Intimations of Immortality


Will you live forever? There's a better chance than you might think according to biologists on a panel at the Extended Life/Eternal Life conference at the University of Pennsylvania. The conference, co-hosted by the John Templeton Foundation and the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, brought together an all-star cast of biologists, clinicians, theologians and philosophers to consider whether extending human life is technologically imminent and theologically acceptable. The science is dazzling, the theology, wary and anxious.

Is extending human life a good idea? Absolutely not, say bioethicists Leon Kass from the University of Chicago and Daniel Callahan from the Hastings Center. Should you be allowed to choose to extend your life? "The worst possible way to resolve this issue is to leave it up to individual choice," insisted Callahan. "There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death." Callahan actually argued that automobiles, telephones, and computers had all been imposed on society without its permission and he feared that longevity would similarly be imposed on us all soon.

Setting the bioethical amadiversions aside–if you don't mind having long life "imposed" on you, the scientists have some good news. Michael Fossel, a research doctor who is the editor of the scholarly Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine, told the conferees that we will begin to see the introduction of age reversing medical treatments in the next ten years or so. Robert Lanza, who is a tissue engineer at Advanced Cell Technology told the audience that "within 100 years we will have the ability to replace every organ in the human body except the brain."

But why do we age in the first place? "We age not because we must age, but because there is no reason not to age," declared Wayne State University researcher Robert Arking at the morning session of the Extended Life/Eternal Life conference. No reason not to age? "When there's no future reproduction, then there's no reason for your survival," explained UC-Irvine biologist Michael Rose. Individuals are selected by nature so that they keep their health, their ability to evade predators and to obtain sustenance long enough to get the next generation up to reproductive snuff. Once that job is done, nature throws our bodies into the dump to be recycled by worms.

Although not proven yet, it seems that "all aging is cell aging" according to Fossel. He can now make senescent cells young again by telomerizing them ex vivo, that is, by restoring the tips of chromosomes which get shorter each time a cell divides. Cells with restored telomeres are rejuvenated and have normal gene expression. The goal is to figure out how to induce telomerase which restores telomere length in our bodies. "If we could do that, nothing would have greater impact on human health and longevity," says Fossel.

Robert Lanza also had some good news about Dolly the cloned sheep. Some had worried that she might prematurely age because she might have inherited shorter telomeres from the adult mammary cell from which she developed. "We have found unequivocably that cloning fully restores telomeres and fully restores the replicative life of cells," said Lanza. Cloned organisms and cloned tissues can expect to have a normal lifespan.

There was a dissenting voice on the scientific panel, Leonard Hayflick. He is the scientist who in the 1960s first discovered that body cells divide a limited number of times and then die. "Aging is a human artifact that in the natural world didn't occur," he argued. When our species was evolving in Africa the average life expectancy was probably around 30. "Civilization has revealed a process that teleologically we were never designed to experience, that is, aging," declared Hayflick. Hayflick doubts that we will ever be able to manipulate the aging process. Nevertheless, he says that if we could resolve all the current causes of death listed on death certificates–heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, etc.–we would extend human life expectancy by an 15 additional years.

The afternoon session was devoted to theological and philosophical responses to the prospect of radically extending human life. The Christian perspective as explained by theologians Diogenes Allen from Princeton and Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute of Religion and Public Life sees death as a blessing because, (1) this life cannot satisfy our longing for perfect love (2) indefinite continuation would be dreary (3) the very shortness of life calls for self-examination, and (4) it breaks through our solipsistic self-regard. Interestingly, Allen pointed out that a belief in justice has been a powerful motivation for people to postulate an afterlife. Good people suffer in this life, but will be rewarded in the next. Philosopher Eleonore Stump of St. Louis University suggested that medieval Christians would have thought our efforts to postpone death "was a perplexing stupidity on our part" since it prolonged our separation from God.

It was generally agreed by the panel that there was no theological objection in principle to extending human life. After all Methuselah lived 969 years according to Neuhaus. Rabbi Neil Gillman was refreshingly blunt: "There is nothing redemptive about death. Death is incoherent. Death is absurd." In Judaism the primary metaphor for God is that God is Life, he explained. The best moment came during the question and answer session, when Leon Kass asked the rabbi if Jewish tradition would endorse prolonging human life for twenty years? Yes, answered the Rabbi. Forty years? Yes. One hundred years? Yes. The indefinite prolongation of life is a moral good, then? Yes, yes. yes, answered Rabbi Gillman.

Coming tomorrow: "Where is biotechnology taking us in trying to remedy aging and conquer death?" and "Where should and should not biotechnology be taking us and how ought we to live life and experience death?" Panelist include Thomas Okarma, CEO of Geron, Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, Gregory Stock of UCLA Med School, Arthur Caplan, head of the Center for Bioethics at U Penn, and Charles Harper, executive director of the Templeton Foundation.