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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    Pin-Yin Shi Shi Zao Ying Xiong! (part 4)
    This is the fourth of a series of articles jointly written by Wildcat and Spaceweaver, summing our techno-optimistic view of 2008. This part is dedicated to the prospects of technology profoundly enhancing the human biological system through genetic, bionic, and other biotechnological interventions.

    Such prospects invoke in many, deep concerns, even fears, that the very essence of human nature is being meddled with, and such meddling will bring with it unpredictable and possibly adverse consequences. Having said that, we believe that the human scientific and technological advancements, guided by an enhanced sense of ethical consideration and rational openness to the current needs of the world will usher a future in which illness and ailments, suffering born of faulty genes or unfortunate circumstances can, should and will be eradicated.

    “They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy
    That all he could do was wreck and destroy, and
    He turned to his workmates and said: Death to Machines
    They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.”

    (Robert Calvert wrote and recorded the song Ned Ludd, appearing on his 1985 album Freq)

    Have you ever heard of Ned Ludd? Well, Ned Ludd is the person from whom the Luddites took their name. His actions were the inspiration for the folkloric character of "Captain Ludd" who became the Luddites' imagined leader and founder. The year is 1811 and the industrial revolution is in full swing, a new social movement of British textile artisans is born to protest—often by destroying mechanized looms—against the changes produced by the industrial revolution, which they felt were leaving them without livelihood. These then are the Luddites, anti-technologists and possibly technophobes, and yet given the times of their arrival one may even be able to sympathize with their lack of foresight and insufficient vision, they were after all mostly skilled artisans who lost substantial income due to newly created textile machines. (Adapted from: History of Luddism and wiki/Luddites)

    But even if we extend our understanding to ideologies past, carrying a load of ignorance and insufficient facts we cannot in any fashion accept the modern form of Luddism, Bio-luddism.The premise that many new and advanced technologies influence human nature in a way that degrades the overall quality of human existence can be said to represent the main aspect of Bio-luddism. Moreover, Bio-luddism as George Dvorsky puts it in his eye- opening essay, in the paragraph ‘Big Brother wants you dead’:
    At times the Bio-Luddites sound parochial and authoritarian, and at their worst they sound downright ideological and even totalitarian. Indeed, as Leon Kass has repeatedly stated, "the finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not." And frighteningly, when asked by Brian Alexander, the author of Rapture: How Biotechnology Became the New Religion, if the government has a right to tell its citizens that they have to die, Francis Fukuyama answered, "Yes, absolutely."

    (From: Deathist Nation-At Sentient developments )

    And yet as any conscious aware intelligent entity such as we supposedly are, realizes, the advances of biomedicine, molecular biology and the whole realm of anti-aging has recently received a fundamental revitalization, so Bio-luddites notwithstanding, we desire to live longer, healthier lives and we now may finally have the means to implement these desires. For is it not the case that given a sufficiently advanced and safe technology each and every one of us will choose life over death? Health over illness? Upgrade of mental capacities over a continuous degradation? The fact that we are shaped by our genes is indisputable, a fact that we may know intellectually but feel very little. “None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story” (so says Steven Pinker in My Genome, My Self) What it all comes down to is the need to finally realize the foundations of human biology, the transformation that continuously arises from it and the implications of this transformation on understanding ourselves.

    The transformation of human biology takes place within a few distinct disciplines of life science and technology. The first is of course the field of genetics. The human genome, considered to be the blueprint of the human biological system and many aspects of human nature, was first sequenced in 2003 after a 13 years long project costing about 300 million dollars. In 2007, 2 human genomes were sequenced for one million dollar each. In 2008, 3 genomes were sequenced costing 60,000$ each. Conservative predictions towards 2009 speak about sequencing 1000 genomes taking approximately 2 weeks each with costs just under 10,000$ each. In just a few years sequencing a genome is predicted to become as cheap and as ubiquitous as a complex blood test. It will become part of standard medical practice, and this will open the age of personalized medicine, where medical care will be specifically tailored to the individual with optimal effectiveness.

    Personalized medicine tries to answer questions like: Why do some people get cancer and others don't? Why is cancer more aggressive in this person compared to that one? Why does this drug work for you and not for me? Why does someone need twice the standard dose to be effective? And why do others need only half of the standard dose? The goal of personalized medicine is to get the best medical outcomes by choosing treatments that work well with a person's genomic profile, or with certain characteristics in the person's blood proteins or cell surface proteins.
    (FDA: Genomics and Personalized Medicine)

    Meanwhile, Fast Sequencing and personal Genomics companies providing partial yet effective genetic screening, are on the rise: “Startups offering genetic analysis directly to consumers, including 23andMe and Navigenics, have had a roller-coaster year. “The Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits genetic discrimination in employment or health insurance, passed after more than a decade of debate, removing a potential barrier to use.” (Technology review) The very fact that the genetic non-discrimination act has passed is one of the main reasons to be optimistic about our capability to adjust our social organization to transformative technologies. This legislation provides comprehensive protection against all forms of genetic discrimination and is necessary to ensure that biomedical research continues to advance.

    One cannot overstate the vast impact genomics has on medicine and our understanding of the human system. We already know today that many medical conditions, some of which severe and disabling, are of genetic origin. Technologies are emerging that will allow (and already are allowing) correcting disease causing genetic errors, or totally avoid them in the first place. On January 2009, the first British baby genetically screened before conception to be free of a breast cancer gene has been born. This is only a first hint of the huge potential genetic screening has in ridding humanity’s genetic pool from a long list of hereditary diseases, and hereditary dispositions towards medical conditions. Genetic screening, though it is already technologically within reach is still highly controversial, perhaps because it represents one of the most profoundly effective means of altering the human biological makeup.

    Advances in biomedicine and especially regenerative medicine promise the possibility of reversing many severe illnesses and restoring the body to optimal and prolonged health condition. Deciphering the human genome will soon allow medical interventions at the genetic level. This evolving field is called Gene therapy; but what is Gene Therapy?

    “Imagine that you accidentally broke one of your neighbor's windows. What would you do? You could stay silent, no one will ever find out that you are guilty, but the window doesn't get fixed. You could try to repair the cracked window with some tape: not the best long-term solution. Or, you could put in a new window: not only do you solve the problem, but also you do the honorable thing. What does this have to do with gene therapy?

    You can think of a medical condition or illness as a "broken window." Many medical conditions result from flaws, or mutations, in one or more of a person's genes. Mutations cause the protein encoded by that gene to malfunction. When a protein malfunctions, cells that rely on that protein's function can't behave normally, causing problems for whole tissues or organs. Medical conditions related to gene mutations are called genetic disorders.

    So, if a flawed gene caused our "broken window," can you "fix" it? What are your options?

    1. Stay silent: ignore the genetic disorder and nothing gets fixed.
    2. Try to treat the disorder with drugs or other approaches: depending on the disorder, treatment may or may not be a good long-term solution.
    3. Replace the flawed gene with a correct, functioning copy: if you can do this, it will solve the problem from its root!

    If it is successful, gene therapy provides a way to fix a problem at its source. Adding a corrected copy of the gene may help the affected cells, tissues and organs restoring their optimal function. Gene therapy differs from traditional drug-based approaches, which may treat the problem, but do not repair the underlying genetic flaw.”

    (From: What is gene Therapy? The University of Utah genetic science learning center)

    2008 has also seen a tremendous advance in the field of regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy. Stem cells are special kind of cells that can be reprogrammed to replace virtually any other kind of cell in the body. This versatility is the key to their outstanding therapeutic potential.

    When stems cells are placed within a damaged organ such as heart, liver, skin or even the brain, they are capable to promptly reprogram themselves to become healthy cells of that organ and actually regenerate the sick tissue. Scientists hope one day to be able to create whole new organs from a patient's own stem cells and by that cure or replace organs damaged by sickness or accidents.

    Just for the taste what regenerative medicine promises within the coming decade or even sooner, the Guardian reported last week about A revolutionary stem cell therapy:

    a team led by Sara Rankin at Imperial College London has discovered a way to stimulate bone marrow to release two other types of stem cell, which between them can repair bone, blood vessels and cartilage. Giving mice a drug called mozobil and a naturally occuring growth factor called VEGF boosted stem cell counts in their bloodstream more than 100-fold.

    "This has huge and broad implications. It's an untapped process," said Rankin, whose study appears in the US journal Cell Stem Cell. "Suppose a person comes in to hospital having had a heart attack. You give them these drugs and stem cells are quickly released into the blood. We know they will naturally home in on areas of damage, so if you've got a broken bone, or you've had a heart attack, the stem cells will go there. In response to a heart attack, you'd accelerate the repair process."

    “In its annual list of the year's top ten scientific breakthroughs, the journal Science has given top honors to a research that produced "made-to-order" cell lines by reprogramming cells from ill patients. These cell lines, and the techniques for producing them, offer long-sought tools for understanding — and hopefully someday curing — difficult-to-study diseases such as Parkinson's disease and type 1 diabetes.” (Science daily)

    Biomedicine is at present the most promising field of immediate succor to millions of people all over the world, suffering, we believe will eventually be a reference in the history books. However, not all failures of the human imperfect machine can be cured in this fashion.

    When biology fails due to severe illness or accidents, the fast pacing field of bionics offers an increasing number of artificial replacements to failing or missing biological systems. For years now, a few companies work towards the holy grail of building an implantable artificial heart. In BBC news from October 2008, scientists say they have a working prototype of a fully artificial heart ready for implanting in humans. Meanwhile a company named Tengion is experimenting with full sized artificial bladder grown from a patient’s own tissue over a biodegradable scaffold. This technology could one day produce many kinds of replacement inner organs made from a patient’s own tissues. Such organs can replace organs that were damaged by illness, aging or accidents.

    The convergence of man and machine has gained quite a lot of momentum in 2008. Dean Kamen has presented his amazing bionic hand, and researchers with the Boston Retinal Implant Project, which was spun out of MIT, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in 1988, are developing an artificial eye

    These are amazing technological advancements, but the really far-reaching technological advancements in the field of bionics have to do with directly interfacing the brain with electronic computers. The cochlear implant often referred to, as a bionic ear is a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. Unlike hearing aids, the cochlear implant does not amplify sound, but works by directly stimulating any functioning auditory nerves inside the cochlea with an electric field. Approximately 150,000 people worldwide have received cochlear implants, with recipients split almost evenly between children and adults. Patients with a ‘locked in’ syndrome, severely paralyzed to the extent they cannot move any part of their bodies and therefore cannot communicate, were first able to operate computers by the power of their thoughts alone, by that regaining contact with the world around them and some sort of independence. This amazing feat of technology is achieved by directly interfacing computer hardware to neurons in the brain. For a fascinating account of the state of the art brain implants and brain machine interface read Discover magazine’s The rise of the Cyborgs

    No doubt the field of bionics is in its infancy. In the coming decades we can expect to see emerging technologies capable of replacing many if not most of our biological systems with engineered and probably significantly enhanced systems. The futuristic field of nanomedicine already explores the convergence of nanotechnology and medicine; microscopic robots could one day roam our bodies and perform complex tasks of monitoring metabolism, tissue repair, drug delivery and neural interfacing on the cellular level.

    Last and perhaps the most impacting prospect of technology changing our biology is that of life extension. Human life expectancy is already increasing for a few centuries. Lately, however, the possibility of stopping aging altogether attracted quite a lot of attention from the media, and it seems that last year, for the first time, very significant life extension is not considered anymore as a fictional prospect but as a viable option for people living today. A paradigm shift regarding ageing and death is gaining a real momentum.

    “Biological aging is a progressive, degenerative process of decay, in which the healthy cellular and molecular order laid down in our youth slowly falls apart in the face of accumulating aging damage to its functional structures. This damage is a series of unintended biochemical side-effects of normal metabolism. As more and more of our cellular and molecular structures suffer this damage, functionality is lost, and health, resilience, and vitality are slowly taken away from us, leading to increasing age-related pathology. Thus, as laid out in the Flowchart: metabolism on-goingly causes aging damage, and accumulating damage eventually reaches a critical mass at which it causes age-related frailty, disability, disease, and ultimately, death.”
    (The Metushelah foundation website)

    Anti-aging scientific research becomes more credible and increasingly funded. Much of this momentum belongs to Aubrey de Grey, who was the first to offer the radical idea that today’s life sciences is mature enough to tackle head on the issue of aging and offer some very real results. It is de Grey’s prediction that the first human to live a 1000 years has already been born. This proposition has a great many profound implications on culture, economy, social organization, ethics, religion and individual psychology and more. In a Cosmos magazine article Becoming Immortal, Bryan Appleyard writes: “Within a few decades, we might reasonably expect to have extended life to 150 years or more – the first human to live to 1,000 may have already been born. But, does death give meaning to our lives? Where do we go from here?”. The article, is a good starting point in helping to understand the possible implications of extreme life extension (there is also a book on the subject by the same author). Additional articles on the subjects are: How one day we may all be eternally young and Who wants to live for ever? A scientific breakthrough could mean humans live for hundreds of years, both published by the Independent.

    On the scientific side of this story, the new thinking about aging is progressively more evident. “Age may not be rust after all. Specific genetic instructions drive aging in worms, report researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.“ Their discovery contradicts the prevailing theory that aging is a buildup of tissue damage akin to rust, and implies science might eventually halt or even reverse the ravages of age. The first anti-aging drug by Sirtris will enter human trial phase early 2009. “Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, heart disease: All have stubbornly resisted billions of dollars of research conducted by the world's finest minds. But they all may finally be defied by a single new class of drugs, a virtual cure for the diseases of aging.

    In labs across the country, researchers are developing several new drugs that target the cellular engines called mitochondria. The first, resveratrol, is already in clinical trials for diabetes. It could be on the market in four years and used off-label as an all-purpose longevity enhancer. Other drugs promise to be more potent and refined. They might even be cheap.

    It's going to revolutionize western medicine," said Doug Wallace, a pioneer of mitochondrial medicine at the University of California at Irvine. "All the things that are common for an aging society, and nobody worried about when they died of infectious disease," he said, could be treated.

    (Wired Magazine’s New Longevity Drugs Poised to Tackle Diseases of Aging )

    The introduction of engineering methods to augment the human system either by genetic manipulation, biomedical interventions, bionics and otherwise raises ethical issues over which heated debates are already taking place. Should such interventions be confined to therapeutic use only or should we pursue ways to enhance the human system with such technologies? And if we pursue enhancement, how can we possibly define the lines between human, non-humans and super human? Additionally, how can we make sure that such technologies will be safe and available to all? This is of course part of a much wider ethical issue having to do with human augmentation. The bio-luddites and bio-conservatives in general hold that the human biological system, its form, its capacities and limitations, including life span, are essential aspects of human nature and human identity. Our position regarding the issue is that human nature is evolving, and this evolution is part and parcel of what it means to be human. Indeed we have many serious questions to answer, and how we will answer them will, to a very large extent, redefine what it means to be human. Yet we believe that these questions should be approached courageously and with much openness. Our identity as human beings is primarily shaped by our minds not our bodies.

    No one has expressed the sense that we carry with us at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 better than J.B.S. Haldane’s 1923 paper: Daedalus; or, Science and the Future:
    "The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which had not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural." (A paper read to the Heretics, by British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, Cambridge, February 4th, 1923)


    To be continued in part 5

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