Sunday, January 22, 2012

Can humans live two or three times longer?

On January 3, 2012, University of Pittsburgh researchers announced they had increased the normal life spans of mice two to three times by injecting stem cell-like progenitor cells that had been derived from the muscle of young, healthy mice. Associate Professor Laura Niedemhofer and Johnny Huard, Director of Pitt’s stem cell research center, reported this study in the journal Nature Communications [1]. New blood vessel growth was found in the brain and muscle of mice that received the injections. "If we can purify that protein, we may have found an anti-aging protein and that will be huge," Huard said. If this technique can be used with humans, he said, "When you turn 30, 35, 40, instead of having all this cosmetic surgery, we can take your cells and then reinject them into you … You're going to age, but you're going to age slower than the normal person who doesn't have stem cell transplantation." [2] It is foreseeable that people will begin to store stem cells from an early age – even from the umbilical cord – to be used later to heal from disease and injury and maybe to increase life spans dramatically.

On July 5, 1997, Dolly the sheep in Scotland was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. Because such a small percentage of viable offspring resulted from these experiments, physicians with the American Medical Association and scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued formal public statements advising against attempts to clone humans [3]. Since then, techniques have improved. On April 8, 2009, scientists in Dubai announced they had cloned the first one-humped camel [4]. With continual medical advancement, human cloning is a real possibility within our lifetime, perhaps involving generation of new organs for transplantation.

What if it would be possible to clone humans or more than double the average life span? Is scientific research on the verge of going too far and playing God? Genetic engineering and even cloning has been used for years with plants and animals, many times to the significant benefit of humans. For example, banana plants that are more resistant to disease and parasites are cloned. Obviously, genetically engineering a new form of bacterium for which there are no natural defenses may be potentially disastrous. Human cloning presents an ethical problem if embryos are destroyed in the process. That was the case with Dolly the sheep, a process which employed a process of somatic cell nuclear transfer, using 277 eggs and created 29 embryos. A human embryo contains DNA, the beginning of a new, separate human being. No one knows when the soul enters a human and it may be at the point of conception, when the genetic code is finalized in the cell. The age of viability of a human fetus continues to regress and a human heart begins to beat around the 21st day after conception, so destruction of a human embryo would be unethical and immoral.

Destroying a human life would constitute “playing God”. However, if medical science advances to the point in which no embryos are destroyed, the new organism would be a separate person, even though he or she has the same DNA as an existing person. This new, cloned human would essentially be an identical twin, with his or her own soul. This does not seem to be a violation of any ethical or moral code. On the other hand, creating a separate, cloned, human for the purpose of organ harvesting would be monstrous. If one’s own cells can be used to regenerate a damaged or diseased organ - without creating a new embryo - there should be no ethical problem.

There is one final important point to consider. Each of us may live a century, perhaps even two, in this life and it is commendable to work to prolong that time for all people. It is also logical to afford these efforts the appropriate amount of consideration that is due. Every one of us will leave this life sometime. We will spend eternity in the next life [5]. Each of us needs to ask the question: Will I be the one whom Jesus called a fool, working only to make his own life more comfortable? [6] Or, will I be the one who is wise, planning also for life after death, and storing treasure in heaven? [7]

[1] University of Pittsburgh, Dept. of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, “Dr. Laura Niedernhofer and Dr. Johnny Huard's Stem Cell Research Slows Aging”, accessed 20 Jan 2012.
[2] Luis Fabregas, “Pitt stem-cell research slows aging”, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4 Jan 2012.
[3] U. S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, “Cloning Fact Sheet”, updated 11 May 2009, accessed 18 Jan 2012.
[4] BBC News, “First camel clone born in Dubai”, posted 14 Apr 2009, accessed 22 Jan 2012.
[5] Matthew 25:46 – The unrighteous will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
[6] Luke 12:19-21 – “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
[7] Matthew 6:19-20 – “Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth … store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal.”