Where Is the Boundary to Augment Life?
Cloning, CRISPR and gene editing, synthetic life forms, and longevity. The latest scientific discoveries are able to offset the natural order of human existence and meddle with sacred questions of life and death. Even so, does gaining insight into the secrets of being mean it should also be put into practice? Are we aware of the consequences? Where are the boundaries to augment life?
Life, death and the coin for Charon the Ferryman
In Japanese folklore, the Shinigami, gods or spirits of death came to the persons who were destined to die and invited them over the threshold of life and death. In ancient Egypt, Anubis, having the body of a man and the head of a jackal, guided the dead to the Underworld. Looking at Greek mythology, the Fates or Moira, three weaving goddesses were responsible for weaving the thread of life. They were present at birth and death – deciding when to form and when to cut the fiber of every mortal’s existence. The ancient Greeks believed that Thanatos or Charon the Ferryman accompanied the dead to the Underworld, the reign of Hades. For easing the route, the tradition was to put a coin on the lips of the deceased to pay the passage on the Styx River to Charon. No mortal could come back from Hades’ territory.
The collective imagination of humanity is fascinating when it comes to the feared terrain of death and the sanctity of life. Every religion has had its own myths and legends about the passing of life and death, but there were some very few common denominators. The sanctity of life and the sanctions coming with bloodshed – either when someone takes their own or another person’s life – as well as the reprisal when an individual tries to meddle with the natural flow of life and dare cross the territory of the Gods. The fundamental questions of who shall live, be born or how and when shall one die have remained for centuries to be answered by forces outside the human sphere – and when an individual did not respect the laws or acted without consulting (religious) guidance, the consequences were dreadful.
Frankenstein and the birth of human augmentation
Remember the legend of Dr. Faust, the German scholar from around the 15th century? He is so dissatisfied with his life that he attempts suicide, and after the failed endeavor calls on the Devil to help him reach more knowledge and magical powers. The Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, appears and Faust makes a bargain with him. For some years, Faust will have all the supernatural powers he longs for, but at the end of the pact, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul, and he will be eternally enslaved. Meddling with questions of life, death or the supernatural? How dare you have the arrogance as a human to enter that territory?
However, for centuries, there were no means – more sophisticated than guns or poison – to infiltrate that dangerous terrain. Individuals who came the closest to questions of life and death, priests, doctors and sorcerers working in dark rooms selling magic powders and drinks to bring back the dead, did not have any real tools to change the course of life or death.
On the other hand, the industrial revolutions, the advancement of technology as well as medicine, opened new horizons. No wonder that the first novel about human augmentation, the horror story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, was published in 1818. It is not only the first work of science fiction as generally considered, but it’s also the first artificial life form in fiction dealing with the boundaries of life and death – center staging a scientist. It poses the increasingly relevant question whether gaining insight into the creation of life also means humans should put that knowledge into practice.
As the array of the methods for augmenting life is getting more and more advanced and nuanced, – from cloning through synthetic biology until CRISPR, the gene editing method – the option for everyday people to encounter the tough choice of whether or not to utilize those tools is also getting closer.
Dolly and the promise of cloning
In 1997, the world was stunned by a little white animal. Dolly, the sheep was a world sensation. Back then, no one thought science is able to produce a cloned mammal, a facsimile lamb. Life scientists celebrated the ground-breaking results, science-fiction writers got inspired to delve into the future of cloned societies, governments started to draft legislation to ward against future cloning issues.
When Dolly developed lung disease and had to be put to sleep at the age of six – approximately 40 in human years -, the fever around cloning dropped down. But to stay on the safe side, 70 countries enacted bans on human cloning worldwide due to its possible medical consequences, ethical challenges, and dystopian scenarios. Still, research has continued. More than two decades passed, and in 2018, Chinese researchers were able to clone the first primates from non-embryonic cells. They broke a significant technical barrier that could have hindered human cloning. That doesn’t mean humans are next, though. Or whether they should be.
As research in cloning currently shows, therapeutic cloning might be a more viable way to go. That means doctors take a cell from a patient, put its nucleus into an enucleated egg, and get the cell to begin dividing and multiplying in a lab dish. People with heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes could be hopeful to expect a medical breakthrough including cloned stem cells, from which new and healthy tissues could be grown.
Smart algorithms predicting life and death
A Nigerian start-up, Ubenwa has developed an A.I. algorithm able to diagnose childbirth asphyxia based on an infant’s cry. The smartphone application analyses the amplitude and frequency patterns of the weeping and provides an instant diagnosis. Founders told Quartz that the A.I. solution has achieved over 95% prediction accuracy in trials with nearly 1,400 pre-recorded baby cries. As, according to WHO, birth asphyxia is the third highest cause of under-five child deaths and is responsible for almost one million neonatal deaths annually, the solution comes as a real life-saver.
On the other end of the spectrum, the FDA has recently approved the use of an algorithm which monitors vitals of patients suffering from a severe illness to help predict sudden death from heart attacks or respiratory failure. The algorithm, named the Wave Clinical Platform, was developed by medical technology company ExcelMedical. The team hopes that their innovation could help more effective palliative care and ensure that patients receive respectful treatment and dignity before passing away.
There is no area of life where smart algorithms are not present. Why would life and death be the exception? Research and growth in computers’ ability to understand images, text, and video in the form of Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) are skyrocketing. Medical imaging, healthcare data management, diagnostics, oncology and many more fields could tremendously profit from its innovation. But how much should an algorithm know? What if they give a better diagnosis as a doctor? What if they are able to tell us how to live, until when we’ll live and when it’ll be time to die? Will we hand down to smart algorithms the key to play Gods with us?
The dawn of synthetic life forms
In 2010, scientists created the world’s first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved. The mastermind of the project, Craig Venter is one of the fathers of the Human Genome Project and founder of Human Longevity. He has many endeavors, including the building of an algorithm that could design a patient’s physical characteristics based on their DNA.
Regarding synthetic biology, Venter’s team created the „minimal genome” for a cell to stay alive. Explaining it bluntly, at first they played “Jenga” with a small genome. They cut as many genes which still allowed for it to survive to work out the minimum number of genes needed for life to exist – then built an entirely synthetic genome from only as many genes as enabled it to endure. From this, new microorganisms could be made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines. If we ever go to Mars, we might bring such synthetic organisms to the Red Planet to survive under hostile conditions.
Of course, it’s groundbreaking research, but should we experiment with the touchstones of life as we know it? Critics, including some religious groups, condemned Venter’s work, with one organization warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons.
Is aging a chronic illness?
In the last centuries, one of the most substantial discoveries of humans was that lifespan can be increased. Since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen about three months per year. Thus, every year a newborn lives three months longer than those born the previous year. Sweden, which keeps excellent demographic records, documents female life expectancy at 45 years of age in 1840 and 83 today.
With the drastic increase in life expectancy, the question arises: do we have the means to push it further? Do humans want to live longer? Does humanity want to mess with the natural life cycle and reverse engineer it?
Some people fancy the idea of longevity. Silicon Valley apparently has a quest for that now. The U.S. National Academy launched a Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. The Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment (PACITA) is a project of the European Union bringing together stakeholders of healthcare in hopes to design policy, gather technological solutions, and promote awareness of assisting an aging society. The co-founder of Google, Larry Page, established Calico to figure out the secret to a long, healthy life. Moreover, it’s ultimate aim is to extend the human lifespan by coming up with a breakthrough as important and useful to humanity as the transistor has been.
The anti-aging pioneer, Aubrey deGrey, goes even further as his research center is focusing on an “engineering” approach designed to keep the process of degradation below the threshold at which it turns into life-threatening disease. He says we might live for 1,000 years with aging as a chronic disease. Could that be possible? And if so, would we want that?
Designing the babies of the future with CRISPR?
CRISPR is the newest, most efficient and most accurate method to edit a cell’s genome. Basically, it means researchers are currently able to use these specific “DNA scissors” to cut DNA at particular places and replace them with others. What are the implications for these? It ranges from gene-edited mosquitos for the fight against malaria to curing cancer.
Going one (giant zero-gravity) step further, just imagine the following scenario: you and your wife decided to have a kid. After going to the bedroom and having done the usual procedure, you call a genetic designer and ask for a personal appointment. Then you sit down at the kitchen table and start to talk about how your kid should look like and what traits should he or she have. You decide you would like to have a sweet and healthy boy with plenty of blond hair (no, not like Donald Trumps’). He should be brilliant, he should have excellent eye-sight, and he should have a resistant immune system, be muscular, be tall and have a beautiful smile.
And imagine a darker scenario. What if with the advancement of biotechnology, in an entirely controlled society, a leader decides about the biological “casts” of people – producing humans who are working as blue-collar laborers, breeding humans who are white-collar laborers or creating killing-machines – genetically modified soldiers with the inability to empathy or free will.
Are we far away from this? Should we be far away from this? Chinese researchers reported using CRISPR to edit the genome of human embryos in April 2015. However, they sparked a worldwide debate over how this technology could (or should) be used. The gene-editing of embryos carries enormous risks as CRISPR can accidentally edit genes that have a DNA sequence similar to its target, and cause irreversible mutations in the nuclei. It is a scary and very alarming outcome, and we should definitely do everything in our power to avoid such scenarios.
The new horizons opened by CRISPR, cloning, longevity or synthetic life forms entail that first time in history, humanity has the chance to actively intrude in basic questions of life. That comes with responsibility and an utmost frightening feature: the capacity to not only influence one person’s life but generations to come. That’s why decisions about gene editing, cloning or longevity should be made responsibly and being aware of the consequences. Humanity has to grow up to these technologies and find the maturity to have meaningful bioethical discussions about it leading to responsible decisions.
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- Reviews of the latest health technology