Thursday, September 29, 2005

The future's so bright ...

I really intend to continue from the previous post (fast sum - I was right, but wasn't depressed enough. And it looks like it's going to get a bit worse before it gets better.) But I ran across something that is...

phenomenal. I think that's understating it. I honestly believe it could turn out to be the next Nobel prize in medicine, and it's going to cause a HUGE political battle in an already charged arena.

Link first. The Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and in particular the work of Dr. Ellen Heber-Katz, has made a little discovery. Actually she (and her co-workers) made it in 1998. She noticed that the ears of mice which had holes punched in them were healing. The holes were punched, by the way, to identify the set (for control group work) to which these mice belonged. Now those of you with pierced ears are probably going "so what?" - and it wouldn't have surprised most folk to have missed them. But here's the thing. Larger holes, and they not only closed the holes, they formed clean skin which then regrew fur. No scars. No dimples. Healed.

Dr. Heber-Katz then did the thing that distinguishes true genius. She went, "Hmm, that's interesting? I wonder..." She and her staff did a bit more testing. They snipped something - a bit of tail or a toe, I can't quite figure out which was first. And the mice regrew them. Now it's time for a bit of excitement. Wonder what else re-grows? Well, as it happens, the "what else" includes hearts (the whole thing if something can keep pumping while it's growing), spinal cords, legs, eyes, livers... Pretty much everything except a brain. This is pretty darn exciting. I mean, we know lizards and fish and simpler forms can do some of that (though regrowing an eye is pretty spectacular, and growing a spinal column broken mid-back is even more so), but we hadn't found mammals that could do that. But then we get closer to the level that's causing my excitement.

They extracted some cells and injected them into mice that didn't regrow things - let's label them normal. And lo and behold the normal mice have regenerative capabilities as well. [An insertion here - I cannot tell for certain whether they grew what was removed prior to the injection though the implication is the answer is "yes".]

They're doing three general studies right now. First, they're seeing if this regenerative capability leads to longer lives. They're also watching to see if these mice suffer from a greater-than-normal (or even normal) rate of 'growth-failure' diseases. That is, Cancer and other ways in which the cells change and grow uncontrollably. And there's the third study - isolating the molecule (or other particle) that causes this growth. At this time it appears (hence my excitement, but with some caution) that the molecule may be in or applicable to other mammals.

In other words, it is likely - not just possible - that we're on the cusp of a treatment that will make loss of limb and organ be as permanent as getting a cold. Hmmm - liver's gone bad due to overdrinking? Cut it out, stay on dialisys for a couple of months. Congenital heart failure? Artificial heart and bed for a couple of months. Lost a limb in an accident or war? Parapalegic? Muscular Distrophy? Multiple Sclerosis? Gah - the mind boggles. And if it extends lifespan - or even if it just keeps folk "younger" till they die - you'll have people going nuts trying to get the molecule

But there are downsides - potential and actual. Potential is that we don't know what else will grow without bounds - is this a new cancer? Also, it apparently won't do much if anything for brain damage. Potential is that it will work for other mammals but not for us. Potential is cross-species vulnerabilities. Most of these are small, but they need checked. For this reason we won't see it in humans for at least a decade - probably. Thing is it's a BIG thing, and that may cause acceleration toward use. And that takes us to the actual downside. Oh - and we don't know what it'll do to pregnancies.


Let's set aside the arguments of who does and does not get it. It's genetic engineering - anathema to very vocal activists on the right and the left. Not only would they refuse it for themselves, they'd try wholeheartedly to deny it to everyone. Whether it's "messing with nature" or "supplanting God" the fear of the change will cause much disruption.

Then there's the longevity politics. Science fiction has handled this discussion a lot so I'll leave it alone for the most part. I'll just point out that if your 'normal' lifespan is 150 years, at what point do you consider someone an "adult", and at what age can or should you retire? And the question of more people being born while the deaths don't happen massively increases population. And socially - if a generation is nominally 25 years, how are folk going to deal with six generations alive at the same time?

I have trouble picturing a transition to a world in which people just regenerate as part of their healing. I can almost picture the world, but lessons and trials during the transition will have much influence. These are interesting times, and I don't think people realize just how interesting they might be.


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9/29/2005 3:36 PM  
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