By NICK SCHULZ
Reflecting on the Paris exposition of 1900, Henry Adams admitted to being overwhelmed by the new technologies on display. He was awed in particular by the electricity-generating dynamo. One wonders what he would make of the technologies described by Sonia Arrison in “100 Plus.”
“We are at the cusp of a revolution in medicine and biotechnology,” Ms. Arrison announces, “that will radically increase not just our life spans but also, and more importantly, our health spans.” This revolution will “change everything, from careers and relationships to family and faith.”
Consider tissue engineering, in which human organs, grown from scratch or rebuilt in a laboratory, are transplanted into sick humans. It sounds like science fiction, but Ms. Arrison describes the experience of Claudia Castillo, a 30-year-old mother of two children whose windpipe was badly damaged from tuberculosis where it joined her left lung. She had difficulty breathing, and her quality of life was deteriorating rapidly.
Conventional treatment would have required a risky operation to remove Ms. Castillo’s lung. But tissue engineers were able to take a donated trachea and remove the donor’s tissue from the windpipe’s “extracellular matrix,” a kind of biological scaffold. Using stem cells from Ms. Castillo, the scientists grew tissue on top of the windpipe structure, generating a new trachea. It was then transplanted into Ms. Castillo. Since the trachea was engineered with her own tissue, her body did not reject it. With the diseased trachea removed, she was cured of a potentially fatal infection.
Scientists across the world, Ms. Arrison says, are working on engineering close to two dozen different human organs in the lab, including bladders, lungs and hearts. Progress is slow, and it might be decades before bioengineered organs are commonplace, but the trend-line is clear. A force behind the movement is the U.S. military, an eager funder of restorative and regenerative engineering. Dr. Robert Vandre, chairman of the Armed Services Biomedical Research Evaluation and Management Committee, thinks that “ultimately, we will be able to grow limbs” for wounded soldiers.
Such a development would be a cause for joy, of course, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind the ecstatic predictions a few years ago of the breakthroughs that would be made possible by human-genome sequencing—and the modest gains that have so far resulted. Gene therapy, too, was promoted as a likely source of astonishing medical progress but has recently run into obstacles and setbacks. Predictions are easy; science is hard.
Ms. Arrison is in the hopeful camp. She recounts advances in stem-cell research, pharmaceuticals and synthetic biology. And the tinkering with genes still goes on. We learn about Dr. Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California in San Francisco, who discovered that the life span of the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans could be doubled by partially disabling a single gene. Further improvements on the technique resulted in worms living six times longer than normal. “In human terms,” Ms. Arrison says, “they be the equivalent of healthy, active five-hundred-year-olds.” That may be a bit much to expect, but Ms. Arrison says she is confident that “human life expectancy will one day reach 150 years.”
The quest for longevity is an old one, of course, from Ponce de León’s Floridian adventures to Benjamin Franklin’s wondering whether he should have his body preserved in a cask of Madeira wine to “be recalled to life at any period, however distant.” Ms. Arrison entertainingly chronicles efforts to conquer aging and death from antiquity to today. Food, sex, exercise and alchemy have all been employed to keep the grim reaper at bay. But technology offers the most plausible route, she says, noting that biology and computing are drawing ever closer together with the sequencing of the human genome.
What is more, technology heavyweights are paying attention, including Bill Gates (if he were a teenager today, Mr. Gates once said, he’d be “hacking biology”) and Jeff Bezos (“atom by atom we’ll assemble small machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs”). Larry Ellison, of Oracle, started a foundation more than a decade ago to support anti-aging research; the institution donates about $42 million a year.
And if humans do begin living to 150, then what? If Medicare and Social Security are in trouble now, what happens when they must support multiple generations of retirees? In Ms. Arrison’s mind, we’ll be living healthy, productive working lives until very near the end. The more pressing concerns, for her, have to do with the strain on natural resources and the added pollution of a swelling world population.
Noting that similar worries have been raised whenever technology alters social conditions, Ms. Arrison argues that apocalyptic prophecies are unlikely to be realized. Increasing wealth and mankind’s adaptability and ingenuity mean that as new problems emerge, new solutions will be forthcoming. “In looking at the trends of history,” she says, “we can see that even when there are downsides to a particular wealth- or health-enhancing technology, the problem is often fixed once the population reaches a point where it feels secure in spending the resources to do so.”
Ms. Arrison’s sunny outlook is infectious, and surely mankind does have remarkable powers of problem-solving and adaptation. But one can’t help wishing, a bit ahead of time, for some wise counsel from one of those 150-year-olds she envisions, who might be able to tell us whether all the effort and all the dreaming were worth it.
Mr. Schulz is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of American.com.