Primal Numbers – Eternal Youth

The lure of eternal youth has captured our imaginations for centuries. From the legendary Fountain of Youth to the lotions and potions of the beauty industry, the idea of being forever young?or at least looking like it?remains popular. Now, science might finally have a way for you to achieve it. It’s an exciting breakthrough, but one that might create as many problems as it solves.

As impossible as the notion might seem, the ?basic science is sound,? as The Telegraph reports. It involves converting specialized adult cells into general-purpose stem cells. Stem cells can be turned into virtually any type of tissue, so scientists could take, for example, some of your brain or skin cells and create a new kidney or retina. In theory, perfecting this technique could allow us to replace any part of our body that was starting to wear out with age.

The discovery won Professor Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize for medicine. The four genes that are used in the process?Klf4, Oct4, Sox2 and c-Myc?are now known as the Yamanaka factors.

In Britain, the genomic technology company Cellectis has already launched a service called ScĂ©il. It will, as their website says, store ?induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) generated from a skin sample so that people can benefit, if needed, from future regenerative medicine treatments as soon as they become available.? The procedure costs around US $60,000, which doesn’t seem much to pay for a (theoretically) renewable supply of organs.

And in July, Japan approved a pilot study that will use iPS cells ?to generate retinal cells to treat volunteers suffering from age-related macular degeneration,? as the same Telegraph article explains.

Fascinating stuff, but setting aside any possible scientific glitches, I can’t help wondering about the moral dilemmas it might create. For example, what would happen if a criminal were injured in a courthouse or jail? Would taxpayers be liable for the cost of generating a new spleen for someone who was in the care and custody of the state? If we refused, could it somehow be claimed a violation of that prisoner’s human rights?

Or what if you accidentally ran over your neighbour’s dog? Could you be sued for the cost of growing Fido a couple of new internal organs?The scenarios, and lack of black-and-white answers, are endless. I can practically see the commercials for specialty lawyers popping up on my TV already.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of organ donation. Not everyone will be able to afford their own stockpile of personal stem cells, and organ donations will still be needed. Will that 80-year-old emergency patient with a bad heart, but sporting a 10-year-old kidney, really have every lifesaving effort made for him?

There’s no denying that this technological breakthrough by Professor Yamanaka is truly awe-inspiring. Undoubtedly, it will improve the quality of life for thousands, and there are probably plenty of unseen benefits no one’s even thought of yet. But we also need to think about the possible pitfalls before they happen, no matter how unlikely they might seem. Perhaps, with a little help from this scientific Fountain of Youth, we can live long enough to figure it all out.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.