Aiming for immortality…

Death is a disease that Google can cure? Come on…

I’m all for Google’s recent decision to cure death; in fact, once they post the on-line registration form for the treatment, I plan to be first in line to sign up. Providing, of course, they can guarantee I won’t spend eternity suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or have to undergo permanent chemotherapy. And hopefully a lab somewhere will be growing replacement parts from my stem cells. It will be hard to find an organ donor among immortals; they’ll painstakingly avoid accidents and anything else that risks their chance for eternal life.

I’d also like to know where they plan to store all of us immortals – hopefully it won’t be in a drawer, or one of those shoebox-like hotels you find in Japan. But let’s not overthink this, or get fussy about the details. By the time the cure for death is found, I’m sure the big brains at Google will have solved much simpler problems like time travel, or instantaneous teleportation to the stars, or downloading my consciousness onto the Internet.

To take a more sober look at all of this, Google is putting the cart way before the horse. To use a metaphor: if you think of death as hitting the ground after a long leap, most medical research aims to raise the height of the diving board and to ensure that you’re as happy as possible until the moment of collision. Google’s approach is more like saying, “Jump into this hole; we don’t know what’s down there but don’t worry, you’ll never hit the bottom.”

Unfortunately, the hole always has a bottom. Most people used die from diseases or infections caused by viruses or bacteria. Many still do, but the development of vaccines and antibiotics, pesticides, and the introduction of modern sanitation largely removed those obstacles. New drugs and organ transplantations had a huge impact as well, meaning that 20th-century medicine lengthened average life expectancy by a couple of decades. It made for a longer fall, but it exposed a deeper layer of things to crash onto: cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s. These conditions weren’t as prevalent in earlier times because they typically strike in old age, and people didn’t live long enough to experience them.

The first step in achieving Google’s great dream will have to be to cure those diseases – which, incidentally, is already the aim of a vast amount of biomedical research. As far as I know, the company has no secret plan that will cause this work to jump ahead and achieve some dramatic spurt of progress. If they do, I’m eager to hear it. Of course the injection of a huge amount of money alone into biomedical research is a good thing; it could fund new labs, or help existing groups acquire equipment that they can’t currently afford. It may help keep talented young researchers in the field; frustrated by heavy competition for scarce positions, many end up leaving the lab. It might also shift priorities by putting even more effort into fields such as stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and the other siblings of the science of aging.

A jump in funding, the creation of a new institute, and other measures along these lines are always welcome, but they won’t cause a revolution in biomedicine. Scientists solve huge problems by breaking them down into tiny parts. Even when they have a definitive goal in mind, they can’t predict the outcome of experiments in advance. The best road to progress is to follow results wherever they lead, which is often someplace completely unexpected. It’s the reason that science funding agencies have discovered that investing in basic research is usually much more productive and profitable than supporting narrowly defined work in pursuit of a particular application.

Suppose all those who have been doing this work so long, and so well – now with support from Google – succeed in curing most cases of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. We can expect that happen – if not within my lifetime, then surely that of my children. But immortality will remain a distant dream. Just as major infectious diseases had to be cured before the demographics of disease shifted to these next barriers, once the current challenges have been faced, we’ll crash against the next thing. We do not know what health problems typically strike people who are 120 or 130 years old, but we’re about to find out. Likely candidates are prion diseases such as kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD, a cousin of Mad Cow Disease). Very few people currently suffer from these conditions, probably because they follow a period of incubation that is longer than the normal lifespan. Most victims of kuru were cannibals who ate brain material from other people, where the incubation had already reached an advanced stage.

Currently there’s no cure for prion diseases, and we don’t know what other syndromes will strike people in their second century of life. Once we recognize them, which will take a while, we’ll surely develop treatments as well. Then we’ll be able to move on to the diseases that strike 200-year-olds, and so on. The only hope of immortality is to find cures as fast as as new diseases are discovered. Even then, each challenge will expose a new one. Eventually we may run up against some fundamental physical barrier – a sort of biomedical “speed of light” – which dictates that the human body, at some point, will degrade back to the molecules that compose it.

So as far as I can tell, Google has no fabulous secret plan, and promises nothing new – still, maybe there’s a virtue in putting the label of “immortality” on a new campaign in biomedicine. It seemed to work out pretty well for physics; calling the Higgs Boson the “God particle” was surely effective in collecting the billions of Euros needed to build the Large Hadron Collider. I merely hope that before people become immortals, we’ve ensured that they’ll have a world to live in. First it would be nice to get a handle on overpopulation, pollution, and political strife.

Google may be planning to tackle those annoying little problems as well. Or maybe they intend to export immortals to a better place, using the interstellar starship they’ve begun building in a basement somewhere. You’d think we’d go to Mars before the Andromeda galaxy, just like we’d improve current health and social problems across the globe – for the developing world as well as wealthy countries – before aiming for immortality. But those aims may be a bit too pedestrian for the Google business plan.

Best of PubMed #1

PubMed, the on-line portal for scientific literature, holds some real gems. Starting today I’ll highlight a few exceptional studies that I’ve found over the years. Visit http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ to gain access to the full articles. Just cut-and-paste the PubMed ID number into the Search box.

Picks of the day:

1.  Lancet. 1998 Dec 19-26;352(9145):2010-1.

      Jealousy and mutilation: nose-biting as retribution for adultery

Okimura JT, Norton SA

PMID: 9872265

 

2.  J Emerg Med. 1990 May-Jun;8(3):305-7.

    Acute management of the zipper-entrapped penis.

Nolan JF, Stillwell TJ, Sands JP Jr

PMID: 2373840

   Abstract

A zipper-entrapped penis is a painful predicament that can be made worse by overzealous intervention. Described is a simple, basic approach to release, that is the least traumatic to both patient and provider.

 

 

3.  Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 1994 Winter;25(2):67-84.

   Encounter with reality: children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth.

Anderson CJ, Prentice NM

PMID: 7842832

Abstract

Fifty-two children who no longer believed in Santa Claus were individually administered a structured interview on their reactions to discovering the truth. Their parents completed a questionnaire assessing their initial encouragement of the child to believe in Santa and rating their child’s reactions to discovering the truth as well as their own reactions to the child’s discovery. Parental encouragement for the child to believe was very strong. Children generally discovered the truth on their own at age seven. Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth. Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery.

On-line etiquette for clones (with a few tips for zombies)

Social networking poses special challenges for clones and the brain-dead. Here are some tips to avoid confusion.

1. Remember that clones are people, too. Each clone should have its own Facebook page.
2. A zombie doesn’t have a brain, so it doesn’t need a Facebook page. It should, however, have its own Twitter account.
3. Zombies have trouble remembering passwords and the answers to security questions. Set up a separate keychain file for each zombie that will be using your computer.
4. While Skyping with your clones, it’s often hard to remember which one you are. Wear name tags.
5. Clones often pick the same password without intending to. Be sure you’re logging onto the right account.
6. When zombies use a laptop, parts of their bodies fall off and get stuck between the keys. Get them an iPad.
7. Never forward spam e-mails to your clones. Send them to the zombies instead.
8. Zombies cannot be infected by computer viruses, but they may be carriers. Install Norton software and download the latest virus definitions before opening any attachment from a zombie.
9. Zombies can’t use key combinations and often have trouble typing the @ symbol. If you haven’t heard from them for a while, it’s probably because their e-mails aren’t going through. Or their hands might have fallen off.
10. Be sure to cc clones on all important e-mails. Use the bcc line for zombies.

Don’t walk and chew gum (or wear headphones) at the same time, stop licking your fingernails, and for God’s sake, don’t drink the shampoo!

Breaking health news:

Here’s a roundup of a couple of health stories in the news. Two of them come from the “Times of India,” which I’m going to have to start following because of their rapid publication of breaking science news.

The first story is entitled “Slower walking speed a sign of dementia.” The subject is a summary of three studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, which correlate walking behavior with cognitive performance among the elderly. The author of the article sums up one study this way:

“The study led by researcher Dr. Stephanie Bridenbaugh, found that those participants with declines in cognition tended to walk more slowly than their memory-savvy counterparts, particularly when asked to perform a simple task — such as counting backward — while walking.”

No mention was made of chewing gum; they’re probably saving that juicy data for their next publication. Here’s the complete link:
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/health-fitness/health/Slower-walking-speed-a-sign-of-dementia/articleshow/14996020.cms

I believe it was Garrison Keillor who proposed the counter-hypothesis, that old people walk so slow because they have so much to remember. Now we know… Stop smelling those roses as you stroll along the street, otherwise the guys in the white trucks may scoop you up in a net.

(I heard that in Germany, if you were stopped on the street and were unable to give the correct date, they could lock you up for being mentally incapacitated. This is probably a rumor, but since I rarely know the date I have begun memorizing it before venturing out on the streets.)

Even more dangerous to your health is walking while wearing headphones, which can get you killed, as reported in the following article:
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/health-fitness/health/Earphones-can-kill-you/articleshow/12558245.cms

The article cites Satyendra Garg, who is Joint CP (whatever that is), as saying not much can be done:

“Apart from creating awareness through advertisements and campaigns, there is nothing else that can be done. But it is very strange – education de bhi toh kya – everyone knows that any sort of distraction while crossing the road should be avoided. Now if people chose to be so careless, I don’t know how much of our educating campaigns will help? But we will run a few ads on radio and print… They’re all pedestrians, and we can’t punish them with a challan or anything. And what should we punish them for, when they are ready to pay such a high price – with their life – anyway.”

I certainly wouldn’t want to be punished with a challan, especially since I don’t know what it is. And creating awareness through advertisements and campaigns might actually increase the problem. Presumably those ads would be broadcast via… the radio? Internet? Imagine the irony, you’re listening to a podcast on your iPod about the danger of wearing headphones while walking around, and… WHAM!

And if you were walking more slowly as you listened, you run the double risk of being killed or diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For a few final health tips of the week, please stop licking your painted fingernails and drinking shampoo. Women whose urine contained high levels of phthalates (and can anyone tell us how to pronounce that?), found in such products, were much more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with low levels. The article states,

“The findings held even when other risk-factors were taken into account, like how many calories were consumed.”

The real question is whether all risk factors were taken into account, such as the number of times strangers in a bar buy mixed drinks for people with fingernail polish versus those who just have naked fingernails…

The studies are cited in an article at the following link:
http://www.activequote.com/news/Chemicals-found-in-nail-polish-and-shampoo-could-increase-diabetes-risk.aspx

Thank goodness for the Internet. I feel like it has saved my life several times already this week, or at least kept me out of an asylum.

Preliminary draft of the Minutes from the 9,154,388,279,911,101,314th meeting of the Committee for Intelligent Design

copyright 2012 by Russ Hodge

Preliminary draft of the Minutes from the 9,154,388,279,911,101,314th meeting of the Committee for Intelligent Design

Subgroup: Eukaryotes

Sub-subgroup: Exploratory Committee on Multicellular Organisms

Sub-sub-subgroup:  Worms

Sub-sub-sub-subgroup: Worms with a tubular form

 

Please make any corrections you see fit before we circulate the final version of the minutes.

 

Attendance: All 9,453 members of the committee were present; the Head of the Department of Viral Engineering was out with a cold and was replaced by his deputy.

The Big Boss called the meeting to order and introduced the agenda with a plea that presenters stick to their allotted times so that there would be ample time for questions. He noted, with a bit of irony, that he has over seven billion other meetings with other subcommittees to attend, and these all need to take place within the next few minutes. To a proposal that he simply expand the fabric of time to allow for special cases, the Big Boss said, “You can only stretch things so far before things get out of hand; the first four days have already expanded to fill up about 12 billion years. And in my experience, speakers are always willing to talk and talk until they fill whatever time is allotted to them. And I have a vacation planned in three days and I am not willing to postpone the flight another time.” (Discussion closed.)

TOPIC 1:

Minutes of last meeting read and approved.

TOPIC 2:

Continuation of the discussion on Means for Creating Multicellular Organisms.

The Working Group on Worms in a Tubular Form got up to give a PowerPoint presentation with their proposals for a basic body plan. They had, however, saved the presentation in the wrong format and had to run it from an iPad provided by the Biochemistry Department. An appropriate adaptor plug had to be requisitioned from Technical Resources. Then the bulb on the beamer burned out. The Big Boss tapped his fingers impatiently on the table and finally expanded time by ten minutes until things could get straightened out.

During this period the Working Group on bacteria once again raised its motion that unicellular life was fine (supported by the WG on Archaea); they repeated their basic objection to eukaryotes with the claim that once DNA was packed in a cell nucleus, it was especially susceptible to mutations due to the inherent flaws in physical chemistry (noting their previous objection to the creation of DNA) unless you intervened in every chemical reaction and made sure that every single nucleotide was faithfully reproduced. He reported on several cases in which entire regions of DNA had been duplicated, extra chromosomes were acquired, genes were deleted, etc. And that might lead to Evolution, a process which violates the Charter on the Rules of the Universe as Decreed by the Big Boss.

The head of the committee on Eukaryotes pointed out that bacteria likewise underwent mutations, in fact, at a much more rapid pace because the organization of its DNA into circular plasmids permitted them to swap genetic material during S-x.

The representative of the Committee on Occam’s Razor (C.O.R.) once again requested that it should be permitted to pronounce words like S-x without leaving out letters. To which the Committee on Propriety (C.O.P.) replied that in the Charter on the Rules of the Universe as Decreed by the Big Boss, S-x was entered in the Database of Dirty Words.

C.O.R.: Even when it refers to bacteria?

C.O.P.: Yes, they stick those disgusting spaghetti tube things into each other. The only way to stop it is to put them in a blender. You should have listened to us when we objected to S-x in the first place.

The Big Boss gaveled for Order and the Subgroup began its presentation.

Summary: the Working Group proposes a simple, tubular body plan with a mouth on one end and an anus on the other. The form is modular: the head region may be connected to the tail by a number of segments which, for all practical purposes, should be virtually identical. The segments have “nubs” on the side (note to Department of Terminology: create appropriate Latin term) which could be used, at a later date, as the base for filaments or appendages.

Questions raised: Why are the middle segments necessary? Why can’t the thing have just a head and an anus?

Response of the committee: Some system of legs or fibers may be desirable, in new species in the long term, for locomotion, which might be required to find food.

Question: Why can’t the food simply be brought to the worm?

Response of the committee: This is desirable because of previous decisions which made unicellular organisms mobile. As the Big Boss stated during that meeting, “Otherwise everything will have to live on its own dung heap.” And no mechanism had yet been invented to attract food to the creature intended to eat it, except for magnetism, and adding a magnet to the worm body plan and magnetism-sensing proteins to all of its prey would require an unacceptable number of interventions in existing species. And that would be forbidden by the decree under the Charter on the Rules of the Universe as Decreed by the Big Boss: “Once invented, no species may undergo significant changes outside of a standard range of deviation.”

Call for clarification by the Department of Terminology (D.O.T.): We still don’t have a technical definition of the term “species”. (Groans around the table).

The Department chair was reminded that the problem has been referred to Subcommittee.

D.O.T.: Well why is it taking them so bloody long?

(General silence; D.O.T. will be fined at the standard rate for using a Dirty Word; the amount will be determined by the C.O.P. and notification will be sent through the Billing Department. C.O.P. stated: “And this time please provide the correct account number!” The chair of D.O.T. smirked.)

Comment by the representative of the Committee on Flatworms: Why are a mouth and an anus even necessary? Why can’t the worm simply absorb nutrients through its skin, like flatworms do?

Response by the Subgroup: We’ve been over and over and over this; if you want thicker animals you have got to invent a digestive tract and some sort of circulatory system, because due to the nature of cells (casting a dirty look at the chair of the Subgroup on Cells) nutrient molecules won’t simply diffuse to the inner organs.

At this point the Big Boss remembered a note from the last meeting on Flatworms and called for a status update on the Planarium problem. “The d-mned things just won’t die,” he said. “You cut off the head and the tail grows a new one. H-ll, I’ve chopped one up into about 300 pieces and each one of them grows into a whole new worm. What measures are being taken to prevent the things from just covering the whole d-mned planet?”

Response from the rep. of the Committee on Flatworms: We have put in a special application for the creation of several species of predators.

Comment from the Big Boss: “Well, just make sure the predators die. And make sure that when a planarium passes through their digestive system, it gets broken down into molecules. If the cells go through intact we’ll still be stuck with the same problem.”

Comment by the chair of the Subgroup on Dictyostelium: Why can’t the cells of the worm simply disband, seek out food on their own, and then reunite?

Intervention by the Big Boss: “Dictyostelium was an interesting experiment, but it’s hard to find the things when you need one. First of all, they’re so small I can’t see them without my bifocals, and second, you can never tell when they’re likely to group up to form a worm, or one of those dandelion-like things, and those are liable to blow up any time they get hungry.” He requests an update on the Dictyostelium Disaster from the Research and Development department.

Chair of R&D:  We’ve traced the problem to an error made by the Department of Mathematics and Physics; they did not properly calculate the force required by the cell adhesion molecules. Dictyostelium cells only stick together when the system has an optimal level of energy – in other words, when they’ve been fed. The problem was detected too late in the design process without sending the whole thing back to subcommittee or violating the law on standard permissible variation within an existing species.

Comment from the Department of Terminology: (Cut off before the standard request for definition could be made.)

Question from the Subgroup on Technical Innovation: Why is it that every time we invent a new species, we have to stick to the same conservative biochemistry? Why can’t we please, please, just once make an organism from scratch and not have to integrate all these past designs which, if you ask me, makes things way too complicated? Instead of integrating genes from bacteria and archaea into eukaryotes, we should have just junked the past and started over.

Answer from R&D: I quote from the basic Statutes on Biodegradability: “Any new organism which is created must adhere to basic chemical and physical laws and their subcomponents must be degradable by other organisms in the ecosphere as a means of energy conservation.”

Comment from the Chair of Physics: Our calculations demonstrate that violating this principle would require a constant, massive influx of supernatural energy into the Earth environment to support higher life forms on the scale we have planned.

Comment from Astrophysics:  And we would like to state once again, for the record, that when you guys started inventing biochemistry, we told you to make a system that would withstand supernovae. But did you listen? Well, did you??

The Big Boss allowed one final question before moving to adjournment.

The chair of the Subgroup on Multicellular Organisms: We would just like to point out that these meetings take up a vast amount of time. I have consulted with all the Subcommittees and the Head of R&D and the Technical Support Groups and we would like to ask for an amendment, or at least a special waiver, in the Prohibition on Speciation under the Rules of the Universe as Decreed by the Big Boss. Once the basic worm plan has been established, we could just let the rules of chemistry and physics alone and we’d get a plethora of advanced species.

The chair of the Subgroup on Geology points out: For God’s sake, man, the Cambrian period is coming up and you’d get some kind of explosion!

The Big Boss patiently pointed out that Rules were Rules.

The chair asked for a voice vote on the general plan for tubular worms as presented; the majority approved; the chair of the Subgroup on Dictyostelium objected; D.O.T. and C.O.P. abstained. The chair pointed out that C.O.P. didn’t have a vote and couldn’t “abstain”.

The Big Boss said: “Change the record to record that.”

Conclusion: The plan for tubular worms should be submitted to R&D for working out the details. They should present a final proposal at the next meeting, to be held in one minute.

R&D submitted their routine request for an expansion of time because of a heavy workload. “Refer to our minutely report,” the chair said. “Check Appendix 412. We have 8 trillion ongoing projects.”

The request was denied.

The Big Boss stroked his beard, consulted the time in picoseconds on his large, gold pocketwatch, and adjourned the meeting.