Scientists Reverse the Aging Process: Exploring the Theological Implications

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By Fazale Rana – October 30, 2019

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

Revelation 9:6

I make dad noises now.

When I sit down, when I stand up, when I get out of bed, when I get into bed, when I bend over to pick up something from the ground, and when I straighten up again, I find myself involuntarily making noises—grunting sounds.

I guess it is all part of the aging process. My body isn’t quite what it used to be. If someone offered me an elixir that could turn back time and reverse the aging process, I would take it without hesitation. It’s no fun growing old.

Well, I just might get my wish, thanks to the work of a research team from the US and Canada. These researchers demonstrated that they could disrupt the aging process and, in fact, reverse the biological clock in humans.1

This advance is nothing short of stunning. It opens up exciting—and disquieting—biomedical possibilities rife with ethical and theological ramifications. The work has other interesting implications, as well. It can be marshaled to demonstrate the scientific credibility of the Old Testament by making scientific sense of the long life spans of the patriarchs listed in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies.

Some Biological Consequences of Aging

Involuntary grunting is not the worse part of aging, by far. There are other more serious consequences, such as loss of immune function. Senescence (aging) of the immune system can contribute to the onset of cancer and increased susceptibility to pathogens. It can also lead to wide-scale inflammation. None of these are good.

As we age, our thymus decreases in size. And this size reduction hampers immune system function. Situated between the heart and sternum, the thymus plays a role in maturation of white blood cells, key components of the immune system. As the thymus shrinks with age, the immune system loses its capacity to generate sufficient levels of white blood cells, rendering older adults vulnerable to infections and cancers.

A Strategy to Improve Immune Function

Previous studies in laboratory animals have shown that administering growth hormone enlarges the thymus and, consequently, improves immune function. The research team reasoned that the same effect would be seen in human patients. But due to at least one of its negative side effects, the team couldn’t simply administer growth hormone without other considerations. Growth hormone lowers insulin levels and leads to a form of type 2 diabetes. To prevent this adverse effect, the researchers also administered two drugs commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes.

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Figure 1: The Structure of Human Growth Hormone. Image credit: Shutterstock

To test this idea, the researchers performed a small-scale clinical trial. The study began with ten men (finishing with nine) between the ages of 51 and 65. The volunteers self-administered the drug cocktail three to four times a week for a year. During the course of the study, the researchers monitored white blood cell levels and thymus size. They observed a rejuvenation of the immune system (based on the count of white blood cells in the blood). They also noticed changes in the thymus, with fatty deposits disappearing and thymus tissue returning.

Reversing the Aging Process

As an afterthought, the researchers decided to test the patient’s blood using an epigenetic clock that measures biological age. To their surprise, the researchers discovered that the drug cocktail reversed the biological age of the study participants by two years, compared to their chronological age. In other words, even though the patients gained one year in their chronological age during the course of the study, their bodies became younger, based on biological markers, by two years. This age reversal lasted for six months after the trial ended.

Thus, for the first time ever, researchers have been able to extend human life expectancy through an aging-intervention therapy. And while the increase in life expectancy was limited, this accomplishment serves as a harbinger of things to come, making the prospects of dramatically extending human life expectancy significantly closer to a reality.

This groundbreaking work carries significant biomedical, ethical, and theological implications, which I will address below. But the breakthrough is equally fascinating to me because it can be used to garner scientific support for Genesis 5 and 11.

Anti-Aging Technology and Biblical Long Life Spans

The mere assertion that humans could live for hundreds of years as described in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 is, for many people, nothing short of absurd. Compounding this seeming absurdity is the claim in Genesis 6:3, which describes God intervening to shorten human life spans from about 900 to about 120 years. How can this dramatic change in human life spans be scientifically rational?

As I discuss in Who Was Adam?, advances in the biochemistry of aging provide a response to these challenging questions. Scientists have uncovered several distinct biochemical mechanisms that either cause, or are associated with, senescence. Even subtle changes in cellular chemistry can increase life expectancy by nearly 50 percent. These discoveries point to several possible ways that God could have allowed long life spans and then altered human life expectancy—simply by “tweaking” human biochemistry.

Thanks to these advances, biogerontologists have become confident that in the near future, they will be able to interrupt the aging process by direct intervention through altered diet, drug treatment, and gene manipulation. Some biogerontologists such as Aubrey de Grey don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility to extend human life expectancy to several hundred years—about the length of time the Bible claims that the patriarchs lived. The recent study by the US and Canadian investigators seems to validate de Grey’s view.

So, if biogerontologists can alter life spans—maybe someday on the order of hundreds of years—then the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies no longer appear to be fantastical. And, if we can intervene in our own biology to alter life spans, how much easier must it be for God to do so?

Ethical Concerns

As mentioned, I would be tempted to take an anti-aging elixir if I knew it would work. And so would many others. What could possibly be wrong with wanting to live a longer, healthier, and more productive life? In fact, disrupting—and even reversing—the aging process would offer benefits to society by potentially reducing medical costs associated with age-related diseases such as dementia, cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Yet, these biomedical advances in anti-aging therapies do hold the potential to change who we are as human beings. Even a brief moment of reflection makes it plain that wide-scale use of anti-aging treatments could bring about fundamental changes to economies, to society, and to families and put demands on limited planetary resources. In the end, anti-aging technologies may well be unsustainable, undesirable, and unwise. (For a more detailed discussion of the ethical issues surrounding anti-aging technology check out the book I cowrote with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0.)

Anti-Aging Therapies and Transhumanism

Many people rightly recognize the ethical concerns surrounding applications of anti-aging therapies, but a growing number see these technologies in a different light. They view them as paving the way to an exciting and hopeful future. The increasingly real prospects of extending human life expectancy by disrupting the aging process or even reversing the effects of aging are the types of advances (along with breakthroughs in CRISPR gene editing and computer-brain interfaces) that fuel an intellectual movement called transhumanism.

This idea has long been on the fringes of respected academic thought, but recently transhumanism has propelled its way into the scientific, philosophical, and cultural mainstreams. Advocates of the transhumanist vision maintain that humanity has an obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to correct our biological flaws—to augment our physical, intellectual, and psychological capabilities beyond our natural limits. Perhaps there are no greater biological limitations that human beings experience than those caused by aging bodies and the diseases associated with the aging process.

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Figure 2: Transhumanism. Image credit: Shutterstock

Transhumanists see science and technology as the means to alleviate pain and suffering and to promote human flourishing. They note, in the case of aging, the pain, suffering, and loss associated with senescence in human beings. But the biotechnology we need to fulfill the transhumanist vision is now within grasp.

Anti-Aging as a Source of Hope and Salvation?

Using science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. But transhumanists desire more. They advocate that we should use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering for the self-directed evolution of our species. They seek to fulfill the grand vision of creating new and improved versions of human beings and ushering in a posthuman future. In effect, transhumanists desire to create a utopia of our own design.

In fact, many transhumanists go one step further, arguing that advances in gene editing, computer-brain interfaces, and anti-aging technologies could extend our life expectancy, perhaps even indefinitely, and allow us to attain a practical immortality. In this way, transhumanism displays its religious element. Here science and technology serve as the means for salvation.

Transhumanism: a False Gospel?

But can transhumanism truly deliver on its promises of a utopian future and practical immortality?

In Humans 2.0, Kenneth Samples and I delineate a number of reasons why transhumanism is a false gospel, destined to disappoint, not fulfill, our desire for immortality and utopia. I won’t elaborate on those reasons here. But simply recognizing the many ethical concerns surrounding anti-aging technologies (and gene editing and computer-brain interfaces) highlights the real risks connected to pursuing a transhumanist future. If we don’t carefully consider these concerns, we might create a dystopian future, not a utopian world.

The mere risk of this type of unintended future should give us pause for thought about turning to science and technology for our salvation. As theologian Ronald Cole-Turner so aptly put it:

“We need to be aware that technology, precisely because of its beneficial power, can lead us to the erroneous notion that the only problems to which it is worth paying attention involve engineering. When we let this happen, we reduce human yearning for salvation to a mere desire for enhancement, a lesser salvation that we can control rather than the true salvation for which we must also wait.”2

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Gregory M. Fahy et al., “Reversal of Epigenetic Aging and Immunosenescent Trends in Humans,” Aging Cell (September 8, 2019): e13028, doi:10.1111/acel.13028.
  2. “Transhumanism and Christianity,” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, ed. Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 201.

Reprinted with permission by the author

Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/11/21/vocal-signals-smile-on-the-case-for-human-exceptionalism

Can New Medical Technology Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before?

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BY FAZALE RANA – NOVEMBER 2, 2016

When I was in junior high, I would rush home every day after school to tune in to the afternoon reruns of Star Trek.

Fascinated by the technology possessed by the crew of the Enterprise, I often imagined what it would be like if I had their high-tech devices.

I was particularly intrigued by the tricorder Spock used to collect readings when the team beamed down to a planet’s surface. As a professional biochemist, I really came to appreciate the powerful technology Spock had at his fingertips. Gaining even cursory insight into a biochemical sample can take weeks of hard work in the lab. But for Spock, pointing the tricorder in the direction of the alien life-form was all he had to do. Of course, Spock didn’t get to have all the fun.

Dr. McCoy had a tricorder too. His instrument could be used to diagnose sick and injured crew members by simply passing a wand over the patients. Wouldn’t it be great if physicians could diagnosis our ailments so quickly and easily? No more trips to the doctor’s office. No more late-night excursions to the emergency room.

Well, science fiction is about to become science fact, thanks to work by engineers from Washington University. These researchers developed a smart phone app that can measure hemoglobin concentration in a patient’s blood after the patient presses his/her finger against the phone’s camera.1

This new technology represents an important advance in medical screening, allowing physicians to quickly test for anemia. This blood disorder is rampant in the developing world, caused by malnutrition and parasite infections.

Measuring the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity is key for diagnosing anemia. Detecting and monitoring anemia can be difficult in a third-world context, because the most reliable method for determining the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood involves drawing blood and counting red blood cells. This procedure: (1) exposes medical workers to the patient’s blood; (2) runs the risk of being unsanitary, introducing the risk of infection; and (3) requires access to a laboratory to count the red blood cells.

Noninvasive methods exist, but they require expensive medical instruments.

These limitations motivated the University of Washington team to develop the smart phone app to measure hemoglobin content in blood. This technology is relatively inexpensive, mobile, and can yield rapid results—ideal for screening for anemia in the field.

HemaApp

The University of Washington team dubbed their app: HemaApp. The app makes use of an algorithm that converts video images of the patient’s finger into a series of oscillating curves corresponding to different wavelengths of light. The form of these curves is influenced by the absorption of light by hemoglobin in the blood (which causes blood’s red color). The more hemoglobin, the greater the blood’s light absorption at certain wavelengths of light.

In a pilot study (involving men and women, patients of all ages, and several ethnicities), the researchers showed that HemaApp performed as well as the leading noninvasive blood monitoring technologies, paving the way to use this technology in the field.

These researchers think that their accomplishments are the first step toward broader usage of smart phones for medical screening. It is conceivable that the technology can be adapted to screen for sickle-cell anemia, which is caused by mutations to the gene encoding hemoglobin. These mutations lead to hemoglobin with a distorted structure, which alters its light absorption spectrum.

This technology will also be a benefit to people living in the first world. Patients with anemia can monitor the hemoglobin level of their blood at home, providing them with a tool to more effectively manage their health issues. Because the hemoglobin measurements are made with a smart phone, the data can be easily sent to the patient’s physician.

HemaApp isn’t quite as impressive as a medical tricorder, but it sure is a big step in that direction.

Yet, as promising as the biomedical implications are for this advance, the bioethical implications are even more exciting.

Biomedical Technology, Bioethics, and Social Justice

Many Christians are vigilant about the ethical implications associated with biomedical advances, raising concerns when technologies undermine the sanctity of human life.

Yet, a neglected area of bioethics relates to the accessibility of medical care and emerging biomedical technologies. Many diagnostic tools and medical procedures require highly specialized equipment and highly trained personnel. These requirements sometimes render even the most basic medical care so costly that only a relatively small percentage of the world’s population has access to life-saving biomedical technologies.

In my view, the inequitable distribution of medical care should be considered as much a pro-life issue as the destruction of human embryos associated with many emerging biotechnologies or euthanasia. Like all Christians, I hold the view that all human life has immeasurable value—inherent worth and dignity—because all human beings are made in God’s image. If so, then it is reasonable to think that all human beings have fundamental human rights. And, in my view, that includes equal access to basic medical care. And ideally, beyond that, all human beings should be able to equally benefit from biomedical advances.

The use of smartphones as a medical screening tool moves us one step closer to realizing this ideal. HemaApp stands as a powerful new biomedical technology, but it is affordable and portable. These features make it possible for the wealthiest and poorest people on the planet to benefit from this advance. In fact, this technology could be transformative for some of the poorest parts of the world by helping medical workers quickly identify and treat those people suffering from anemia.

The University of Washington researchers bring us one step closer to the dream of a young teenager who loved to watch Star Trek. They are also making it possible to envision how, as human beings, we can boldly go where no one has gone before—to a world where biotechnology provides treatments and therapies for many horrible diseases and injuries andalso makes basic medical care accessible to the world’s poor.

Resources

Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Interview with Dr. Fazale ‘Fuz’ Rana” (article)
Q&A: Is a New in vitro Fertilization Method Ethical?” by Fazale Rana (article)
GNINOLC: We Have It All Backwards” by Fazale Rana (article)
Advance Holds Potential to Resolve Cloning’s Ethical Challenges” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Edward Jay Wang et al., “HemaApp: Noninvasive Blood Screening of Hemoglobin Using Smartphone Cameras,” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (September 2016): 593–604, doi:10.1145/2971648.2971653.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/11/02/can-new-medical-technology-boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before

Science News Flash: First Three-Parent Baby Born

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BY FAZALE RANA – SEPTEMBER 29, 2016

Shocking headlines from around the world have announced the first-ever birth of a baby with three parents (two mothers and one father)!

The research team who carried out this work will report the details about the conception and birth of this child at next month’s meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, to be held in Salt Lake City.1

Born to Muslim parents, this baby was conceived without destroying any embryos in the process. Fertilization took place in a test tube using the father’s sperm cells and a donor’s egg. Prior to fertilization, the researchers removed the nucleus from the donor’s egg and replaced it with the nucleus from one of the mother’s egg cells. In other words, the fertilized egg had genetic material from two women. The nuclear DNA came from the mother-to-be and the DNA in the egg’s mitochondria came from the donor.

This procedure ensured that the child would be free from the devastating effects of a mutated gene in the mother’s mitochondrial DNA that causes Leigh syndrome.

This procedure holds the potential to eradicate hundreds of genetic disorders caused by mutations to mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria play a key role in energy production for the cell. If these organelles aren’t healthy, it can lead to a number of devastating neurodegenerative and muscular degenerative disorders.

How should Christians think about this exciting new biotechnology? Is it ethical? Will it lead to designer babies? Should we play God?

My answers to these questions might surprise you…

For details about this technique and my thoughts on how Christians should respond to this biomedical discovery, check out the February 25, 2014 edition of Science News Flash(podcast).

Resources

Designer Babies?” by Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes

  1. J. Zhang et al., “First Live Birth Using Human Oocytes Reconstituted by Spindle Nuclear Transfer for Mitochondrial DNA Mutation Causing Leigh Syndrome,” Fertility and Sterility 106 (September 2016): e375–e376, doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2016.08.004.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/09/29/science-news-flash-first-three-parent-baby-born