us know if transhumanism is here. Read More
A patient with tracheal cancer was given a new trachea grown entirely in a lab from his own stem cells using a synthetic scaffold. The cancer has been diagnosed as terminal, but thanks to the surgery, the man is likely to be discharged in a few days. As Gautam Naik at the Wall Street Journal reports:
“It’s yet another demonstration that what was once considered hype [in the field of tissue engineering] is becoming a life-changing moment for patients,” said Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, who wasn’t involved in the latest operation. . .
With the patient on the surgery table, Dr. [Paolo] Macchiarini and colleagues then added chemicals to the stem cells, persuading them to differentiate into tissue—such as bony cells—that make up the windpipe.
About 48 hours after the transplant, imaging and other studies showed appropriate cells in the process of populating the artificial windpipe, which had begun to function like a natural one. There was no rejection by the patient’s immune system, because the cells used to seed the artificial windpipe came from the patient’s own body.
Dr. Russell of the McGowan Institute sounded a note of caution about using this technique to build more-complex organs. For example, while tissue engineering can help to build hollow organs such as a windpipe, it will likely prove a bigger challenge to use the technique for creating the heart, which has much thicker tissue.
The use of a synthetic scaffold is landmark for two reasons. First, it means that those in need of a trachea transplant don’t have to wait for a donor trachea. Stem cells can be used to make one to order. Second, previous lab-grown tracheae had used tracheae from cadavers as scaffolds. The use of a fully synthetic scaffold means that only the patient’s own cells create the new organ. As a result, the body recognizes the new organ as its own and does not attempt to reject it, removing the need for immunosuppressive drugs. The success of this operation creates the foundation for other lab-grown organs because the only two necessary ingredients were stem cells and synthetic scaffolds. No need for donors, cadavers, or immunosuppressive drugs.
The implications for anti-aging medicine are incredible: imagine being able to get a new set of organs dropped in every twenty years or so. Brand new heart, lungs, and guts fresh from the factory. Or, if you’re born with a bad ticker or digestive issues, no worries, we’ll just whip you up a new one and swap it out. It would be a paradigm shift in the treatment of disease.
The possibilities here are tremendous, but also a long ways away. Dr. Russell is right when he calls out the simplicity of the trachea in relation to other organs. The trachea is the first small step of many large steps science still needs to take before we can readily and safely replace any organ in the body. Still, that a man’s life was saved by a technology that was science fictional two decades ago is a cause worth celebrating.
Dying is a touchy subject. Euthanasia makes people upset. Whichever side of the debate you are on, you are caught between the hard place of human suffering and the rock of informed autonomous free choice. Euthanasia is really a debate about not dying of natural causes. For so long, we’ve understood death to be only OK if it was natural or demonstrably accidental. Anything else was murder, manslaughter, or war. Not only God, but we humans, have set our canon against self-slaughter. “Voluntary active euthanasia,” as Daniel Brock denotes it, is not natural, nor is it demonstrably accidental. Thus, we instinctively categorize it as morally wrong.
Instead of attempting to root out the source of that instinct and investigating whether or not voluntary active euthanasia actually violates morality, many use the blurred line created as reason enough to oppose a chosen death. Ross Douthat of the New York Times argues that Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian’s efforts to provide assistance to those suffering created a moral slippery slope:
And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?
Note that Douthat doesn’t consider Parkinson’s a medical disease. But more to the point – Douthat’s argument is that we don’t know what degree of suffering makes the choice to die morally palatable. Degree of suffering is the wrong criterion. None but the sufferer can define it and it can never be truly communicated. What is at stake here is not only the free and informed choice of the dying, but our very understanding of what it means to “die of natural causes.” Read More
We are at a cusp point in medical generations. The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become. If they could start over, the surveys tell us, they wouldn’t choose the profession today. They recall a simpler past without insurance-company hassles, government regulations, malpractice litigation, not to mention nurses and doctors bearing tattoos and talking of wanting “balance” in their lives. These are not the cause of their unease, however. They are symptoms of a deeper condition—which is the reality that medicine’s complexity has exceeded our individual capabilities as doctors.
Gawande has two main arguments. First, that when doctors use checklists they prevent errors and quality of care goes way up. Second, that doctors need to stop acting like autonomous problem solvers and see themselves as a member of a tight-knit team. Gawande is one of the few sane voices in the health care debate. However, later on in his speech, he says that the solution to the health care conundrum is not technology. To a large degree, I agree with him. But not completely. Tech still has a big role to play. If we take a closer look at Dune and Star Trek, we’ll see why Qualcomm and the X-Prize Foundation are ponying up 10 million bucks to fund a piece of medical technology that could help make Gawande’s dream of team-based medicine a bit closer to becoming reality. Read More
Human growth hormone (HGH) is one among the many hormones your body naturally produces. HGH influences growth in that it helps encourage cell reproduction and regeneration. Athletes really like to pretend that HGH makes them more powerful. It might, but it probably doesn’t. Whether it works or not, athletes should be allowed to utilize it. But banning performance enhancers is a topic already covered, so let’s look at something more interesting.
As part of a thread called “The Bias Against Short Men,” Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish published an email by a reader struggling with a difficult question:
The doctor noticed that my son was comfortably sitting at the bottom of the growth chart and that he would most likely end up a measly 5’5” (a little more than my wife and myself). He went on to say that this could qualify as “idiopathic short stature syndrom.” And that we could potentially get our son on HGH (actually, it’s called rGH I think – see here) if we felt that his projected short height could affect his self-confidence and ultimately, his mental health.
Unlike HGH in athletes, HGH used to treat medical conditions has clinically observable benefits. A child given HGH treatments will have an appreciable difference in height as an adult. The reader feels inclined to give his son the treatments, while the reader’s wife is appalled at the idea. When is it alright to use HGH to help your kid grow to a “normal” height? If you do “treat” a child’s shortness, does that mean it’s a disease? Read More
Did anyone out there raise their hand? If you did, I congratulate you. But, if you’re like me, a list of minor malfunctions and maladies that you’d love to fix popped up in your head. None of us are perfect, there is always something to improve. We are, after all, only human. And most of us would jump at a chance to improve some of those little issues.
The last time I went to the doctor’s office, the nurse who took my vitals said, “What are you doing here? You’re as healthy as they come!” That can hardly be true. I eat street-vendor food more often than I go to the gym. How can I be a picture of health? The fact is, I’m not. Just because I’m not ill (save the sniffles from the end of a cold) and not injured, doesn’t mean that I am, by default, as healthy as I could be.
For some bizarre reason, we don’t think about our bodies that way when it comes to health care and self improvement. We don’t pursue excellent health the way we strive to be better in our hobbies and work. So, where did we get the idea that mediocre health is good enough?
Floyd Landis wants to legalize doping in professional cycling. His argument is a reasonable one. Landis argues that, since everyone is doing it already and the tests will never keep up, might as well just legalize and regulate it instead of banning it entirely. Other cyclists and the governing bodies of competitive cycling have all but called Landis a complete nutter. Charges of doping brought against other cyclists, particularly Lance Armstrong, are met with refutations of “innocent until proven guilty.”
While I agree that doping should be allowed for cyclists, I disagree with the reason Landis gives:
You got to go about it another way and you’ve got to legalise doping. They [the testers] are so far behind in the testing organisations that there’s no way to change it now. Just accept that it’s here, that it’s not going away and that it’s just going to get more complicated and the fact that it’s not that complicated yet compared to what it will be. Ten years from now it’s going to be four times as hard as it now to test for things.
Laws and ethics are not based on what is easy and what is hard to control. They are based on standards of justice and what is ethically right. The reason I believe doping should be allowed is that I see nothing unjust or wrong about professional athletes using chemical compounds and medical knowledge to improve their abilities and performance. Let me rephrase that: there is nothing wrong with taking steroids.
It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.
A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.
With the headlines screaming “age-reversing” possibilities regarding the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University’s results with mice telomerase manipulation, I felt a bit of cold water was in order. I am as excited as can be about serious evidence for how important telomeres and telomerase is for anti-aging medicine, don’t get me wrong. But that evidence doesn’t mean there is going to be a longevity pill in our hands this year, this decade, or even this century. And more than a few folks with a grasp of science better than mine agree.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one. My fellow Discover blogger Jennifer Welsh has a great post on 80 Beats about why the discovery, though exciting, is far from a genuine anti-aging solution. The Harvard team showed the following. Mice engineered to lack telomerase aged prematurely. When given telomerase treatments, the mice rejuvenated to age-appropriate health without adverse side-effects. That’s it. That’s the extent of the discovery.
It still remains to be seen if telomerase treatments can delay normal aging, reverse normal aging, or extend life in any way in mice. From there scientists have to then figure out what side-effects there are, why those side-effects occur, and then somehow translate the results to human beings. In short, the Harvard team only confirmed the hypothesis that telomerase in mice impacts the aging process and that it may have potential uses in treating premature aging. Hypotheses beget hypotheses. And not all our hypotheses hinge on mice. Read More