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Immortality

[Photo: For Duane by Knuddelbacke]

I recently read a snippet in Discover magazine about a Tokyo University geneticist, Shinya Yamanaka, that has recently developed a chemical cocktail enabling the conversion of normal adult cells into an immortal stem cells. The resulting cells have the capability of living forever and morphing into any type of organ or tissue needing replacement in a sick or aging body.

Currently, the procedure only works a small percentage of the time and the effectiveness for human cells is still being determined. However, this story demonstrates that science's visionaries are working towards the time when home-grown stem cells can be implanted into sick patients in order to cure a variety of diseases.

Reading about this type of research makes me terribly uncomfortable. I can't pinpoint the exact reason why, but my gut reaction is that it is unnatural and unethical. I feel like we are tampering with the circle of life. Do we really want to witness the day when you can purchase a replacement heart or kidney in the supermarket along with your morning paper? Do we want to keep going and going like the energizer bunny? And we think the earth is overpopulated now!

What do you think our world would be like if humans were virtually disease free? Is it prudent and ethical to strive to create an immortal being? Would you choose to live "forever" if you had the choice?

However much medical care advances nature will find ways of thwarting these advances.
Nature is cleverer than we are.

Great point, Rob. I hadn't thought about in that sense.

I don't think that disease free means immortality. You can't replace the human brain.

My first concern would be the Earth's resources and the strain that overpopulation would cause those resources. Stem cells aren't going to do anything for the ozone. Space, water, disease, soon followed by nationally mandated initiatives to control the number of live births...

Opop would also strain social resources, too. After all, just because someone's still living doesn't mean they will be a productive member of society.

genderist, I think your statement, "After all, just because someone's still living doesn't meant they will be a productive member of society," makes a great point. I think that we struggle with this issue even today in deciding how far we should go to keep people alive via unnatural means such as machines and medicines.

Aha, Angela, but now you're into a very gray area... at what point are you going to draw the line at "unatural means"? Is dialysis okay if someone can be a "productive member of society" for two or three years, or using it as a means to get through transplant -- versus someone who will ultimately die of complications from kidney failure within 6 months? Are some heart medicines or surgeries okay, but people who can live on medications alone in the clear? What about cancer? Some cancers are treatable, but better treated if you're young and healthy -- not to mention the subtypes of cancer diagnoses that have better outcomes than their counterparts? Can we really say that some are okay to treat, but the others are "sentenced" to die (albeit as comfortable as medically possible) just because they were dealt a worse hand by fate?

That, my dear, is the real question.

My husband and I used to joke about what we called the "Darwin litmus test"... we'd be amused by people who are only alive today because of medical advances. These are the people who would not live very long if the zombie horror movie stories came true -- the people who are dependant on medications and treatments to keep them alive. In April of this year I became one of those people, as I am now dependant to get my thyroid hormones from a bottle... which means I have officially failed the Darwin litmus test. And it also means that if the zombies come, our first trip will be to one of the local pharmacies... :)

genderist, I agree that it is an extremely complicated issue with extensive moral and ethical components. I apologize if I implied that the issue is a trivial one. The issue is definitely not black and white, and certainly many shades of gray. It is also extremely personal and I don't think that anyone can truly speculate what their position is on the issue until they, or a loved one, are in such a circumstance.

I do feel that with the increasing number of natural and man made disasters, we will be forced to deal with these questions, just as you and the Hater have done for the zombie invasion! :)

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