Immortality is the sole domain of the Almighty. But “virtual immortality” is fast-becoming the domain of groundbreaking stem cell therapies.
These therapies fall generally under the banner of “Regenerative medicine” — a field of medical innovation that seeks to reverse cellular aging by using rejuvenated cells to repair parts of the body that have been damaged due to illness, injury or age.
You may have seen the video of my rejuvenated heart muscle cells. Dr. Michael West performed this process in the offices of the company he runs, BioTime (AMEX:BTX). Starting with fibroblasts, or skin cells, from inside my left bicep, he increased the number of cells many times through routine cell propagation techniques. Then, he used genetic engineering technologies to convert some of those cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, identical to the embryonic stem cells that I grew from.
The scientific term for those cells is “immortal,” because they don’t age. This is because their telomerase genes are active, which causes the clock of aging, telomere loss, to constantly reset.
For new readers, our cells have about 120 telomeres per chromosome when we are born. Telomeres are sort of like the ends of zippers. When the two sides of our DNA’s double helix unzip to replicate, it uses up one telomere. When a cell runs out of telomeres, it stops replicating. Before then, however, short telomere caps cause the cells to stop functioning optimally.
BioTime then programmed my iPS cells with the genetic code of heart muscle cells. The result was a population of cells essentially the same as those that my heart was made of when I was born. At that point, the cells were aging normally, though they were young biologically.
We chose to make heart cells only because they are among the only cell types that anyone can easily identify. They self-assemble into tiny clumps of beating heart muscle cells. A lot of people just “get it” when they see this demonstration of the power of regenerative medicine as practiced by BioTime. Personally, I’m in awe.
The point, however, is that cells at an earlier stage of development, called endothelial precursor stem cells, could have been made as easily as heart muscle cells. If they were injected into my body, they would restore my cardiovascular system to youthful function in about a year. In fact, BioTime subsidiary ReCyte is currently moving toward clinical testing of this technology. I plan to have that procedure done as soon as it is legal in some jurisdiction.
My cardiovascular system will then have the life expectancy of an infant’s, which will vary according to genetics, behavior and the new medical therapies that will come online in the future. Scientists are currently working on strategizing the use of this technology to replace virtually every cell and organ in the body. The acquisition by BioTime of Geron, incidentally, significantly accelerates the timeline of regenerative medicine by bringing the vast majority of stem cell patent rights into one company. Most of those people working on the many possible regenerative therapies will license technologies from BioTime.
So anyway, if every cell in your body was replaced by a rejuvenated version, it would restore your apparent biological age to prime health, probably about age 25. We’ve got a long ways to go before all the details are worked out, but I think we’ll see it come together within the next 30-40 years. Moreover, the intermediate solutions, such as BioTime’s cardiovascular rejuvenation, will allow far more people to make it that long than is currently understood. Other medical breakthroughs will also increase our chances of making it to that cutoff point.
These breakthroughs will have a profound impact on life expectancies, which will increase the number of people who will be able to avail themselves of stem cell therapies.
Regenerative medicine is going to change the way we think about mortality, and it will do it for many people alive right now. Theoretically, those therapies will allow periodic rejuvenation of all your body’s cells, indefinitely staving off the diseases of aging and aging itself. Nevertheless, that’s not immortality.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta, better known as CNN’s chief medical correspondent, also believes that regenerative medicine will prevent death by aging for many people alive today. He refers to this as “virtual immortality.”
Something’s going to kill you someday, even if it’s not aging. A deeply religious friend of mine recently pointed out to me that even if we lived until our sun burned out and went supernova, that time span is trivial compared with eternity — which is the definition of real infinite immortality.
Immortality is clearly outside the domain of this newsletter and science itself. Regenerative medicine, however, is going to change the way we think about mortality. As radical as it may seem now, it’s going to be taken for granted in the not-so-distant future, and those who know it’s coming are going make fortunes every step of the way.