August 13, 2004

Stem Cells – What's All The Fuss About?

If you are wondering how a subject as arcane as stem cells has become so politically energized in the last couple of weeks, make sure to catch the analysis over at FightAging.org:

1) The aim of stem cell research is to produce a biological repair kit, tools that will allow age- and illness-damaged tissue to be repaired or replaced. These tools, coupled with effective cancer therapies, will greatly extend our healthy life spans and bring cures for all the most common degenerative diseases.

2) It is probably the case that scientists would eventually make as much progress using only adult stem cells - several extra intervening steps would be required, but it is conceptually possible. It is widely agreed that progress towards a full biological repair kit would be much faster due to embryonic stem cell research.

3) Time matters a great deal. More than 100,000 lives are lost worldwide each and every day precisely because we don't have a biological repair kit complete with therapies for the most common age-related conditions.

Read the whole thing.

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August 11, 2004

UK Grants "License To Clone"


Spurred on by South Korea's achievement last February, today the United Kingdom granted a license to Newcastle University to clone a human being.

Researchers at Newcastle hope to extract embryonic stem cell from the clone and then create insulin-producing cells to be transplanted into diabetics.

"Therapeutic cloning will in the immediate future be a vital tool in harnessing the power of stem cells to treat some of the major diseases which threaten humankind," John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said after the license was announced. "This decision is a signal of our society's compassion and concern for those threatened by disease."
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August 03, 2004

I.T. And Your M.D.

We are about to witness a new race in diagnostic testing. Two companies, Ciphergen and Correlogic, are championing similar but competing methods of testing blood proteins for cancer.

The first step is to use a mass spectrometer to identify a protein profile in the blood. The complex pattern produced by the spectrometer has until recently proved impractical for cancer diagnosis. There was just too much information to process. But now, both Ciphergen and Correlogic hope to extract useful information from this data by applying pattern recognition algorithms borrowed from AI research.

[The Correlogic test] correctly identified 50 out of 50 women with cancer and correctly scored negative for 63 out of 66 unaffected women. Later given the name OvaCheck, it promised to be the first blood test accurate enough to be used for general ovarian-cancer screening…

Meanwhile, Wright's group [Ciphergen] in Virginia was also pushing ahead. Using a different algorithm, Wright and Eastern Virginia molecular biologist John Semmes showed that a protein pattern could distinguish prostate cancer from a common noncancerous condition, benign prostatic hypertrophy, in 25 out of 30 cases. The PSA test [the current state of the art], by contrast, is unable to distinguish the two conditions.

The goal is early detection. If a routine blood test can diagnose cancer while it is in its earliest stages, cancer survival rates could skyrocket.

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July 29, 2004

Francis Crick has Died

Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the double-helix structure of DNA, has died at age 88.

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July 27, 2004

Lung Cancer Gene?

Researchers may have isolated (or may be close to isolating) the gene that determines susceptibility to lung cancer:

The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium (GELCC) examined 52 families who had at least three first-degree family members affected by lung, throat or laryngeal cancer. Of these 52 families, 36 had affected members in at least two generations. Using 392 known genetic markers, which are DNA sequences that are known to be common sites of genetic variation, the researchers generated and then compared the alleles (the different variations each gene can take) of all affected and non-affected family members who were willing to participate in the study.

First off, this is good news because it should provide some additional impetus for some people not to smoke. As the article explains:

Another interesting discovery the team made involved the effects of smoking on cancer risk for carriers and non-carriers of the predicted familial lung cancer gene. They found that in non-carriers, the more they smoked, the greater their risk of cancer. In carriers, on the other hand, any amount of smoking increased lung cancer risk. These findings suggest that smoking even a small amount can lead to cancer for individuals with inherited susceptibility.

Sure, many will argue that you would have to be crazy to smoke, anyway. Maybe the knowledge that you carry this gene would be enough to scare a long-time smoker into quitting; maybe not. But you would really have to be crazy to know that you carry this gene and go ahead and start smoking anyway.

Additionally, this news suggests a possible path to gene therapy treatments that could be used to prevent, maybe one day even cure, lung cancer. Great stuff.

Hat tip: M104 member and co-blogger Kathy Hanson

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July 26, 2004

Mother's Little Helper

FuturePundit Randall Parker reports that pregnant women often receive stem-cell therapy from the children they are carrying. Not only that, mothers (past and present) may turn out to be one of the best sources for fetal stem cells:

It is possible that many years after a pregnancy there are no longer cells in the mother's body that are fetal and capable of becoming all cell types. But a better point at which to try to catch fetal cells from the blood stream of women would be while they are still pregnant or perhaps shortly after giving birth. If fully pluripotent stem cells can be isolated from the blood of pregnant women then this may well provide a source for such cells that will not raise religious hackles.

Randall notes a certain irony:

A confirmation of this result poses what seems to me an ethical problem for the religious opponents of embryonic stem cell research. If developing embryos effectively are donating human embryonic stem cells (hESC) to mothers and literally doing cell therapy to mothers then this natural process is doing something that at least some hESC therapy opponents consider to be morally repugnant.

It will be interesting to see where the various hESC research opponents come down on this result. Will they oppose the extraction of embryonic stem cells from a mother's blood while she is pregnant. If so, on what moral basis?

My guess is that a large fraction of the hESC research opponents will decide that extraction of hESC from a mother's blood is morally acceptable. No fetus will be killed by the extraction. The cells so extracted are not cells that would go on to become a complete new human life. If a sizable portion of the religious hESC opponents can be satisfied by this approach for acquiring hESC then Bianchi's research may well lead to a method to get hESC that will open the gates to a much larger effort to develop therapies based on hESC.

Read the whole thing, including the comments. One reader observes that the opponents of stem cell research may spin this into a victory for their side, which might put the future of therapeutic cloning in jeopardy. This may be. On the other hand, if a means of acquiring embryonic stem cells can be developed that is acceptable to both sides of the debate, who's to say that a mutually agreeable form of cloning (or a subsitute procedure providing the same benefits) can't be developed?

One thing is for sure: it will prove a lot easier to "win" the stem cell debate by coming up with a solution that both sides like than it would have been to get one side to agree that we should walk away, or the other side to agree that it's okay to kill an embryo. There's a lot to be said for the win-win scenario.

Posted by Phil at 09:10 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

An Open Letter to Peggy Noonan

Dear Peggy

I've always looked forward to reading your columns in the Wall Street Journal. You have been a consistent source of information and inspiration. I was therefore extremely disappointed to read your most recent piece, ("Bada Bing? Bada Boom."), dated May 13.

While I agree with and share your fears about the dangers of terrorism on US soil, I found your views on the (completely unrelated) subject of human cloning to be both ill-informed and wrong-headed.

Specifically, you wrote:

Whenever I think of cloning, I think of Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. He quoted the Bible to Richard Nixon's malefactors: "God is not mocked." Indeed he is not. Once we can have cloning, we will have cloning. Once we can have cloning we'll be cloning replacement-part humans to make new hearts for aging baby boomers. We'll throw the rest away, or mine these beings for other organs and elixirs. Once we have cloning, we'll start growing cloned armies. Why shouldn't they fight for us? Once we have cloning, a lot of things will happen, including that we'll be opening the mouth of hell.

As scary as the "dirty nuke in Port Newark" scenario is, I find that I am nearly as chilled by the scientific illiteracy displayed in the above quote. It would appear that you have learned everything you know about the subject from watching the Star Wars movies.

Cloned armies, indeed.

There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. How precisely this will open up the "mouth of hell" is unclear.

Reproductive cloning raises serious moral and ethical issues, but "cloned armies" is not one of them. The ability to produce armies would require not cloning, but a technique popular in (uninformed) science fiction movies that might properly be called Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats. That I know of, no one is currently working on developing that technology — not even in New Jersey.

Peggy, you are too serious a journalist and too valuable a voice to entertain such nonsense. If you would take some time to learn what cloning is really all about, I'm sure that you would have something significant to say about both the potential risks and the potential benefits of this technology.

In the mean time, I suggest you stick to subjects you're more familiar with.

Your Faithful Reader,

Phil Bowermaster

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May 03, 2004

Cellular Competence

A pair of stem cell stories out today demonstrates the broad impact that stem cell technology will have on medicine:
Research that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology 56th Annual Meeting in San Francisco, Calif., April 24 – May 1, 2004, shows that cells taken from adult human bone marrow can be converted into brain stem cells that meet the criteria for transplantation into the brain.
Also today, scientists from King's College, London announced success in getting mice to grow new permanent teeth from stem cell packets injected into the gums.
The procedure is fairly simple. Doctors take stem cells from the patient. These are unique in their ability to form any of the tissues that make up the body. By carefully nurturing the stem cells in a laboratory, scientists can nudge the cells down a path that will make them grow into a tooth. After a couple of weeks, the ball of cells, known as a bud, is ready to be implanted. Tests reveal what type of tooth - for example, a molar or an incisor - the bud will form.
The scientists involved see no reason why this technology can't be adapted for humans.

Both of these stories beg the question "how does the stem cell know how to incorporate itself into the body?" In both of these cases the stem cells are coaxed by scientists into becoming brain cells or tooth cells, but such cells would be useless on their own. Brain cells have to interact with other brain cells. Tooth cells need to work with other tooth cells and the surrounding tissue in order to form a healthy tooth. How is this accomplished?

William Atkinson touched on the answer in the last chapter of his book, "Nanocosm."

My only problem with "Nanocosm" was Atkinson's relentless criticism of Eric Drexler (I posted on it here and here). It took me awhile to understand the disagreement. Atkinson accepted the possibility of self-assembling nanofactories, so what was his problem with Drexler?

Finally Atkinson explained his real disagreement with Drexler - the issue of control. If Atkinson's characterization of Drexler's position is correct, Drexler believes that we will be able to micromanage the work of the molecular assemblers.

Atkinson argued that such top down control is not practical (you can't micromanage the work of millions of molecular assemblers) or even possible. Certainly, nature doesn't attempt to micromanage the work of cells. Our brains are not in control of cellular activity within our body. The cells have to be autonomous workers – cellular automata that know their place within the overall scheme of things. Atkinson suggests that in this respect our molecular assemblers must emulate life.

Consider the nautilus. This beautiful structure was self-assembled at the molecular level. How? The mathematical description of this structure is incredibly complex. Do the cells understand the complex mathematics involved? No. Then how was it done?

The nautilus develops from the innermost chamber out. According to Atkinson the cells that build these chambers follow a simple program not unlike the following:

If prior chamber = nonexistent, then build chamber size A

If prior chamber = existent, then build chamber size 110% of prior chamber size
These two lines of code give every nautilus cell much of the information needed to perform a very complex task. This is a simple, elegant solution to a difficult problem. All multicellular organisms require their cells to have some competence in the overall design of the organism, their place within it, and the activity of their neighbors.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:08 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 13, 2004

Respecting Life

M104 Posse member Kathy claims to be afflicted by "BiPolar Political Affective Disorder." You might be suffering from BiPPAD if...
You volunteer at Birthright International and you're keeping an open mind about stem cell research."

People that share these viewpoints are rare, but they shouldn't be. Both viewpoints show a respect for life. The vast majority of Americans would give some legal protection to the unborn at some point in the pregnancy. For example, most Americans were troubled by the partial-birth abortion procedure.

The key battleground is where society says that human life begins.

Clearly, both the sperm and egg are alive and they have the potential of being part of a new human, but few would offer legal protection to gametes. The crude and hilarious "Every Sperm is Sacred" song is effective satire because almost nobody would adopt that thinking.

Most pro-lifers would say that human life begins at conception. The famous stem cell researcher Dr. Michael West is sympathetic to the pro-life position, but in his book The Immortal Cell he argues for a different starting point for human life. Human life, he says, begins at differentiation.

Before differentiation a fertilized egg might fail to develop (as occurs when the fertilized egg is unsuccessful in attaching to the uterine wall - this happens about half of the time). Or the fertilized egg might become a single human. It could become two humans in the case of identical twins. A fertilized egg might even become part of a human in the rare case of a chimera – where two fertilized eggs develop together into a single embryo.

If a fertilized egg has the potential in nature of being no human, part of a human, one human, or two humans, the destiny of a fertilized egg is objectively undetermined – much like the undetermined nature of the gametes that formed it.

Once differentiation has occurred the destiny is fixed. The fertilized egg is now one human, two humans, or part of a human. After that point Dr. West argues that the embryo(s) have crossed a medical threshold – the beginning of individual human life.

If you accept Dr. West's argument, then you can be a rare thing - a pro-lifer that supports embryonic stem cell research. Why? Because the most valuable stem cells must be harvested before differentiation - before human life begins.

A pro-lifer's respect for human life should not end at birth. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to alleviate the pain of those suffering from disease. It could even led to treatment for the universal condition of aging. These noble goals demand careful consideration of when human life begins.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:35 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 30, 2004

It's Life Jim

...but not as we know it.

Biology is about to begin an important new era. All known life is descended from a single instance of genesis that occurred about 3.5 billion years ago. This is about to change.

[M]ethane has a relatively short lifetime on Mars for atmospheric gases, about 300 years or so, scientists believe there must be some process at work to keep replenishing its concentration in the atmosphere.

On Earth, methane is belched into the air during volcanic eruptions. It seeps out from fissures in the crust. And it is expelled by methanogenic bacteria as a waste product. While the idea of subterranean microbes living just under the Martian surface is attractive, Mars researchers are hesitant to put the full weight of their belief behind it...

[Vladimir Krasnopolosky, a researcher with the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.] said while he believes that Martian microbes are the most likely methane culprits, he cannot definitely rule out other factors. It is just as possible, he said, that methane formed in Martian volcanoes and outgassed through primordial surface vents, or even crashed down onto the planet during comet and meteorite impacts.
And if that doesn't pan out, there is the strong possibility that scientists will create life from inert chemicals.
More than 3.5 billion years after nature transformed non-living matter into living things, populating Earth with a cornucopia of animals and plants, scientists say they are finally ready to try their hand at creating life...

[S]cientists say for the first time that they have just about all the pieces they need to begin making inanimate chemicals come alive.

Unlike any other technology invented by humans, creating artificial life will be as jarring to our concepts of ourselves as discovering living creatures on other planets in the universe would be. It also would bring into sharper focus the age-old questions of "What is life?" and "Where do we come from?"

"If we could make life, we would have a new insight into how to make things more complicated," he [Mark Bedau, professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and editor-in-chief of the Artificial Life Journal] said. "We could apply these principles in other areas. Life is very, very complicated, but it also repairs itself, it organizes itself and it adapts spontaneously to changes. It would be nice to have a space shuttle that can do those things or a telephone switching network that can grow and adapt in an organic way."
With either development, our notions about life as a phenomenon will be challenged, and we will learn much about what it takes for life to arise.

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March 26, 2004

Brian Alexander's "Rapture"

Brian Alexander has written a fascinating book entited Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion. The book is a tour of the history of the science, the speculation (starting with H.G. Wells), the "true believers," the opponents, and the public policy that are forming the future.

The book is almost a multi-biography. The lives of important figures in this fight are sketched in detail. Figures like William Haseltine, Michael West, John Sperling (the portion of the book covering Sperling was reworked into this Wired article), and yes, Dr. Leon Kass.

Alexander covers in detail how the backwater field of biology became the sexiest place in science. He also points out the places that have bogged the process down politically. He argues, for example, that the field of reproductive cloning has yielded little scientific fruit but has ended up costing us in the area of stem cell research. In fact, the political price for Dolly's birth has been the rise of Dr. Kass and the bioluddites.

On page 225 Alexander sums up the theme of his book within this paragraph:
"Despite all the bad news coming out of biotech, the belief in a paradisaical transubstantiated future is as strong as ever among those who have always believed and it has spread, thanks to the power of the biotech idea. The faith has been made enduring by almost a century of speculation. In the twenty-five years since the dawn of biotech, the speculation has turned into public relations, the clay of raw science shaped into companies. Venture capital has breathed life into the companies and biotech has enlisted everyone by going public and proselytizing the coming miracles. Never before in human history have people been so sure that science - not magic, not God - was about to mine the secrets of nature and turn them over to human beings. This is new. It's a religion in its own right and it is making converts."
Whether what we futurists are practicing is a new religion or not is debatable. Personally, I am not ready to toss out God just yet. While some within the movement would probably have no problem with the comparison, I would argue that what is developing is areligious. It's not anti-religion or pro-religion, it is something apart from religion.

Religious faith requires belief in things not seen. This new biotech faith requires extrapolation from things that are seen and known. In short, it requires a willingness to speculate. A willingness to consider things that may or may not come to pass.

Consideration and debate should take place now, even though it may seem a little hokey, because there may not be time for the debates later. The developments will be coming too fast then.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:33 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Kass: Too Weird to Trust

We, on the other hand, with our dissection of cadavers, organ transplantation, cosmetic surgery, body shops, laboratory fertilization, surrogate wombs, gender-change surgery, "wanted" children, "rights over our bodies," sexual liberation, and other practices and beliefs that insist on our independence and autonomy, live more and more wholly for the here and now, subjugating everything we can to the exercise of our wills, with little respect for the nature and meaning of bodily life.

--Leon R. Kass, Toward a More Natural Science via The American Prospect
He has a problem with the dissection of cadavers? Did Dr. Kass go to medical school before the Renaissance?

The fact that Dr. Kass actually holds a position on the eating of ice cream in public (never mind that it's a negative position) is bizarre enough to be humorous. But his personal convictions about accepted medical practices are dangerous because he is in a position of power.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:22 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 16, 2004

Coming True Already?

One of my speculations yesterday was that "scientists perfect methods of obtaining stem cells from adult humans without having to create and destroy an embryo."

Kurzweil points today to this article entitled, "Cells Induced to “De-Differentiate” Back into Stem Cells."
For the first time, researchers have induced differentiating cells to revert to being stem cells. Although such de-differentiation is known to occur in natural systems, scientists had never before mimicked the process in the laboratory. The researchers said their achievement with the fruit fly Drosophila suggests that de-differentiation should be explored as yet another route to generating stem cells for therapeutic purposes.
You'll want to read the whole thing.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 07:35 AM | Comments (51) | TrackBack

March 10, 2004

Having My Baby - Eventually

Yet another field of study that stem cell research could benefit - female fertility.
Scientists say they have found stem cells in mouse ovaries that apparently generate new eggs well into adulthood. If similar cells are found in women, they could lead to treatments to postpone menopause or restore fertility…
The embryonic stem cell funding ban would not effect the study of stem cells taken from the ovaries of adult women. But this could still be important politically. Men are, more or less fertile throughout their lives. Women are not. This natural inequality could not be addressed before. If science "cures" menopause this will expand the trend of women postponing families in favor of careers.

The political and social effects would be similar to that felt after the invention of the "pill."

UPDATE: NPR just ran a segment on this story.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:47 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 05, 2004

Is it Just Me

...or is this a little scary?

The parts for a DNA synthesizer can now be purchased for approximately $10,000. By 2010 a single person will be able to sequence or synthesize 10^10 bases a day. Within a decade a single person could sequence or synthesize all the DNA describing all the people on the planet many times over in an eight-hour day or sequence his or her own DNA within seconds. Given the power and threat of biological technologies, the only way to ensure safety in the long run is to push research and development as fast as possible. Open and distributed networks of researchers would provide an intelligence gathering capability and a flexible and robust workforce for developing technology.

I don't think it's possible to read that without all kinds of alarm bells going off, and well they should. But the potential upside of this capability is staggering. Even if none of the expected developments in nanomedecine pan out (which is unlikely), medicine is going to unrecognizable in 10-15 years.


via Ray Kurzweil

Posted by Phil at 12:39 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

March 03, 2004

Harvard Generates 17 New Stem Cell Lines

The new lines appear to offer a number of advantages over the 15 or so lines currently available to federally funded scientists under Bush's policy, and the research community already is abuzz about the opportunities these new cells present for the field of regenerative medicine.
The sad thing is that this will probably not be much of a campaign issue. The American people need to be told why this is so important. And it can't be done in sound bites.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:04 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 29, 2004

New Harvard Stem Cell Research Center

This is proving to be a big weekend for stem cell news. The Boston Globe is reporting this morning that Harvard University will be announcing this April the launch of a new center for the production and study of human embryonic stem cells.
Though not housed in a central building, the initiative will be large, even by Harvard standards, with a fund-raising goal of about $100 million, according to the scientists involved...

"Harvard has the resources, Harvard has the breadth, and, frankly, Harvard has the responsibility to be taking up the slack that the government is leaving," said Dr. George Q. Daley, who is involved in planning the initiative and is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital in Boston.
U.S. Scientists are accustomed to being on the cutting edge of scientific research. It is really not surprising that there is a growing backlash against the Bush administration's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 11:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sneaking It In

Reason at longevity meme points to news about the Council on Bioethics.

Late Friday (the time at which Presidents do things that they don't want covered too closely in the news) the President fired Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. William May from the President's Council on Bioethics. These individuals had voiced opinions in favor of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
The new members of the panel are Dr. Benjamin Carson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a pediatric neurologist; Peter Lawler, a government professor at Berry College in George; and Diana Schaub, a political scientist at Loyola College of Maryland.
These replacements are known to be against stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Schaub has called the practice "slavery plus abortion."

This is profoundly disappointing. I'm particularly discouraged by the firing of Dr. May. Dr. May is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and is known as an outspoken Christian bioethicist. As a Christian, Dr. May could have voiced to Bush the viewpoint that embryonic stem cell research is compatible with the Christian faith.

Blogger Chris Mooney writes,
We now know how President Bush responds to highly publicized charges that he's stacking scientific advisory panels: He gives his critics the finger and stacks another one.
I don't think this is about giving critics "the finger." A smart politician never does anything that will energize the opposition without some benefit to his own agenda. Bush's move is a response to recent actions by New Jersey. In January New Jersey passed a stem cell law that outlaws reproductive cloning and promotes embryonic stem cell research.
When New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey signed a stem cell bill this week [January 8, 2004], the state became only the second in the United States—after California—to pass legislation specifically outlawing reproductive cloning and promoting human embryonic stem cell research. Scientists around the state hailed the law as a big step forward for their work.
Presumably Bush would be in favor of outlawing reproductive cloning. New Jersey is now one of the few states to have a law that prohibits this. But then New Jersey chose last Tuesday to fund stem cell research after Bush very publicly defunded it.
"Today [February 24], I propose to go where no other state has gone—to invest state funds in your courage and the hopes of so many families—with the creation of a new research institute, the New Jersey Institute for Stem Cell Research," said [Governor] McGreevey in his budget address.
When making policy on matters as important as stem cell research it's crucial for the President to hear all viewpoints - unless he's already made up his mind. That's the problem here. Bush has made up his mind and isn't interested in hearing opposing views anymore. He wants justification for the policy he's decided on. He wants to be able to say to Congress "This bill I'm sponsoring is supported 100% by my Council on Bioethics."

We are getting a glimpse of what Bush intends to do in his second term regarding therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research. It's no longer sufficient that the research is not federally funded. Now that individual states are showing a willingness to pick up this slack, he is preparing to outlaw it nationally. Why else would he care so much about the composition of the Council on Bioethics?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 07:00 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 16, 2004

If There Wasn't a War On

...and if I were a little more of a single-issue kind of guy, this fact alone might put me in the Kerry camp this November:

Many people, like President Bush, want to stop all human cloning, even for research, because of a moral objection to destroying embryos and a fear that maverick fertility doctors might adopt researchers' tricks to create babies. A bill that would ban all cloning has bogged down in Congress, and a similar ban has faltered in the United Nations. That's because other folks--including Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee for president--want to permit research cloning while forbidding baby making.

Read the whole article, which once again — true to form — spends more time on reproductive cloning than therapeutic cloning, even though the Korean researchers were specifically working on the latter and are opposed to the former.

As I said, there's a war on and we have to keep our eyes on the prize. But I resent the fact that four more years of Bush means four years of getting further behind in an area that is so central to human progress.

Posted by Phil at 10:46 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

February 15, 2004

DNA: Less Junk Than Was Thought?

We have discovered a "book" written in an unfamiliar language. We have nothing in common culturally with the authors. In fact, the authors aren't even human. Except for occasional "periods" and start-reading-here "marks," there is no punctuation. There are no breaks betweenthewords.

But because this book is so important teams of interpreters have been pouring over the "book" for years. The interpreters have discovered that the authors were linguistic pack-rats - "cutting" and "pasting" as needed, and often failing to delete unused passages. So, much of the "book" has been found to be gibberish - especially those parts between a "period" and a start-reading-here mark. But other parts have been thought to be meaningless too.

Most of the interpreters have been studying the book in isolation - they've never actually used the language practically. And so it's not surprising to learn that we've been underestimating the amount of useful information in the "book."

Scientists studying the Drosophila melanogaster fly genome have found approximately 2,600 additional genes than were previously known by combining in silico (raw computer data) with "wet biology" (practical use of the language).

One problem with the old method was that scientists were looking for genes that coded for proteins that were already known (and perhaps are common to many species). This new method leads to the discovery of new genes, AND new proteins.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:39 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 13, 2004

More on Human Cloning

...over on Fight Aging! Check it out.

Posted by Phil at 09:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 12, 2004

The Ethics of Cloning

While science progresses exponentially, ethics is advancing at the same rate it always has – the rate at which society can absorb the implications of change and accept, reject, or accommodate it. Ethics is always controlled by the story a society would like to tell about itself. Every society wants to be able to think of itself as just and righteous. The extent to which there is an agreed ethos is the extent to which there is societal agreement as to what constitutes justice and righteousness.

All ethics are not equal. If a society thinks it is ethical to perform genital mutilations on girls to keep them chaste, then they are wrong. Why? This is oppression. Oppression is both subjectively and objectively inferior to freedom. The individual is denied the right to pursue happiness, and society is denied the fruits of that pursuit.

The United States is uniquely blessed ethically. The founding fathers created a system of government that is both remarkably stable and remarkably capable of continued perfection – the never ending pragmatic search for a more perfect union.

Improvement is sometimes an excruciatingly slow process. Our founders agreed that "all men are created equal." But it was the second half of the 20th Century before "men" was practically expanded to include all people - men and women of all races.

We can't be this slow anymore. We no longer have the luxury of centuries, decades, or even years to work through ethically challenging changes. The current case-in-point is therapeutic cloning and stem cell medicine.

South Korea has made a remarkable step forward. These researchers were able to clone an adult woman, grow that clone into a blastocyst (a clump of undifferentiated cells), and then harvest an immortal stem cell line. This stem cell line will be useful for further research into stem cell therapy generally and invaluable in the treatment of the woman who was cloned in particular.

This should have happened in the United States. I don't mean this as sour grapes. I'm glad that South Korea was able to make such an important contribution. But the U.S. was far ahead in this field before our President, faced with this ethical challenge, choose to punt.

I'm a fan of the President (as a visit to my political blog would show). But in this instance he made the wrong decision. It's hard for me to fault someone for erring on the side of respect for life. But it was still an error.

I'm in agreement with Phil's reasoning on this subject. The issue could not be more important – respect for human life. On one hand we have reason to believe that this research could prolong life and cure disease, on the other we are concerned that we might be creating life simply to harvest what we need and throw the rest away – the very definition of exploitation.

Human embryos should never be created frivolously. Congress might pass a law that, for example, legislatively prohibits developing a cloned human embryo past one month. But what I'm suggesting can't be micromanaged by the government.

The scientific community must recognize that while an embryo at this early stage is less than human, it is more than fish bait. When a research group proposes to create an embryo it should be mandatory to seek guidance from an ethics board. The ethics board should ask, "Is the research proposed substantially likely to appreciably advance science?" In a few years they might also ask, "Is this method necessary to obtain a stem cell line to treat a particular patient?"

Research must continue, but scientists should tread lightly and seek alternatives to embryo creation/destruction when possible.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:29 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 05, 2004

Surf & Turf

If you've been popping fish oil capsules trying to up your Omega-3 fatty acid intake, you'll be happy to learn that a team from Harvard Medical School has figured out how to genetically alter mammals so that they produce Omega-3.
The researchers inserted a gene from a nematode worm into mice which enables the mammals to make the omega-3 fatty acids. If the same feat can be achieved in farm animals, meat, milk and eggs could all be directly enriched with the oils.
Via Kurzweil AI.
Coming soon to your supermarket: Omega-3 enriched mice.

Seriously this could be a big deal. For optimal heart health the Omega-3 to Omega-6 dietary ratio should be about 1:3. The average American ratio is 1:10.

UPDATE: Calfuturist writes:
[Quoting Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California] "Instead of eating fish, you could eat a hamburger and still have the beneficial effects of eating fish," she says.

It may also be safer. Many fish that contain significant amounts of omega-3 are contaminated with toxins such as mercury and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, because of polluted water.
Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:30 PM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

January 30, 2004

Fountain of Youth for Cells?

Researchers in California have discovered a synthetic protein that may be able to turn adult cells back into stem cells (or at least a convenient stem-cell substitute.)

Sheng Ding and colleagues of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla discovered the molecule, which they named reversine. When they treated mouse muscle-forming cells with the drug, the cells apparently reverted to a 'blank' state capable of forming other kinds of tissues. The researchers were then able to guide the cells into becoming bone or fat cells instead.

These are preiliminary findings, so obviously there are many, many questions yet to be answered. But I hope they're on to something. We need stem cells without all the ethical and legal problems.


via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 11:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 20, 2004

Male Offspring

The newly touted ability of parents to choose the sex of their child will almost certainly have a huge impact on society. It's interesting that Newsweek chose a couple seeking to have a girl for their case study. In the West, we believe — or we like to tell ourselves that we believe— that one sex is as good as the other, and that couples are as likely to use this capability to select a girl as a boy. Although I note that sex selection is banned in Europe, perhaps because the leaders there suspect that, in the eyes of many, all babies are (still) not created equal.

Where this development is really going to hit home, however, is Asia, where few uphold any pretense of believing that a girl is as good as a boy. China's one-child policy has led to mass numbers of abandoned baby girls (many of whom are adopted in the West) and a return to the ancient practice of gender selection through infanticide — which was strongly discouraged, but never fully eliminated during the early years of the Communist Regime The impact of these crude forms of gender selection is shocking:

[In] September 1997, the World Health Organization's Regional Committee for the Western Pacific issued a report claiming that "more than 50 million women were estimated to be 'missing' in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing's population control program that limits parents to one child." (See Joseph Farah, "Cover-up of China's gender-cide", Western Journalism Center/FreeRepublic, September 29, 1997.) Farah referred to the gendercide as "the biggest single holocaust in human history."

And China is hardly alone. The report linked above also cites widespread infanticide in India as well as rampant use of abortion to prevented unwanted (female) children. A while back, FuturePundit noted that in Taiwan, abortion has skewed the demographics of childbirth such that three boys are now born for every two girls.

With its $18,000 price tag, it's unlikely that the procedure outlined in the Newsweek story (linked above) will have much of a role to play in rural China or India any time soon. But we may see simplified, less expensive versions of the procedure available in developed areas in the region within a decade or so, and some kind of risky "bootleg" version universally available sometime thereafter.

In such a scenario, we can look forward to a sharp drop in child killing and abandonment in these areas. But the demographic woes will only be exacerbated. I have to wonder how the Chinese government will repond to the introduction of such technology. On the one hand, it would support the one-child policy and help eliminate the dreadful work-arounds that have developed to ensure male offspring. On the other hand, it would lead to a highly skewed sexual demographic. What would a society that was 70-80% men be like? Would it be stable? Efficient? Brutal? Way gay? Nobody knows; it's never been tried.

One thing is for sure. China's population growth problem would be solved. In fact, a new population difficulty would probably emerge: rapid decline.


Via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 07:21 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 08, 2003

As Seen on TV

First produced by Homer Simpson in a 1999 episode of the animated series, the tomacca (tobacco/tomato hybrid) arrives.

Posted by Phil at 06:45 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 06, 2003

Of Lazarus Mice and Men

Wasn't I just saying that, in addition to the Methuselah Mouse, we need people working on a Lazarus Mouse? Well, via the Immortality Institute, here's the scoop on a company in Florida that might be doing some work along those lines:

Someday, David Shumaker hopes to perfect the science that will allow him to bring someone who's clinically dead back to life.

First, he'll have to get through the city of Boca Raton.

Shumaker's company, Suspended Animation, wants to build a research laboratory in the city to perfect the process of treating a dead body so it can stored and later brought back to life.

On Thursday, Shumaker and other Suspended Animation officials will take their case to the Planning & Zoning Board. Plans call for a 5,800-square-foot building in an office park off Rogers Circle on the city's north side.

Interestingly, Suspended Animation is attempting to develop a vitrification technique, which will be a competing technology for Alcor's cold storage. Vitrification is like high-tech mummification: the body is "dried" by replacing all the water with a solid or (more likely) gelatinous substance. If you can successfully swap out a body's water with such a substance, it should remain in a low-volatility state, a near stasis, for an indefinite period of time. If you can then reverse the process some time later, the body should be extremely well preserved. Eric Drexler provides a good description of the process in Engines of Creation.

Here's an interesting twist. The company's focus is somewhat different from Alcor's:

"The real focus is producing a medical treatment that ultimately will be done on people that are still alive," Shumaker said. "We're not raising the dead; we're stabilizing living tissue."

Shumaker, a physicist, envisions the process being used by terminally ill patients who want to be placed in cryosuspension, a sort of cold storage, until a cure is found for their ailments -- not just those who fancy being brought back to life in the distant future.

So perhaps what we're talking about here is more of a Rip Van Winkle Mouse than a Lazarus Mouse.

It only makes sense that the company would want to try this kind of technique out on animals before human beings. So, naturally, animal rights groups are already among those protesting Suspended Animation's presence. Here's an interesting quote:

"We find the experiments to be unnecessary, especially considering that so many people have volunteered to participate in this kind of research," said Crystal Miller-Spiegel, senior policy analyst for the American Anti-Vivisection Society, a Jenkintown, Pa., group that opposes research on animals. "We feel human volunteers would be more appropriate in this area of research."

Well, yeah. Better to risk expendable humans than fluffy bunnies. Of course, in the long run, the process is intended for humans and humans will be subjected to it.

I wonder what the legality of this will be? If the company can demonstrate revival of a vitrified mouse, and then, say, a rabbit, and then a rhesus monkey, would the state stand in the way of terminally ill (or just old and suffering) people who wanted to undergo it? This is different from Alcor's approach to cryonics, where a person (or just their head) is put into stasis only after they've died, although vitrification could presumably be used for that as well.

What would the legal status be of a living person put into a demonstrably reversible state of vitrification? Alive? Dead? What if the process had been demonstrated up through the monkey, but not yet on a human being?

This may be a viable alternative to pulling the plug, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia. I wonder how cases like that of Terri Schiavo would be impacted. If you could end any suffering the patient may be experiencing, and offer the hope of an eventual treatment — our definition of what constitutes "irreversible brain damage" is bound to be refined over time — why wouldn't this be a viable alternative? I know that if I were in that state, that's exactly what I would want done for me.

Moreover, if I were 85 or so and in poor health, having trouble getting around, maybe experiencing a lot of pain, I think I'd jump at the chance to be put in stasis. Even if the reversibility had not yet been demonstrated.

Which makes me wonder how big a coincidence it is that Suspended Animation has decided to locate in Boca Raton, a haven for well-off retirees?

Posted by Phil at 12:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 04, 2003

The Fat Cure

Future Pundit Randall Parker has the scoop on the discovery of the "fat" gene:

GAD2, which sits on chromosome 10, acts by speeding up production of a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA, or gamma-amino butyric acid. When GABA interacts with another molecule named neuropeptide Y in a specific area of the brain - the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus - we are stimulated to eat.

The researchers behind this study believe that people who carry a more active form of the GAD2 gene build up a larger than normal quantity of GABA in the hypothalamus, and suggest that this over accumulation of GABA drives the stimulus to eat further than normal, and is thus a basis for explaining why obese people overeat.

So this genetic predisposition to obesity that we've heard about all along might be real. It's not surprising that it's a gene regulating beahvior rather than, say, metabolism. I've always thought that my weight problem might have something to do with the fatc that I eat too much. Call it a hunch.

But if it's genetic, so what? How does that help? Consider this:

One form of the gene was found to be protective against obesity, while another increased the risk of obesity. The normal weight group of French adults had a higher frequency of the protective form of the GAD2 gene. Obesity is three to five times less prevalent in France than in the USA.

And here I thought that was just because they always burn down their McDonaldses. Randall concludes:

If this result is confirmed in other populations expect GAD2 expression and the activity of the GAD6 protein to become targets for drug development.

Sign me up, Doc.

Posted by Phil at 09:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 03, 2003

A Noah or Moses Would Be Pretty Cool, Too

The Methuselah Mouse Prize, a competition aimed at producing the world's all-time oldest mouse (as part of the roadmap for curing human aging) has been getting a lot of deserved attention lately. The prize money has gone up substantially.

Come on, people, what' stopping you? This isn't like the X Prize where you have to build a freaking space ship. Just get yourself a few mice and see how long you can get them to live.

Try cod liver oil. Might work!

Also, when can we have a Lazarus Mouse prize to demonstrate the viability of cryonics?

Posted by Phil at 12:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 31, 2003

The Atkins Hack

Salon has an explanation of the appeal of the low-carb diet to Hackers

But while there's nothing particularly bleeding-edge about eating the hamburger but not the bun, now that low-carb dieting has gone mainstream, the diet does appear to hold a special attraction for hackers, programmers and other close-to-the-machine dwellers. For some geeks, the low-carb diet is itself a clever hack, a sneaky algorithm for getting the body to do what you want it to do, a way of reprogramming yourself. Programmers, who are used to making their computers serve their will, are now finding that low-carb diets enable the same kind of control over their bodies.

(Either a paid subscription or sitting through a commercial is required to access the whole article.)

I've been theoretically on low-carbs for a long time now, but I've only recently become serious about it. I think the paradoxical aspect is what appeals most to me about Atkins. Any diet where you're better off putting heavy cream in your coffee than skim milk has a huge contrarian appeal to it. Maybe that's why it resonates so well with hacker culture. Those hackers would probably be interested to learn that their diet may be increasing their lifespan.

And then there's this to consider:

There's also a subversive element. Go low-carb, and you're going against the dietary establishment, against the conventional diet wisdom from the USDA's food pyramid. You're doing something that you're maybe not supposed to do.

That's it, of course. No wonder I like this diet.

I'm a rebel.

Posted by Phil at 10:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 30, 2003

Let's Not Outlaw Any More Than We Have to, Here

A good piece in Reason on whether adult stem cells are a viable alternative for the kinds of research currently being done using embryonic stem cells. The essay concludes:

The continuing struggle over stem cell research highlights the dangers of politicizing biomedical science. Various lines of research should be pursued simultaneously in order to have the best chance of discovering effective future treatments. It may well turn out that adult stem cells are good treatments for certain diseases, and embryonic stem cells are better at curing other maladies. Contrary to the claims of bioconservatives, it has never been either adult stem cells or embryonic ones; for the sake of millions of suffering patients, it's both.

It's too bad that adult stem cells are turning out not to be as effective as was originally hoped. They provided a nice work-around for the ethical issues that embryonic ctem cells represent. But I was intrigued by this explanation:

Embryonic stem cells are derived from seven-day old blastocysts (microscopic balls of 150 or so cells). Immune rejection might be handled either of two ways: First, researchers might derive and preserve many lines of stem cells that would genetically match the immune systems of a wide number of patients. Or second, embryonic stem cells might be created to order by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer; that is, by taking a cell nucleus from a patient's cells and inserting it into an enucleated egg to produce a blastocyst from which stem cells of nearly identical genetics could be derived and used for transplant. Since obtaining human eggs is uncomfortable and expensive, researchers hope eventually to decipher the biochemical signals that human eggs use to reprogram mature nuclei into embryonic stem cells. Once this is achieved, physicians would dose a patient's adult cells with the right chemicals, transforming them directly into embryonic stem cells. In the meantime, embryonic stem cells are opposed by pro-life activists, and the House of Representatives has twice passed a bill that would outlaw medical treatments using them.

If we're going to outlaw these things (which I'm not convinced is a good idea, although I'm not convinced it's not) shouldn't we be taking a closer look at how they're harvested? If a technique such as the one described above is developed, I don't see why the use of stem cells produced in that manner would raise the same ethical issues as stem cells derived from a fertilized human egg. Maybe I'm missing something, here. But it seems to me that the former would represent terminating a potential human life, while the latter would not.

That has got to make a difference to at least some of the opponents of stem cell research. Instead of a ban on any use of embryonic stem cells, maybe the law should require that all such research be able to attach this disclaimer:

No potential babies were harmed or prevented in the harvesting of these stem cells.

The everybody's happy, right? I guess the real question is how far away are we from being able to convert adult cells into embryonic stem cells?

Posted by Phil at 10:27 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

You Want to Talk About Scary?

Try this on for size.

Am I crazy, or does this strike anyone else as a little odd? Why is the US government paying somebody to develop super-viruses? I can't think of any possible legitimate use for such a thing. What are we going to do, unleash it on the enemy's army? Or on the civilian population?

A legitimate government has no use for this. It's a tool for terrorists.

Posted by Phil at 08:25 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

If Only They Could Stay Little Like This

I missed this yesterday. Randall Parker has the scoop on the isolation of a specific gene that triggers puberty.

NIH-funded researchers have identified a gene that appears to be a crucial signal for the beginning of puberty in human beings as well as in mice. Without a functioning copy of the gene, both humans and mice appear to be unable to enter puberty normally. The newly identified gene, known as GPR54, also appears necessary for normal reproductive functioning in human beings.

Randall argues that numerous benefits would accrue from using this knowledge to delay the onset of puberty.

Read the whole thing. He makes some pretty strong arguments.

Posted by Phil at 03:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

Regeneration

Interesting article in Wired about research in regeneration:

Keating himself believes that regeneration research is on the brink of a revolution - the very place genetics was 20 years ago. "We've been studying regeneration for 200 years, sure," he shrugs. "But we've got different tools now. For the first time, we can see what's happening at the level of molecules and genes." From Keating's perspective, growing a whole arm would be a needlessly complicated parlor trick. But if our regenerative abilities could be sped up even a little, the effect would be extraordinary. "Patients with kidney failure need just 10 percent of their cells back and they can go off dialysis," says Dean Li, Keating's colleague at Utah and now his business partner. "Likewise, when you have a heart attack, there's a big difference between losing 20 percent of your heart cells and 40 percent."

Evidence suggests that the ability to re-grow damaged tissue (rather than cover over it with scar tissue) may involve a genetic switch that was thrown off somewhere in the process of evolution. If we can find that switch and figure out how to turn it back on, we've taken a major step towards life extension.

And we may be getting close:

Until the fall of 1998, when, on something of a lark, Keating and his colleagues, postdoc Shannon Odelberg and researcher Chris McGann, decided to treat mouse muscle cells in a petri dish with a liquefied extract made from a newt's regenerating leg cap. Unlike newt cells, mammalian muscle cells change dramatically as they mature, growing fat bundles of ropelike fibers and merging their cytoplasms en masse, like eggs whose whites have run together. Believing that this elaborate structure could be reversed was, researchers thought, like expecting a Ming vase to morph back into a lump of raw clay and powdered pigments.

And yet, under the influence of the newt extract, that was exactly what happened. "Nobody expected it to work," admits Odelberg, still sounding baffled. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers were able to apply growth factors to dedifferentiated cells, making the stem cells mature again to resemble muscle, bone, or fat cells.

It was a staggering discovery. "People had been studying regeneration for years and had zero evidence it could happen in mammals," Li says. "It wasn't until Mark and Shannon debunked the myth of terminal differentiation that anyone believed this could work."

Very interesting. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 01:10 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 16, 2003

Low-Carb Life Extension

Here's an interview with one Cynthia Kenyon, whose research with worms indicates that hormones hold the key to curing aging:

We found that mutations that lowered the activity of a single gene, called daf-2, caused the worms to live more than twice as long as normal. We showed that their long lives weren't caused by changes in feeding or reproduction - two boring possibilities. But the best thing was that the long-lived worms remained active and healthy long after normal worms were decrepit or dead. They were like 90-year-old people who looked like 45-year-olds.

The daf-2 gene encodes a hormone receptor similar to the human receptors for insulin and IGF-1. So hormones control ageing. They speed it up. Then there are many genes "downstream" of this receptor that do lots of different things. Some of them code for proteins that protect animals from all sorts of stresses, chaperones that help other proteins fold correctly, and antioxidant proteins such as catalase and superoxide dismutase. Then there are those that encode proteins that kill bacteria, and metabolic genes. But you have a single hormone receptor, the IGF-1/insulin receptor, and a transcription factor commanding between 50 and 100 genes that directly affect the ageing process. It's like an orchestra conductor coordinating the flutes and the cellos and the French horns. That's how you get these big effects on lifespan.

Kenyon believes that controlling insulin levels may be key to prolonging human life. Her recommended lifespan-enhancing diet sounds a lot easier than caloric restriction, and in fact sounds a lot like a diet much discussed in the blogosphere:

I eat a diet that keeps my insulin levels low. So, for example, at breakfast I have bacon and eggs with tomatoes and avocados. It's bit like the Atkins diet. I don't actually know if I eat fewer calories, but I feel great and I weigh what I did in high school. I certainly wouldn't want to be hungry all the time, but I'm not, I'm never hungry. I tried caloric restriction just for two days but I couldn't stand it, being hungry all the time.

I've been on Atkins (theoretically) for quite a while, but my progress is slow because I cheat so much. I'm going to have to do some serious rethinking of that strategy.


UPDATE: Randall Parker reports that cholesterol, as well as insulin, may have a significant role to play in fighting aging.

Posted by Phil at 02:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 10, 2003

Longer Life, But at What Cost?

Nobody ever said life extension would be easy. Just yesterday, I wrote that the caloric restriction—the one method that's been clinically proven to extend lifespan (at least in mice)—is probably just too dificult to maintain.

Well, via InstaPundit, here's something else that might work. What are we to make of an activity that provides all of the following benefits:

  • Cuts the death rate in half for men who practice it most dutifully
  • Reduces risk of heart disease
  • Contributes to weight loss and overall fitness
  • Improves sense of smell
  • Reduces depression
  • Relieves pain
  • Wards off colds and the flu
  • Improves teeth
  • Encourages bladder and prostate health

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? The trouble is, to get the benefits you have to be ready to do this thing three times a week or more. It seems like a fair trade-off to me.

Read and judge for yourselves.

Posted by Phil at 08:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 09, 2003

Fisking Sci Am

Skeptic Michael Shermer is having a little fun at the expense of the life extension movement with an opinion piece running on ScientificAmerican.com. Let's have a look:

For most of our history, humans could turn only to prayer and poetry to help cope with this reality. Today we are offered scientistic alternatives--if not for immortality itself, then at least for longevity of biblical proportions. All have some basis in science, but none has achieved anything like scientific confirmation. Here is a short sampling, from the almost sublime to the near ridiculous:

It's true that none of the items he has listed have been confirmed scientifically. This isn't terribly surprising, seeing as they all rely on technology which is proposed for future development or which is currently being developed. The one life-extension method that does currently have some evidence backing it up, which we'll come back to, somehow never makes it onto Shermer's list.

Virtual immortality. According to Tulane University physicist Frank J. Tipler, in the far future we will all be resurrected in a virtual reality whose memory capacity is 10 to the 10123 bytes. If the virtual reality were good enough, it would be indistinguishable from our everyday experience. Boot me up, Scotty. One problem, among many, is that Tipler's resurrection machine requires so much energy that the universe must one day collapse, which present data show is not going to happen.

Tipler's ideas are definitely on the fringe. But resurrection in his proposed "God computer" is not the only way life might be extended via computer. For one thing, we don't need a model of the entire universe.

What we do need is a computer sophisticated enough to model human consciousness and a means of uploading a brain's contents to electronic media. Those are obviously huge requirements, but nothing like the scale of Tipler's machine. Ray Kurzweil predicts that — assuming Moore's Law hangs in there — in 25 years or so, $1,000 will buy you a machine with the approximate computing power of a human brain. A decade later, that same $1,000 will get you the equivalent of a thousand human brains in a box. There are a number of ways that a human mind might be uploaded into a computer, but the most straightforward approach, and the approach that we will most likely use at first, will start with a sophisticated brain scan. The uploaded mind will function within a virtual copy of the brain.

Ray Kurzweil:

Seven years ago, a condemned killer allowed his brain and body to be scanned in this way, and you can access all 10 billion bytes of him on the Internet. You can see for yourself every bone, muscle and section of gray matter in his body. But the scan is not yet at a high enough resolution to re-create the interneuronal connections, synapses and neurotransmitter concentrations that are the key to capturing the individuality within a human brain.

Our scanning machines today can clearly capture neural features as long as the scanner is very close to the source. Within 30 years, however, we will be able to send billions of nanobots-blood cell-size scanning machines-through every capillary of the brain to create a complete noninvasive scan of every neural feature. A shot full of nanobots will someday allow the most subtle details of our knowledge, skills and personalities to be copied into a file and stored in a computer.

This may all sound pretty far out, but give me a break. Kurzweil's ideas are much more closely rooted to current capabilities than Tipler's, although Shermer (for some mysterious reason) gives Kurzweil nary a mention.

Genetic immortality. Oh, those pesky telomeres at the ends of chromosomes that prevent cells from replicating indefinitely. If only we could genetically reprogram normal cells to be like cancer cells. Alas, this is no solution, because biological systems are so complex that fixing any one component does not address all the others that play a role in aging.

...and since there's no way of ever getting a handle on what what those other components are, there's really nothing we can do.

Tell it to Aubrey de Grey, Shermer.

De Grey has identified the seven types of cell damage that work together to constitute aging as we know it. Telomeres are just one part of the problem, but the overall problem is understandable and solvable.

Cryonics immortality. Freeze. Wait. Reanimate. It sounds good in theory, but you're still a corpsicle. And when your tissue is thawed, your cells will be mush. Don't forget to pay the electric bill in the meantime.

Oh, for Pete's sake. Get caught up and then we'll talk.

Replacement immortality. First we replace our organs (which today are often rejected), then our cells and molecules nano-a-nano (not yet technologically feasible), eventually exchanging flesh for something more durable, such as silicon. You can't tell the difference, can you?

Shermer's Caveman ancestor:

Okay, first we're going to use this "fire" thing (which we usually can't keep going for long and haven't even figured out how to start yet) to preserve our food and ward off predators. Then we're going to figure out a way to build our own caves in more convenient locations (not yet technically feasible). Then we're going to start making the plants we like to eat grow where we want them to grow, and keeping herds of the animals we like to eat close by so we always have some handy. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Some might argue that my little caveman digression proves nothing. I would agree, and add that Shermer's "analysis" of life extension via replacement proves nothing. Organ rejection is a major issue, which we will eventually solve by finding a way to re-grow organs or by producing non-rejected synthetic substitutes. It isn't exactly news that we don't yet have sophisticated molecular nanotechnology that would allow us to rebuild cells one at a time. And the crack about replacing flesh with silicon is just plain silly.

Lifestyle longevity. Because this is a goal we can try to implement today, the hucksters are out in force offering all manner of elixirs to extend life. To cut to the chase, S. Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick and Bruce A. Carnes, three leading experts on aging research, have stated unequivocally in the pages of this magazine that "no currently marketed intervention--none--has yet been proved to slow, stop or reverse human aging, and some can be downright dangerous" ["No Truth to the Fountain of Youth," Scientific American; June 2002].

It has never been satisfactorily demonstrated, for example, that antioxidants--taken as supplements to counter the deleterious effects of free radicals on cells--attenuate aging. In fact, free radicals are necessary for cellular physiology. Hormone replacement therapy, another popular antiaging nostrum, helps to counter short-term problems such as loss of muscle mass and strength in older men and postmenopausal women. But the therapy's influence on the aging process is unproved, and the long-term negative side effects are unknown.

I'm not really a proponent of calorie restriction (I think it's too hard), but there is clear scientific evidence that it can be used to extend life, at least in mice. It will be a few years before we learn whether it works with people, but right now all indications are that it will. I wonder why Shermer failed to mention it?

Shermer wraps it up with a few words of wisdom:

As 20th-century English poet Dylan Thomas classically admonished, "Do not go gentle into that good night .../Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Rage all you like, but remember the six billion--and the 100 billion before. Until science finds a solution to prolonging the duration of healthy life, we should instead rave about the time we have, however fleeting.

And what if we enjoy spending the time we have looking for ways to prolong our time? Is that okay with you?

I choose to give Aubrey de Grey the last word. As he so eloquently proclaims from the sidebar:

Well, first of all I have a lot of catching up to do — all the films I haven't seen, books I haven't read, etc.— while I've been spending every spare minute in the fight against aging. But in addition, there are masses of things that I enjoy doing and will always enjoy — spending time with my wife and friends, taking a punt out on the river Cam, playing a game of Othello, etc.— and I reckon I'll just carry on doing those things forever. At root, the reason I'm not in favor of aging is because I like life as I know it.

Posted by Phil at 07:01 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 01, 2003

Cat Scat Fever

I meant to link to this yesterday, but ran out of time. Randall Parker has the lowdown on a virus that people contract from their cats, and which has behavior-modifying properties. T. gondii originally evolved as virus infecting rats, to the benefit of felines:

The minds of infected rats are subtly altered so that they become less able to avoid getting captured and eaten by cats. Cat feces that are eaten by rats serve as a way to spread the disease to rats that the cats can then eventually capture and eat.

Randall concludes:

Women who want to have children should probably give away Fluffy to post-menopausal women who show signs of already being promiscuous.

But what about the threat to Western Civilization? Cats are making our women less trusthworthy and more superficial while they are making men look scruffy loners who are unwilling to follow rules. If some terrorist group was releasing pathogens that had this effect we'd be hunting them down and killing them without mercy (assuming the FBI and CIA could find them - the anthrax mail case may never be solved). But since kitties are fluffy, make cute purring sounds, and occasionally rub up against people's legs they are considered adorable by many. This leaves them free to operate in plain sight to undermine Western Civilization while every single one of them affects an air of total indifference and disinterest.

Well, now hold on a minute, here. What exactly does this thing do to people again? It makes men "scruffy loners" and it makes women more "easy going" and "warmhearted." They get more interested in their appearance, have more friends, and are more likely to fool around.

Randall, my friend, I don't think you're going to find too many guys willing to join you in the fight against this thing.

Posted by Phil at 04:50 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

September 18, 2003

Were Our Ancestors Little Balloons?

Physicists have created gaseous blobs that display many of the characteristics of living cells, raising possible new insights into the origin of life.

The researchers studied environmental conditions similar to those that existed on the Earth before life began, when the planet was enveloped in electric storms that caused ionised gases called plasmas to form in the atmosphere.

They inserted two electrodes into a chamber containing a low-temperature plasma of argon - a gas in which some of the atoms have been split into electrons and charged ions. They applied a high voltage to the electrodes, producing an arc of energy that flew across the gap between them, like a miniature lightning strike.

This arc produced little balls of gas that began to eat (by taking on more gas), grow, and reproduce (by splitting). Is it possible that this is how life began? Mircea Sanduloviciu and his colleagues, who conducted these experiments, think these blobs could point to a new explanation for the origin of life. Others are less convinced.

That view is "stretching the realms of possibility," says Gregoire Nicolis, a physical chemist at the University of Brussels. In particular, he doubts that biomolecules such as DNA could emerge at the temperatures at which the plasma balls exist.

Of course, that doesn't mean that life couldn't have started this way, only that there would have been a number of steps between the origin of life and the emergence of DNA. In the interim, conditions would have had to change sufficiently to allow for the creation of DNA.

Posted by Phil at 06:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 17, 2003

Frozen Rabbit Kidneys

One of the great things about having a blog of your own is that if you want to write an article called "Frozen Rabbit Kidneys," you just do it, and no one can stop you. Of course, it's even more exciting when there's an actual development in the field of frozen rabbit kidneys justifying publishing such an article.

So now Rand Simberg reports that a scientist named Greg Fahy...

...is going to announce the ability to restore animal kidneys to full function after freezing them to deep subzero temperatures. I visited Greg in his lab over a decade ago when he was doing organ preservation research for the Red Cross in Rockville, Maryland, and he was doing some breakthrough work with rabbit kidneys then. According to the report, tests with human organs may commence within two years.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised that Fahy is working with rabbit kidneys rather than mouse kidneys.

This is an enormous development. And not just for rabbitkind. If a frozen kidney can be thawed out and returned to normal function, it should be possible to do it with other tissues as well. By extension, we should eventually be able to thaw out and revive an entire frozen organism. Fahy's accomplishment, which is actually geared towards storing and transporting organs intended for transplant, will represent a huge step forward and a partial proof-of-concept for the field of cryonics.

Posted by Phil at 10:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 16, 2003

Trans Mice

We'll have trans-mice before we ever have transhumans. Consider:

Mice have already been the focus of the most successful life-extension research ever carried out, and they are at the center of the even more ambitious Methusaleh Mouse Prize. I'll wager that the first living thing revived from cryonic freeze will be a mouse. And I'll bet we have mice uploaded into computers long before humans ever do it.

Now, via KurzweilAI.net, Paul Allen is taking a step in that direction by donating $100 million to fund a project called "The Brain Atlas."

The basic aim, he said, is to use the tools of biology, computers and neuroscience to locate active genes in the mammalian brain as a step closer to understanding how the mysterious organ functions.

Of the estimated 30,000 genes in the human genome, scientists have evidence that as many as two-thirds play a critical role in brain development and function. Insel said it is estimated that at least 6,000 of these genes are only "expressed" (active) in the brain.

The mammalian brain that they're going to study will not be a human brain, however. It will be a mouse brain.

Boguski said findings in the mouse brain should often translate directly to humans -- and offer new insights into human behavior, memory, cognition and mental disorders.

It is expected that the map will shed some light on the old, "nature vs. nurture" debate as well as the "brain vs. mind debate." Of course, settling these particular questions for mice won't be the same as settling them for human beings. But it's a start.

If we push on with these various threads, we might eventually reach some kind of Mouse Singularity, where the übermice take over their own evolution. We can only hope that, if such a thing occurs, these highly evolved progeny will look back fondly on us, and provide us some assistance in our evolution. Alternatively, they might decide to put out the human equivalent of cheese-baited spring-loaded traps.

In which case, I'd be a little concerned about what might become of our cats.

Posted by Phil at 07:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 25, 2003

Enzymes for Young Astronauts

I recently opined that amongst the long-living humans who will populate this planet in the years to come, perhaps those of us who are alive now will be the best-suited for space travel. We might be a tad less risk-averse than our progeny, and more willing to take on the hardships involved in long voyages, especially the interstellar variety.

Several readers wrote in to the effect that the only thing standing between themselves and taking part in a dangerous, long-term space mission is the invitation/opportunity to do so. Such invitations and opportunities are pretty scarce right now, but they will no doubt start cropping up more frequently in the future. All we have to do is live to see it.

Here's some help in doing so. KurzweilAI.net reports this morning on a major development in aging research: the discovery of the means to increase production of an enzyme whose presence seems to have the same anti-aging properties as caloric restriction. According to the Washington Post article that Kurzweil links:

"It's looking like these sirtuins serve as guardians of the cell," said Harvard Medical School researcher David Sinclair, who led the new work published in yesterday's online edition of the journal Nature. "These enzymes allow cells to survive damage and delay cell death."

Now the race is on, Sinclair said, to find the most potent sirtuin stimulators -- or create synthetic ones -- and test their ability to extend the lives not only of cells, flies and worms but also of mice, monkeys and humans.

Other researchers were more cautious, warning that aging is a complex and poorly understood process that is unlikely to be slowed by any single drug. As promising as the research may appear today, they said, sirtuin would not be the first fountain of youth to prove a mirage.

That last note of caution is an important one. Readers of the Speculist know that aging can be attributed to not one, but seven distinct causes. It's unlikely that this enzyme will take on all seven. But, hey, every little bit helps.

We've got a flight to catch.

Posted by Phil at 08:30 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 22, 2003

This is Good News

In fifty years, I'll be a couple of weeks shy of turning 91.

Posted by Phil at 06:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 18, 2003

DNA Power Computing

What if we used living cells as computers?

SAN FRANCISCO -- It almost sounds too fantastic to be true, but a growing amount of research supports the idea that DNA, the basic building block of life, could also be the basis of a staggeringly powerful new generation of computers.

If it happens, the revolution someday might be traced to the night a decade ago when University of Southern California computer scientist Leonard Adleman lay in bed reading James Watson's textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene.

"This is amazing stuff," he said to his wife, and then a foggy notion robbed him of his sleep: Human cells and computers process and store information in much the same way.

Computers store data in strings made up of the numbers 0 and 1. Living things store information with molecules represented the letters A, T, C and G.

There were many more intriguing similarities, Adleman realized as he hopped out of bed. He began sketching the basics of DNA computing.

This sounds like the first steps towards Greg Bear's "intelligent cells" scenario in Blood Music. If Aldeman were a SF fan, he might have had this inspiration a few years ealier than he did. I wonder if he realizes that he's taking baby steps towards the Singularity?


Via GeekPress.

Posted by Phil at 09:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 15, 2003

Human-Rabbit Hybrids

It sounds like a joke or a bad movie, but apparently some Chinese scientists have started creating these in order to get around misgivings associated with killing a human embryo in order to harvest stem cells. People don't have the same qualms about killing a rabbit embryo as they do a human embryo, it seems.

And as for a human-rabbit hybrid embryo — well that just sounds like something that really ought to be killed, doesn't it? Apparently, the hybrids wouldn't be viable much past the embryo stage anyway.

I was going to do a jokey In the Future... with this, but I just found the whole thing too disturbing.

Posted by Phil at 04:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 14, 2003

DNA Plagiarism

FuturePundit Randall Parker on some disturbing potential consequences of a new technique for extracting DNA from fingerprints:

See my previous posts Will The Death Of Genetic Privacy Hasten The End Of Freedom? and Genetic privacy: can it be protected? for more on the implications of advances of this kind. What already seems naive about my previous posts is that I speculated on how women would try to get saliva samples or other cell samples from close contact with guys in order to get DNA samples. Well, getting a DNA sample will be easier than that. It will be easy to get a DNA sample from any person seen holding a drink in a bar. When they get up to leave someone could walk by and grab one of their drinking glasses to take a quick sample off of it. The person trying to get the sample never even has to meet their quarry. Combine the ease of sample acquisition and cheap DNA sequencing and personal genetic privacy will become impossible to maintain.

This ability to sequence another's DNA is going to have interesting ramifications for paternity suits. A woman will be able to stalk a guy by going to the same bar or restaurant, grab a glass he held, get a sample, and then sequence the guy's DNA. The woman can then judge the suitability of the guy's DNA. If he passes muster in terms of what she wants in a child she will also be able to use the DNA sample to have it be manipulated in a microfluidic device to make a viable set of chromosomes to use in artificial fertilization. Then she'll be able to sue for paternity. Will courts hold men responsible for offspring when the men start claiming they never even met the women who sue them for paternity?

Read the whole thing. It's fascinating.

The introduction of the capability described above will probably mark the end of the paternity suit as we know it. But perhaps a new kind will emerge. What happens when a determined and stalkerish George Clooney fan collects one of the star's fingerprints from a freshly autographed photo and decides she wants to have "his" baby?

One day the kid, having been told all his life who his "father" is, seeks Clooney out and confronts him. This raises two questions:

  1. What kind of claim could the kid possibly have on the star? Granted, the mother could assert that the child was conceived naturally. But if she doesn't do that, or if Clooney's snoops find the records of the elaborate procedure she went through in order to conceive, or if (as I believe) the possibility that such a procedure could be used eventually creates a legal presumption that it has been used, what then? Does the mere sharing of DNA create a legally binding relationship? Would a celebrity — or anyone else — feel any sort of obligation to a child forced on them in this manner?

  2. What kind of claim would Clooney have against the mother? Perhaps his DNA is his intellectual property. He might decide to sue for copyright violation and demand that the woman pay royalties.If the Intellectual Property approach is what the legal establishment settles on for this kind of DNA theft, it raises another interesting possibility. Would DNA ever become public domain?

That's something for Lawrence Lessig and his buddies to mull over.

Posted by Phil at 08:20 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack