Who Wants To Live Forever?

Posted: Nov 21, 2008 12:00 AM

Times are bleak. Even a cursory peek at the economy tells us the world is about to go to holy hell. And speaking of holy hell, Iran is on the cusp of building an atomic weapon, so be prepared to meet the Twelfth Imam.

As an eternal killjoy, this all seems about right to me. From the dirt floors of our tiny hovels, I imagine, we will one day congregate around fire pits and entertain emaciated grandchildren with tales of economic booms, budget surpluses, iPhones and low-interest credit cards. All in all, this generation had a fine run.

But there is a thin reed of optimism. Those delightful grandchildren of yours apparently are going to live forever -- or that's the goal. The news of only the past few weeks has transformed plenty of science fiction into near reality.

Did you hear the story of the South Carolina teenager who survived for nearly four months without a heart? She was kept alive with a "custom-built artificial blood-pumping device" and was able to survive for her proper heart transplant.

D'Zhana Simmons is only 14 years old, so the procedure was a marvel worth celebrating. But what does this kind of innovation mean for society in the long term? What about the 70-year-old with a clunky ticker? Or 90-year-old? What do we do when my own "custom-built artificial blood-pumping device" is on the fritz in 20, 30, 40 years?

Fortunately, I don't want to live forever (and judging from my inbox, this is a widely held position). I do, however, hope to die in my favorite position: deep in slumber. If they ever let me, that is.

Four European universities recently got together and transplanted a human windpipe using stem cells -- not the controversial embryonic kind, but from bone marrow so the patient's body would not reject it.

Though some questions remain about the breakthrough, surely the future will bring regenerated body parts for all -- with, one hopes, a streamlined process for livers and lungs. The potential of this science will be consequential in the lives of millions of people born with defective organs and will allow most of us to live longer, more fruitful lives.

And if they fail, scientists can always excavate you later.

Using 20,000-year-old hair they found in the Siberian tundra, an international team of scientists -- with nothing constructive to do, evidently -- recently finished a draft genome sequence of the majestic woolly mammoth.

They still have some work to do, but in a few more years, these scientists will be set to play God by recreating the long-extinct animals -- for only 10 million bucks a pop.

"It may one day become possible," Pennsylvania State University biochemist Stephan Schuster explained, "to mammoth-ify an African or Asian elephant genome."

Awesome. But why ?

Imagine the other potential uses for this science. Why not, for instance, drill deep into the Michigan ground and excavate the long-lost DNA of a competent auto-industry executive or even Henry Ford (you know, after they erase the Nazi-sympathizing chromosome)?

Either way, science is on the march. And though we tend to concentrate feverishly on the negative, great things are happening.

Writing this column has momentarily revived my belief in humankind. Short term, you say, we're on the wrong track. Well, long term, we usually are on the right one.

So if we somehow survive these Dark Ages -- a time when Americans already live long, healthy, prosperous lives and have the financial wherewithal to fund scientists who muck around in the Siberian ice -- maybe, just maybe, we can live forever one day.

That is, if you actually are interested in such a terrible inconvenience.

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