Every scientific breakthrough humanity achieves comes with at least some implications for the future. Take stem cell research, for example. Research is showing tremendous potential for the use of stem cells to treat all kinds of illnesses and injuries. Given that eradicating medical problems leads to longer life, is there an ethical boundary that needs to be respected? And if so, are we approaching that boundary?
A bit of research recently published in the European Heart Journal suggest the possibility of uncovering a genetic fountain of youth through a better understanding of the genetic code within stem cells. The research focused on cardiac stem cell material and its ability to restore function to an aging heart. What the researchers accomplished is astounding.
Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute have been studying stem cell therapies for more than a decade. This particular study was about trying to determine if stem cells could be used to reverse the aging process. Researchers used aged rats and cardiac stem cell material harvested from younger rats.
The stem cell material was harvested, processed, and then injected into the hearts of the subject rats. Researchers observed the following results:
Though further studies will have to verify the results, Cedars-Sinai researchers believe they may have cracked the door to the proverbial fountain of youth. Any ability to reverse aging in the heart muscle could theoretically be reproduced in other tissues if science can understand the mechanisms behind it. This is what leads to the ethical question.
It is amusing and somewhat satisfying to dream of a fountain of youth that would ostensibly grant humankind immortality. But that is only because it does not now exist. What harm is there in fantasizing about living forever when we all know it cannot be done? It is an entirely different ballgame if science can create a genuine fountain of youth through stem cell therapy.
There are numerous companies, like the Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) out of Murray, Utah, that specialize in teaching doctors how to use stem cell therapies for aesthetic and orthopedic procedures. Such procedures are largely innocuous in terms of adding to the longevity of patients. Would ARMI and others like them be comfortable teaching procedures that extended human life well beyond current norms? It’s hard to say.
It is equally hard to say whether doctors would be willing to administer such therapies or not. And then there is the question of the patients themselves. Do you really want to live forever in a world that seems so constantly plagued by turmoil? Some undoubtedly would, but others would not. And in the end, who gets to decide?
It is a fantastic thing to fully grasp the kinds of strides we are making in stem cell research. Patients who have already been successfully treated with stem cell therapies may consider such therapies godsends. Yet the fast pace at which research is advancing suggests we could be on the verge of some very big things. Perhaps we would do well to step back and be very thoughtful about the direction research is taking.
There are no easy answers to questions posed by the potential fountain of youth. Humanity would do itself a big favor by seriously considering those questions now, before the fountain of youth really is discovered. It’s time to move the discussion away from lab rats and into the realm of human reality.