What’s so great about immortality?
That impertinent question occurs to me in the aftermath of recent news reports about the long-awaited isolation of human embryonic stem cells. A group of researchers at the Geron Corp. in Menlo Park, Calif., announced this sensational discovery in the waning days of November (although readers of Technology Review were treated to a fascinating advance story by Antonio Regalado in last year’s July/August issue).
Embryonic stem cells are being packaged for popular imagination as microscopic fountains of youth. These primordial cells retain the ability to develop into every cell type in the body-skin, liver, heart muscle, neuron-if correctly coaxed by the right biological signals.
But just what would life be like with unlimited access to replacement body parts? I sought (with apologies to Mel Brooks) some answers from an imaginary muse I’ll call The 200-Year-Old Man. When my researchers found him, he was living in-where else?-Miami Beach.
“So how’s it feel to be 200 years old?” I asked.
“WHAT?” he yelled. “Did you know I was at Woodstock? They let me in free, just for keeping people away from the amplifiers.”
“So why haven’t they fixed your hearing?” I yelled back.
“Turns out that’s one of the things they haven’t figured out how to grow. Didn’t you just ask something?”
“I just wondered how it feels to be 200 years old.”
“Can’t complain. Well, actually I can, and that’s one of the best parts. You live so long, you keep meeting new people who haven’t grown tired of hearing you kvetch. It’s great!”
“Where do you keep your stem cells?”
“Right up there on the mantle, next to the bingo trophies. In that little tank.”
“Do you have to feed them?”
“You use this fetal calf serum stuff. You used to have to order it through biological supply houses. Now they sell it at Costco, in 55-gallon drums. A lifetime supply.’ As if they knew!”
“How many different organs have you been able to grow from your cells?”