By Michael J. Katin, MD
"Future perfect: a tense of verbs expressing expected completion in the future"
"Have no fear of perfection -- you'll never reach it." Salvador Dali
This could therefore refer either to optimization of the human race or whether the August edition of this column will be delivered on time. The theme of evolution of our species is possibly the more interesting of the two options but neither of these is likely to have been resolved in the next month.
For years philosophers have dealt with the question of how and whether humankind can be perfected and there have been many different ideas about how that might look. Nietzsche considered Goethe, Montaigne, Voltaire, and Napoleon to be the best examples. These would be hard-pressed to challenge Oprah or David Beckham on a list generated today
Most of the time when efforts are made to push humankind along the road to improvement there wind up being hideous moral dilemmas, let along the almost certain chronic problem that most people just don't recognize what's good for them. There are many ways that improvement can occur---increased intellect, increased strength, the need to get by with less sleep, and even the ability to read and understand the terms and conditions. Our species has made a lot of progress, with an estimation that knowledge doubles more rapidly than every twelve months (even though some have been left behind) and physical achievements continue to be surpassed almost on a daily basis. Unfortunately, after all these years, even if average life expectancy has increased modestly, the maximum age of the human has not made significant progress, and, in fact, may have even substantially declined!
Everyone is familiar with the efforts of Gilgamesh to overcome the inevitability of death and over thousands of years there have been philosophical and scientific efforts to seek immortality. Christianity and Islam believe in life in Heaven after death, and Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism believe in reincarnation, but the best way to deal with it is not to die in the first place. Virtual immortality is the goal of multiple current projects, undoubtedly heavily funded by Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett.
Short of becoming intensely religious or investing in huge computer projects, is it possible for one to overcome internal barriers to immortality? Are we programmed to self-destruct at a certain point? Is it to make room for the next generation, which will also self-destruct, sort of defeating the whole purpose? The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia is known for its breeding of the Wistar rat, used in 50% of all rat-related studies It is also the source of the WI-38 cell line, derived from an aborted fetus from Sweden , parts of which were somehow acquired by Leonard Hayflick in 1964 and founds to be able to the propagated and used for medical research, including vaccine production. Based on studies of this cell line, Dr. Hayflick learned that even when cells are protected and not subject to intervening stress, they will divide about 50 times and then throw in the cellular equivalent of the towel. This was a frightening discovery, indicating that no matter what we do, we ultimately have an expiration date.
That is, as long as your cells stay well-behaved and orderly. For years, we have heard about research being done on HeLa cells, without initially realizing that there seems to be an endless supply of them. We were told that these were cervix cancer cells from Helen Lang, whose name because famous without anyone's realizing that she never existed. Was this a deliberate misrepresentation or was a cover-up underway? In turns out that, in fact, this was the way to confuse anyone from tracking back the origin of these cells to Henrietta Lacks, who has now gained fame (although of no benefit to her) following a number of exposes as well as a 2010 "biography." Her name was somewhat ironic, since her cells lack the self-destructive limitations of normal cells, and since obtaining the cells was done lacking any type of informed consent. Henrietta Lacks, or at least a rogue portion of her, has now been proliferating since 1951 and it was just last month that it was reported that an attorney has come to the rescue to represent family members seeking guardianship, although presumably not to assume the care and feeding of the thousands of pounds of HeLa cells currently residing around the globe.
The point is, none of us have thousands of pounds of our being scattered throughout multiple continents, but Henrietta Lacks does. Does this mean that she has achieved the long-sought dream of immortality? Does this also mean that when we treat cancer in our patients that we are actually trying to eliminate the next level of evolutionary progress that has achieved an infinite lifespan? This is truly a frightening concept, since it implies that humankind may develop not into demigods but into mucoid blobs. It may then be a matter of time before protection is granted to these evolutionary pioneers and injunctions placed on antineoplastic therapies and carcinogens are deliberately introduced into the environment-----well, I guess that part already is happening. Change is always stressful, and evolutionary change more stressful than most.
Emanuel Countdown: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel's biographies list his birth year as 1957 but, interestingly, do not list a birth date. He has expressed that he does not wish to live past his 75th birthday. Giving him every benefit of the doubt, he will have his 75th birthday no later than December 31, 2032. Including July 1, 2018, this leaves 5,298 days to his goal.
BUT WAIT---GOOD NEWS----it may be possible to achieve immortality without having to take on the currently negatively-tainted persona of malignancy. At age 80,000 years (estimated) a grove of quaking aspens (or, actually, aspen, since it is genetically all one tree) in Utah is also considered the heaviest (presumably also estimated) living thing on earth. From one root system arise thousands of identical sprouts, hidden in the backwoods of Utah and fairly free from commercial exploitation. Even better is the (literally) immortal jellyfish, now found throughout the globe after having been transplanted by commercial shipping. Quite astonishingly, these creatures recycle themselves back and forth from adulthood to juvenile and back again, sort of like a middle-aged professional but without the motorcycle. One can even buy them as "pets," although it will be necessary to bequeath them to future generations Therefore there are at least two alternatives to meeting the reaper, although being a quaking tree in Utah or a translucent hydrozoan are not highly attractive options. Might as well keep trying to find other options.