January 25th, 2012
Today will go down in history for this bit of news: cancer vaccine advances to clinical Stage 1 trials. It may not be this one that works for everyone, and it may not be a vaccine that will be used long into the future, but it’s a major step. As pointed out by cperciva on Hacker News, Stage 1 is basically testing to see if it doesn’t kill people, but it is still a major step.
Of course it’s a major step in fighting cancer, a disease that kills over 20,000 people every day. Even more importantly in the long term it is major step in human longevity, and the holy grail of biological immortality*. The control over telomerase and cell division are the key problems in tackling aging – key problems in even conceptualizing aging as a ‘clinical condition’ instead of just ‘inevitable biological destiny’.
With each opportunity the challenges, too, multiply. If we keep people alive for longer in the developed world, what does that mean to the already fragile social and economic welfare systems? There are already strong economic and social arguments for us having to abandon the model of work, pay, taxation and pensions we have inherited from the industrial age. How much stronger will the pressure be if biological arguments are added to this?
If major leaps in human longevity are made before equality (even ballpark) in global income levels is reached, what does that mean to social justice? Will we see a world where people in developed nations are looking at a prospect of immortality, while the life expectation in developing nations, even after major improvements, is still measured in decades? Inequality measured in economic terms is serious, but inequality measured in terms of immortality seems much more dramatic.
I don’t have the answers, though I’m definitely juggling these ideas. What are your thoughts?
* Note about immortality, since it easily seems far-fetched. Improvements in longevity are cumulative – that is, if we are able to extend someone’s lifespan by 50 years now, and during those 50 year a new treatment arrives which extends it again by 100 years, and within those 100, a new one extends by 1,000… you get the point. Therefore the small steps we may take now can already be the first steps on a path to biological immortality. And biological immortality simply means ‘not dying of natural causes’ – there is no convincing argument at the moment that we can avoid death from accidental massive trauma to the brain, for example.
- Phase I clinical trials for dendritic cell vaccine designed to both eradicate cancer cells and prevent disease relapse (nextbigfuture.com)
- Sailing the seas of immortality and discovering the lands of longevity (silverevolution.wordpress.com)
- Longevity will be the new inequality (wall-notes.com)
- Transhumanism, Immortality, and Prolonging Human Lives (rogerdhansen.wordpress.com)
- Is the Soul of Man Immortal? (5ptsalt.com)