Saturday, February 9, 2013

Preventing Death 101

There is one statistic that I don't have to make up.  Sooner or later 100% of people will succumb to some sort of death or another.  To paraphrase the title of the first Doors biography, "no one is getting out of here alive."

The number one problem facing earth's population is death.  As such, I am proposing my own organization, that I encourage you all to join.  (I might name it Human's Against Human Aging or HAHA.)   This organization will be dedicated to preventing death where ever it is found and funding other organizations that also stand behind this cause. It is obvious that trying to prevent death alone is a losing battle (take every individual who has gone before us for example). However, if we pool our brain power and our resources we might end death (at least for some) by the end of the 21st century.  I know this seems like a bold (perhaps fantastical) goal, but it can be fully accomplished (if we divert resources away from other fantastical goals such as preventing global warming, diets that really work, or putting our faith in the debt creating political class).  Below I discuss several measures currently underway that will help to accomplish this goal.



Why Worry about Death?

In one of his books, Douglas Adams proposed that in order to fly you simply had to fail to hit the ground  (This is of course ludicrous;  my baby daughter often ignores the importance of gravity when she reaches the end of a bed or couch, and not once has she flown, though she doesn't often hit the ground either, thanks to quick parents.)  I propose that life over death may be a similar notion.  In order not to die, one must simply fail to age.  Tragically, no where in human history has anyone managed to do this.  Oh, they have figured out a lot, and many humans have gone beyond the age of 10 or 20 or 30, but it is dramatically fewer that make it past 70 and 80 and fewer still that pass a century.  And a century is still a drop in the bucket, compared to the history of the universe.  The lessons of past generations have figured into an increased success rate from previous eras, but we have a long way to go.  I propose that we can manage to avoid death indefinitely and in order to do so we must dedicated more resources to the task.  I am not the first human to propose this.  Medical science and biological research funding are built on the idea of preventing various forms of death.  Indeed, this is a concept that is pervasive in the human psyche for obvious reasons that I will discuss below.

I must begin by suggesting that humans are mortal not by choice but because biology could not devise a better method of sustainable growth.  Biology has been trying to prevent death ever since its first replication, i.e. preservation of the genetic material that forms all life.  Single celled organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and protozoa divide by various means of cloning; an asexual form of reproduction that conserves the genome of the parent organism in the offspring, other more complex organisms can undergo this sort of division as well.  But passage of a conserved genome is not enough to prevent death.  Adaptations to that genome need to occur at orders of magnitudes higher than the random rate found in asexual reproduction, because the world that these organisms existed in was harsh and ultimately deadly, so biology devised various solutions to this problem.  One solution, is the sexual reproduction that we all know and love.  (I won't refer you to a link here as I am sure that you can find some on your own.)  Other methods include the ability of some organisms to take up plasmid rings of DNA from others in the environment, which could provide special powers to the possessor.   Like Link's power ring in the Legend of Zelda, bacteria who possessed them could have the power to survive in an environment filled with methicillin or other antibiotics (MRSA is a major concern in hospitals, and bacterial resistances are often used as a way of replicating DNA encoded special instructions for cellular tranfections in the laboratory).  With sexual reproduction, biology found an ingenious way to toss aside many of the insults that an individual organism may encounter in life, found also in cloning, and coupled this with genetic recombination allowing for increased variation in a shorter time span.  And this was good for a long time; it eventually created humans which I (and I suspect you) happen to be. Still it was not perfected, i.e. why biology created a thinking organism such as man to further perfect its intended masterpiece.  The masterpiece of biology is life itself, the thorn in its existence is death.

As eluded to above, we worry about death because we have a brain to worry about death.  The brain was created by the proliferative biological machine of biology I described above.   It was specifically designed to worry about such things as death and to define actions to aid the organism in preventing it.  Even the simplest neural circuits, found in the fruit fly, are programmed to avoid noxious (deadly) stimuli.
In humans, there are ultimately two things that end up killing us all, poor lifestyle choices (which is a catch all), and genetic susceptibilities  (catching the rest).  I will discuss each in turn and how death from each of them my be, at least in theory, avoided.

1. Poor lifestyle choices include unhealthy eating habits, smoking,sky diving, and declaring war on your neighbors among a lot of other things (some not as easy to predict as poor when we first endeavor to perform them).  Furthermore, even if we knew the risks of each endeavor, we may not be able to stop ourselves from doing them.  Indeed, calculating risk is a part of life that must continue in order for human society to progress.  A risk averse society is a stagnant society; doomed, I say, to die.  But each of these poor choices will undoubtedly lead to countless deaths and has been the cause of quite a few historically (See buying a ticket on the Titanic as one such example).  It is in theory possible to avoid death via poor lifestyle choices, assuming you knew enough to calculate the risk of each choice and systematically chose the less risky of the options.  This may make life very dull however, and still may not prevent your impending doom.  Instead, it is much more likely that instead of removing all risk from our society (for example stopping cigarette smoking to avoid  90 percent of lung cancer cases), we could instead use those big brains of ours to simply cure cancer. Indeed, human illness, injury, and disease are caused entirely by poor lifestyle choices described above and by the second cause of death listed below; genetics.

2. Genetic susceptibilities are the only other cause of death known to man.  In one established line of research on longevity, Dr. Nir Barzilai, head of the Longevity Genes Project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has proposed that there are protective (i.e. longevity) genes as well as killing genes.  He proposes that these longevity genes can protect against obesity, smoking, and other risk factors and can even buffer the effects of killing genes.  He points to one lady in her late nineties who has smoked since she was 14, but is protected by her so-called longevity genes.  What this means is that genes may protect you against your poor choices as well.  Indeed, it is the genetically linked poor life choices; cancers and diabetes, that have the greatest toll on mortality in developed countries, according to the World Health Organization, and still account for the predominant sources of death in developing countries as well.  Even if we look at another potentially high cause of death, infections, we can at least concede that our responses and mortality to such assaults upon our body are dependent on our genetic susceptibility to the pathogens involved.  Sickle cell anemia as a resistance for malaria for instance, or the documented cases of populations that are resistant to HIV-1 due to a mutation in the chemokine receptor CCR5, are examples of how our biology can compensate for infection.

But how can we protect ourselves from death besides looking both ways before crossing the street or cutting down on global carbon emissions?  Obviously, an understanding of our personal biological profile, might be the key.  To that end doctors and biological scientists are pushing medicine toward an era of individualized medicine, where we are treated for diseases based on our specific genetic profile and potential susceptibilities.   Another answer lies in the realm of regenerative medicine, in which scientists and clinicians act in concert to treat your diseases by a series of genetic alterations that may help to regrow damaged tissues in vivo or in vitro.  These types of therapies may one day mean we are not limited to the genes we are born with.  Regenerative medicine may also hold the keys to growing replacement organs identical to the original, with no chance of rejection by the body.

Is this the End?

This is just the beginning.  The Mayan's weren't predicting the end of the world, they just stopped adding to their calendar.  Everyday, our collective understanding of the systems that govern our existence is being expanded.   While biology may have imposed finite limits on the length of a human life; technological, biological, and medical advancements will ultimately be put to use at undermining and overcoming those limitations.  As they do, the quality and duration of our lives will improve in a very finite way.  To predict the end of death may be fantastic, but the curiosity inherent in us will keep pushing it farther and farther away. 

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