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?”
“Did you just ask something?”
“I said, How many different organs have you received?’”
“Lemme see. I got a new liver, a new heart, a pair of new hamstrings, and then a new pair of ankles.”
“So it’s like a combination of Sears and Gray’s Anatomy-you basically order anything you want out of the catalogue.”
“Well, that’s what I thought at first. But having the stem cells is only part of the deal. See, they gotta be able to send signals to these cells to tell ‘em what to do. I don’t wanna get too complicated for you here, but the point is, they know how to make some organs and not others. So I’ve been waiting on a new set of brain cells for quite some time. Did you just ask me something?”
“Another thing they haven’t figured out is skin.”
“Yeah, it looks a little dry.”
“A little like parchment is what you mean. And these polka dots? Liver spots. Hey, you try playing golf for 130 years and see what kind of a complexion you have. But the problem isn’t liver spots. Every time you get one of these new organs, they don’t tell you that you gotta have an operation. And every time you have an operation, you get these scars. I look like Raggedy Andy. Another thing they never tell you is that they may have figured out how to grow one kind of tissue, but not another. I know a guy who got a penile transplant, so he can get physically excited like a teenager. But until they can grow these neurons, he either forgets what to do or falls asleep. Another time, after I got my hamstrings, I’m like a bull, I want to go out and run a mile in four minutes. And I was doing great for the first couple of minutes.”
“And then what happened?”
“That’s when I broke both ankles.”
“Would you say stem cells have given you a new lease on life? What have you done with all the extra time you have?”
“Oh, lots of stuff. I read the papers. Watch reruns of The Honeymooners. Play golf. I still get into arguments with my kids, but it’s gotten a little ridiculous. I mean, how do you ground someone who’s 160 years old?”
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but it
doesn’t exactly sound like the most interesting life.”
“You ever hear of a guy named Lonesome George?”
“The turtle on the Galapagos Islands? Sure. The one that’s 100 years old.”
“You know what he does all day long?”
“If I recall correctly, he doesn’t do anything. He just moves around real slowly and then stops and sleeps for a while and then moves a little bit more.”
“That, my friend, is immortality.”