One of the most fascinating presentations at Idea City last week came from Stuart Kim, a professor of develomental biology and genetics at Stanford University.
He’s been researching functional genomics and aging, using genome-wide analysis to study the process of aging in worms and humans.
The conventional view was that aging is caused by an accumulation of cell and environmental damage, but research found that that in worms, aging is caused by changes in the transcription network – i.e., genes that can either speed up or slow down aging. By rejigging the proportion of these genes (my very rough description of what he described), scientists have been able to extend the lifespan of the nematode, a species of worm, by close to 50%.
Dr. Kim noted the “normal” maximum lifespan of the human is about 100 years, whereas other species live much longer. A clam discovered in Iceland (pictured above) is 400 years old. He said that as scientists continue to study the genomic makeup and activities in these other species, it will become possible to replicate some of this in humans, thus dramatically extending what is considered the “normal” maximum.
But here’s the catch – who gets to benefit from this new technology?
He alluded to the ethical problems in his presentation, and I asked him more about it in a follow-up face to face at one of the great parties that are an important feature of Idea City. He thought it was inevitable that human life could be extended to 150 or 200 or maybe longer. But if the treatment was expensive, who would decide who receives it? Suppose, he argued, that you could get 10 billionaires to pay $1 billion each, and then use the money to give further treatments to an additional 100,000 or even 1 million people. Who would those people be? On what criteria would they be chosen? And chosen by whom?
He was frank in acknowledging that the scientists who might enable this miracle are by no means qualified to make those kinds of ethical determinations. (And not remotely interested in being the decision-makers, either.) So who gets the call? Is the market the only determinant – i.e., whoever can pay? If not, what yardstick replaces the market? And who defines (and imposes) that yardstick?
It sounds like the set-up for a science-fiction novel, doesn’t it?
But we will see exactly this kind of debate in our lifetimes.