But probably not!
You see, I was merely quoting Margaret Somerville, the Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Canada. In addition to thinking gay marriage is bad for the kids, Somerville really does not like transhumanists. She thinks that personhood is the “world’s most dangerous idea,” (sounds vaguely familiar) because if aliens, animals and robots have rights too, we won’t value humans anymore. In her recent piece, calmly titled “Scary Science Could Cause Human Extinction” Somerville makes a strange argument about xenotransplants (i.e. organ transplants). First, she beats up on transhumanists and our support of life-extension. She attempts to link life-extention with genetically modified animal organ transplants. She then argues that the transplants will, get this, cause a mutant virus leading to a global pandemic obliterating humanity. I am not joking:
[Using genetically modified pig-hybrid organs] poses a risk, not only to transplant recipients, their sexual partners, and their families, but also, possibly, to the public as a whole. An animal virus or other infective agent could be transferred to humans, with potentially tragic results – not just for the person who received the organ but for other people, who could subsequently be infected. And there might be a very remote possibility that it could wipe out the human race.
Somerville’s argument abuses the word “potentially” and its synonyms in a desperate attempt to draw a link in the reader’s mind between xenotransplants and a cataclysmic plague. Human-to-human disease transmission during transplants is extremely low, and the genetic differences between humans and animals, even hybrids, would lower the risk all the more. Martine Rothblatt, (a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) wrote a whole book, Your Life or Mine, addressing the fears around xenotransplantaion. In short, Somerville’s concerns about xenotransplantation are not based in science, but in bioLuddite hysteria. Somerville’s case against xenotransplantation is in terminal condition already, and things only get worse from here.
The world is getting old. Most developed nations have an aging population that outnumbers the young ‘uns. Ted C. Fishman’s new book, Shock of Gray, argues that this huge wave of elderly just might change the world. Recently interviewed at Salon, Fishman talked about a potential anti-agism civil rights movement, globalization fueled by young people immigration (get on my lawn?), and my favorite old-person related topic, super-longevity:
Our life span averages have leaped in the past century, as you point out, and I wonder if you think there’s a point where we’ll hit a ceiling. Now that you’ve read the science, is there really a possibility for immortality?
I only read the science as a layman and I can only tell you who I trust, which is based on emotional signals as much as empirical ones. I do think maybe eventually we’ll be able to reengineer the human body so that it’s some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever. But in the lifetime of anybody who’s reading the book, I think there are big limits to the expansion of the human life span. Our genetic makeup is such that the genes that help us grow when we’re young tend to turn against us as we get old.
[What's] more important than antioxidants [for extending our lives]?
I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. But looking over all the places where longevity is more common, sociability is a telling characteristic. Antioxidants might be very promising, but this is the cycle of all promises of anti-aging — hype and debunking, hype, debunking. But we do know what the sure things are. Public health, sociability and literacy.
Those last three pieces - public health, sociability, and literacy – would seem to rule out most of the “eat this food, not that food” logic around longevity. Combine that with advice of the oldest twins in Britain, to enjoy “laughter and having a joke with each other” and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for long life: read a bunch, hang out and laugh with friends, and live somewhere nice. That is a set of goals I can shoot for with gusto.
I do, however, hope that, as Fishman says, we might be able to “reengineer the human body so that it’s some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever.” While we’re waiting for that to happen, it seems the key to living a long time is to just enjoying being alive. Maybe if I enjoy being alive long enough, I’ll live to see super-longevity become a reality. Then I can enjoy being alive for a really, really long time. On that note, I’m going to go read a book and have a laugh.
Image from manuel | MC on Flickr
By bringing the field of photovoltaics into medicine, researchers hope to create a far more precise method of drug delivery for fighting cancer. That’s right: this cancer cure involves tiny photovoltaic particles like the kind used in solar cells.
One of the major drawbacks of chemotherapy is that it damages far more of the body than just the malignant tumors it’s used to fight. In order to target just the cancerous areas, and not hit everything on the way there, researchers from the University of Texas in El Paso created a tiny solar cell. They attached model drugs to each side of the cell, one of which was positively charged, the other negatively. Once the tiny solar devices are in the body, doctors would blast the tumor with an infrared laser, causing the pholtovoltaic particles to release the drugs.
For years, researchers have been using fluorescent proteins in bacteria and animals to study everything from gene therapy and neural development to cancer and limb regeneration (and create some very pretty pictures). The concept is fairly simple: by inserting the gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein, originally found in jellyfish) at the end of another gene—say the gene for hemoglobin—its glow can be used to measure how much hemoglobin is produced and where it is produced in the cell.
Inspired by the success of GFP as a research tool (it earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008), scientists have adopted a similar approach to identify and locate transplanted stem cells in animal models. Except in their case, they’ve begun to use the gene for luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the mesmerizing glow of the firefly. And if this method works, it could make stem cells a potent tool for addressing heart disease.
I have seen the future, and it is cilia. Yes, you read that right: those trillions of tiny hair-like extensions that carpet every inch of your body could bring scientists’ visions of a universal class of “smart” materials that change and adapt when subjected to various stimuli closer to reality. These artificial cilia could one day do everything from testing drugs and monitoring air quality to measuring glucose levels and detecting electromagnetic fields.
While largely ignored over the past century (or, at best, dismissed as being purely vestigial), scientists are finally beginning to appreciate the many vital functions they perform in and outside of our bodies. Much like an antenna or sensor, cilia gather information from their surroundings and react—by activating a cellular process or shutting down cell growth, for example—if something seems amiss. They can also act as miniature roads or railways, carrying dirt, bacteria and other noxious materials out of our lungs or shuttling a fertilized egg from the ovary to the uterus. And, perhaps most importantly, cilia make it possible for us to see, hear, smell, and otherwise feel the outside world.
Now some researchers believe that cilia-like structures could bring their sensory prowess to medicine, environmental monitoring and a number of other fields. Leading the charge is Marek Urban of the University of Southern Mississippi who has created a copolymer film with hair-like filaments that mimics the functions of normal cilia. Read More
The engineered ovary after 48 hours.
For many cancer patients, treatment can be a double-edged sword. While recent advances in chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery have brought relief to millions of sufferers, a significant fraction have had to sacrifice their ability to have children in return. Going under the knife or being bombarded by high-energy rays—though often critical for therapy—can sometimes irreparably damage a woman’s eggs or man’s testes, robbing them of their fertility. To say that this leaves young patients pondering therapy with an unenviable set of choices would be something of an understatement.
Fortunately, thanks to some groundbreaking work by researchers from Brown University, female patients may soon never have to make this most difficult of decisions. A team led by Sandra Carson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, has built the first synthetic human ovary from scratch by cobbling together the three cell lines involved in egg development—the theca cells, granulosa cells, and egg cells themselves—into a fully three-dimensional honeycomb-shaped structure.
Researchers’ new-found interest in frogs may only be skin-deep, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because hidden within their rugose (science-ese for “wrinkled”) flesh may lie a bumper crop of powerful antibiotics. Though hardly a secret among researchers, who’ve been singing their praises as a potential treasure trove for new drugs for years, efforts to systematically catalog—or even investigate—the thousands of amphibians that could yield promising new antimicrobial substances have been few and far between.
Having already become a ubiquitous part of our mobile-centric daily lives, wireless technologies are now poised to slip inside our bodies. Researchers and companies around the world are designing the next generation of biosensors—implantable microchip-like devices that can monitor a patient’s health and ping doctors on their smartphones or computers if something is amiss. One day, some of these devices could even apply short-term fixes or treat disorders outright.
The major challenge that scientists face is developing a sensor that is both long-lived and biocompatible. The human body is extremely picky about implants, and will quickly reject or react poorly to most materials found in everyday electronics. Even the materials that make peace with the body’s immune system, like those found in pacemakers, are not always ideal. Some require constant maintenance, while others need to be replaced every few days and are inconvenient to install, to say the least.
The neurons of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s.
You may not be consciously aware of it, but at any given time your brain is playing host to billions of simultaneous conversations (and no, I’m not talking about those voices). I speak, of course, of the conversations between your neurons—the incessant neural jabbering that makes it possible for you to move your limbs, learn, remember, and feel pain. Every time we experience a new sensation or form a memory, millions of electrical and chemical signals are propagated across dense networks of axons and jump from one synapse to the next, building new neuronal connections or strengthening existing ones. And they are constantly changing—forming and reforming associations with other neurons in response to how the brain perceives and processes new bits of information.
Despite being central to our understanding of how the brain functions, these neural chats remain largely a mystery to scientists. What exactly are the individual neurons “saying” to each other? And how do these electrical and chemical “messages” become translated into actions, memories, or a range of other complex behaviors? To help decipher these discussions, a team of researchers from the University of Calgary led by bioengineer Naweed Syed have built a silicon microchip embedded with large networks of brain cells. The idea is to get the brain cells to “talk” to the millimeter-square chip—and then have the chip talk to the scientists through a computer interface.
“Who wants to live forever?” Freddie Mercury asks on behalf of the Highlander. Michio Kaku (whom you should be reading because he’s wonderful) has started a two-part investigation over at Big Think on just that query. The cliché question comes from the basic problem of living a long time: no one wants to die, but no one wants to get old either. Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Weiner‘s new book Long For This World examines the science and scientists of gerontologology (aging). Stanford University professor of internal medicine Abraham Verghese reviewed Long For This World in The New York Times and was inspired by Weiner’s discussion of longevity. Verghese reflects on his own experience with terminally ill patients:
As a young physician caught up in the early years of the H.I.V. epidemic, I was struck by my patients’ will to live, even as their quality of life became miserable and when loved ones and caregivers would urge the patient to let go. I thought it remarkable that patients never asked me to help end their lives (and found it strange that Dr. Kevorkian managed to encounter so many who did). My patients were dying young and felt cheated out of their best years. They did not want immortality, just the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect. What de Grey and other immortalists seem to have lost sight of is that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal. Partial success in extending life might simply extend the years of infirmity and suffering — something that to some degree is already happening in the West.
I cannot get over the logic Verghese displays here. He notes the will of people to live in spite of suffering and lowered quality of life. The patients merely wanted “the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect.” Does he mean the life span science and civilization has already artificially extended fifty years beyond biological design? How does one differentiate between a 30-year-old who wants to be healthy enough to live to fifty and a 90-year-old who wants to be healthy enough to live to be over 100? Verghese is unable to reconcile the desire to live with a terminally low quality of life. The goal of anti-aging is not to simply increase the number of years a person spends alive; instead, the goal is to make every year, even into mid and late life, as healthy and youthful as possible.