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Monday, February 8, 2016

THE SCIENCE BEHIND OUR PROSPECTS FOR IMMORTALITY

My most popular posting this year has been:

HOW CLOSE IS SCIENCE TO STOPPING AGING?

This is Part 2 on the science behind curing aging, for why get old with dignity when we can someday become immortal...with dignity.

To repeat, more than six years ago I published in The Huffington Post an article entitled:


Huge advances have since been made, and science is at the threshold of taking that next crucial step, or not, of enhancing the human gene.  International summits on this subject always lead to a universal bioethical decision not to proceed with humans cloning, but....


Last month Science had an article on genetic engineering, which summarized current advancements in germline editing (modification of your unborn child's genes) and CRISPR (DNA-changing technology).  Bioethics was particularly emphasized, but to quote CalTech President David Baltimore (right):  The unthinkable has become conceivable.

There is the temptation to re-engineer genes to prevent birth defects.  There is appeal to utilize stem cells to cure diseases.  Therapeutic cloning appears to be gaining support, while reproductive cloning to enhance the child, as far as we know, generally remains verboten.

My early introduction to the subject came when I went to Stanford University and sat in on lectures by Joshua Lederberg, who in 1958 won a Nobel Prize for the recombination of genes.  He was the first to articulate on genetic engineering.  I might add that 20 years later he went on to become president of Rockefeller University, and last week I received an e-mail reporting that the current president of Rockefeller, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, was selected as the next president of Stanford.

Dolly the sheep in 1996 was cloned through somatic cell nuclear transfer.  Only two years later the first human clone was created using this technique, inserted into a cow's egg, developing into an embryo, which was destroyed after 12 days.

In 2008 Sternagen, a biotech company, created five mature human embryos from a skin cell, killing them off in their studies.  The next phase, it was announced, was to generate embryonic stem cells for cloning.  Much of the western world remains opposed to human cloning, mostly for religious reasons, but, certainly, too, there are also huge moral issues at play.

Boyalife Group, a Chinese company, will have a fully functioning animal cloning facility by mid-year and their chief executive, Xu Xiaochun (right), indicated that human cloning awaited the world's approval.  The Sooam Biotech Research Foundation of South Korea has of course already perfected dog cloning, and questions are being asked about what else they're doing.  Eight years ago Singapore allowed human cloning for research.

Seventy countries have banned human cloning.  The UK prohibits human cloning, but allows for therapeutic cloning.  There is no law in the USA, although the abortion debate makes Federal funding essentially impossible.  Companies and universities are free to experiment at their own expense.
It's becoming more and more clear that human cloning will someday occur as commonplace.  Certainly, if a country feels threatened or sees value in being "progressive" to gain a financial or next generation edge, there is very little to stop it.  Your imagination can run wild.  Will humans be engineered to ultimately become microscopic to preserve resources?  Sure, there are Mars and a  hundred billion stars with their trillions of planets in our observable Universe, but the energy/time factor could well limit Homo sapiens to Planet Earth.

But then, if you can be cloned, how do you retain your memory?  A hint is provided in my HuffPo on:  Science and the Future of Cloning:  Is Immortality Possible?  The ramifications, perils, opportunities and uncertainties are provocatively beguiling.  Return for Part #3 on what life might be like in a world of immortals.

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