Special Guest Writers: John Schloendorn & Simone Syed
The afternoon session featured several illustrious speakers from the fields of nanotechnology and stem cell research, which would seem indispensable for successful revival from cryopreservation. The session began with an introduction to molecular nanotechnology from Ralph Merkle, PhD, which may one day allow us to rebuild damaged structures molecule-by-molecule. Mike West, PhD, of Advanced Cell Technology, discussed how one day we may be able to reassemble lost human tissues and organs cell-by-cell. Finally, Aubrey de Grey, PhD, most well-known for his Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) (a strategy to cure human aging by repairing the damage it does to the human body), provided an intriguing account of whether it is politically safe for a biologist to support cryonics publicly. Speaking from his own experience, Aubrey’s conclusion is no, it is not safe at all, but hiding it is a lot more dangerous!
Ralph Merkle, PhD (by Simone Syed)
Molecular Nanotechnology and the Repair of Cryopreserved Patients
Dr. Ralph Merkle is a PhD from Stanford University with success in public key cryptography. He was a nanotechnology theorist at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and Zyvex Corporation.
Ralph believes that the brain structures proposed to contain long-term memory can be preserved by cryonics and that it may be possible to use cryptography to restore the damage done by the cryopreservation process.
When considering “What is nanotechnology?” he jokingly defined it as “Anything that will get me money or a grant!” In all seriousness, nanotechnology will allow us to arrange atoms in most of the ways permitted by physical law. We will be able to get almost every atom in the right place, and manufacturing cost will be low. Such capability will certainly be useful to revive people that have been cryopreserved.
Ralph states that positional assembly is a wild and exciting area that is being explored. The general idea is that creating molecular tools requires positional assembly and would require 6 degrees of freedom with highly reactive compounds and an inert environment. The ultimate goal is to be able to make almost anything of high complexity using all of the elements in the periodic table. The simplest way to go about this is to reduce the number of elements that we use.
An analysis resulted in nine different molecular tools to perform basic operations. These tools are amazingly small and they work with singular atoms (such as a hydrogen donator, a methylene tool that will donate a reactive carbon atom at a specific site). This set of nine tools will be synthesized from a set of reactions that are made by a feedstock of atoms. Ralph and his colleages believe that computer models of these tools will work in real life. He gave some specific examples of his tools and the placement of carbons in molecular structures, as well as the energy that some reactions possess.
Regarding the development of nanotechnology, Ralph emphasized the need for writing proposals, ways to make the proposals work, money, further analysis of all reactions, development of directly accessible experimental pathways, and computer time, as well as duplicating results.
What is the impact of nanotechnology?
Ralph foreseees more powerful computers, ones that will fit in the volume of a sugar cube and that are as powerful as all of the computer power in the world today. “This power will be so vast that we will be able to run Windows 2020!” he proclaims. He also thinks we will be able to make robotic arms on the scale of a few nanometers.
This kind of capability will certainly lead to a revolution in medicine. Today, loss of cell function results in cellular deterioration. Once a cell can no longer function, medicine is helpless to treat the problem and the cell dies. Cryonics is like clinical trials in that we will have to see if the technology will work around 2100. Dr. Merkle thinks the only logical choice is to sign up for cryonics and see if it works!
Dr. Merkle expressed the view that cryonics requires the development of nanomedicine based on mature nanotech. This is a long-term goal, and so far there are not a lot of groups that are working on this. Funding of long-term system design is minimal to non-existent. If we don’t start stepping up to the plate, development will be delayed. Therefore, the cryonics community needs to start leading this endeavor.
As this was the second time I have listened to Ralph, I was quite excited to hear his comparatively animated and interesting speech. His high-level concepts are explained in a relatively easy manner, and even though they reach a level of complexity of which I have very little background, I did not feel that the terminology was beyond my understanding. The chemistry presented in the talk was also easy to understand while using terminology such a “slurp of the hydrogen!” Ralph always makes me very excited about the field of nanotechnology, especially in relation to myself and the things that I will be able to see in the future.
Mike West, PhD ( by John Schloendorn)
Immortal Cells: The Prospect of Regenerative Medicine
Mike West, PhD, is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of Advanced Cell Technology, a firm leading the field in regenerative medicine using stem cells.
The key observation underlying Mike’s work was that while individuals age and perish, the species as a whole can perpetually renew itself. In particular, although we are conceived by parents who are aged to varying degrees, each new generation is clearly, completely rejuvenated. Over the years, this led academic researchers to develop a dichotomy between the immortal germ-line and the mortal body cells of an individual, the “soma.” In particular, in the footsteps of August Weissmann and much later Tom Kirkwood, our mortal bodies came to be perceived as a disposable tool used by the immortal germ-line to maintain itself.
In a nutshell, Advanced Cell Technology seeks to tap the potential for immortality and transfer it into the cells of existing people. Dr. West’s company is commercializing a key process to accomplish just this, namely therapeutic cloning. With therapeutic cloning, one can transfer the youthful characteristics of germ-cells into aged body cells.
For example, one of the mechanisms by which body cells senesce is through the gradual shortening of telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of the chromosomes containing the genes in our cells. Intriguingly, this shortening does not occur in germ cells, and telomere length of aged body cells can be restored by therapeutic cloning. Amazingly, therapeutic cloning also allows the conversion of any one type of aged cell into virtually any type of rejuvenated human cell, a quality termed “pluripotency.” These resultant cells will be genetically identical to the donor’s aged cells. In theory, this would allow a transplant recipient to side-step any complications with transplant rejection. Indeed, Advanced Cell Technology was recently able to show that they can actually get all these marvelous processes to work in cows.
It is now clear that the cellular rejuvenation achieved by cloning is not only partial, but complete, because one can derive youthful individual organisms from aged, cloned cells, in a process called reproductive cloning. Although the possibility of reproductive cloning suggests that complete rejuvenation is achieved by the cloning process, Advanced Cell Technology has no interest in getting human reproductive cloning to work.
Aubrey de Grey, PhD (by Simone Syed)
Is it Politically Safe for a Biologist to Support Cryonics Publicly?
Dr. de Grey is Chairman and Chief Science Officer at the Methuselah Foundation.
Cryonics still has an image problem and scientific colleagues may be embarrassed, while the publications and lectures of a biologist supportive of cryonics may dry up completely! Certainly, Aubrey has encountered some challenging situations as a result of his public support of cryonics.
He spoke at length about the nature of peer-reviewed journals and the autonomy and, conversely, lack of autonomy these journals may provide in a scientist’s career. The point of being a scientist is to make a big difference, as the pay is usually low, and very few in the field actually gain recognition.
Legal death, while often described as a purely instantaneous event, is clearly not instantaneous. Aubrey suggests providing the public with a clear definition of legal death, as “death” is purely defined according to the convenience of the doctors at the time. The definiton of death needs to remain under review, but it is doubtful that we will have a precise assay. Aubrey also states that “information theoretic death” may actually substantially preceed physical death, such as with dementia. This is, obviously, not good for the cryopreservation of these people, as their minds are corrupted already before they are declared deceased. Aubrey also points out that children who are “dead” after falling into frozen lakes have been resuscitated, so lack of electrical activity in the brain does not always mean certain death.
Ethical leadership cannot exist without facts, so Aubrey advocates coming up with better legal terminology to explain cryopreservation and those that are preserved. Aubrey makes the point that perhaps using the word “freezing” in relation to cryonics is fine because it is a concept that lay people can understand, and also, when we think about freezing, a steak for example, and thawing it out, it is just as delicious as it was before it ever was frozen. Thus, the word lends a hand to making people feel comfortable with the concept of vitrification in relation to humans.
Aubrey prefers not to refer to cryopreserved people as dead, or having experienced death, because it confuses the proper definition of death. Scientists have a moral duty to demystify scientific principles and make them more accessible for the general public to understand. By demystifying the concepts of death, regeneration, cryonics, and nanotechnology, they will get into the public consciousness and further demystify the concepts.
Finally, Aubrey ponders the impact on the scientific community of people who are largely invulnerable to scrutiny, due to not relying on grants and other public-perception means of support. Aubrey was able to come into his field in his spare time and has never been an experimental scientist. Therefore, he was able to be up-front about his intentions and his relationship to cryonics, which is very lucky.
It is time for scientists to start working together instead of against each other for progress. The arguments that radical scientists are putting forward are more often than not more sound than the arguments posed by non-radical thinkers. It may one day be more expedient to support cryonics outright and the tipping point for this may have already arrived. “My loyalties lie with the public and the scientists, not with politics.” The public must change their attitudes before tax dollars will be a reliable means of funding for the field of cryonics.
Aubrey’s discussion is summed up with emphasis that scientists have a duty to be the ambassadors of introducing new concepts into the mainstream. Apparently, this is the first time he has made this lecture, and people seemed relatively open to his ideas.