Extending Life Beyond Traditional Death

“Extending Life Beyond Traditional Death” using the potential of stem cells is explored here with the definition of “traditional death” being death as a consequence of the natural aging of a normal human being despite living an optimal lifestyle in terms of health and having access to the best well-established medical technologies of today.

 

STEM CELLS[1]

 

Stem cells are a unique type of cells found in the body that have the following properties:

 

  1. Stem cells are unspecialized:

Unlike heart muscle cells which perform the specific function of pumping blood through the body or red blood cells carry oxygen molecules through the bloodstream, stem cells have no specific structures which allow them to perform specialized functions.

 

  1. Stem cells are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods of time.

There are different types of stem cells, and depending on the type, they have the ability to replicate themselves by dividing into the same non-specialized cell type over long periods (many months to years).

 

  1. Stem cells can give rise to specialized cells:

Under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, stem cells can be induced to become specialized tissue-specific or organ-specific cells. This process is called differentiation where unspecialized stem cells usually go through several stages, becoming more specialized with each passing stage until they become a fully specialized cell. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues as part of our bodies natural functioning.

 

DIFFERENT TYPES OF STEM CELLS[2]

 

  1. Embryonic Stem Cells:

As the name suggests, embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos. Specifically, they are obtained from the inner cell mass of the blastocyte, which is a mostly hollow ball of cells that forms three to five days after a human egg cell is fertilized by a sperm cell. A human blastocyte is about the size of the dot above this letter “i”.

 

When left untouched, the embryonic stem cells in the blastocyte, divide and differentiate into specialized cells to eventually form the entire human body with all its tissues and organs. However, when scientists extract the embryonic cells from the blastocyte and grow them in special laboratory conditions, they remain unspecialized. Embryonic stem cells are only extracted from embryos that were fertilized in an in vitro fertilization clinic and then donated for research purposes with the informed consent of the donors.

 

  1. Adult/Somatic Stem Cells:

Adult or somatic stem cells are also known as tissue-specific stem cells, and are more specialized than embryonic stem cells. Several tissues and organs in the human body contain tissue-specific stem cells and usually they can generate specialized cells for the specific tissue or organ in which they live. For instance, hematopoietic (or blood-forming) stem cells reside in the bone marrow and can generate red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, but not a liver cell or a brain cell. Research has revealed that adult stem cells are present in more organs and tissues than initially thought possible, such as the heart and the brain.

 

  1. Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells:

Induced pluripotent stem cells or “iPS cells” are not found naturally in the human body. They are engineered in a lab by essentially reversing the process of differentiation in specialized cells such as skin cells, to convert them into cells that behave like embryonic stem cells. Even though iPS cells are similar to embryonic stem cells in many ways and can even generate all the cell types in the human body, they are not the same. Scientists are still exploring their differences and the meanings behind the differences.

 

THE POTENTIAL OF STEM CELLS TO EXTEND HUMAN LIFESPAN

 

In order to extend human lifespan beyond what is feasible with current medical technology, the process of aging needs to be directly confronted and slowed down or stopped. Aging is a complex process which is determined by a mixture of genetic, nongenetic, and environmental factors. Eventually, all of these factors accumulate their message of aging in the core of stem cells.[3] All aging phenomena including tissue deterioration, cancer and propensity to infections could be interpreted as signs of aging at the level of somatic stem cells.[4]

 

Factors contributing to aging5

 

Stem cells are the seeds of life as they were the initial source of every single cell in our bodies, and they are also regenerative building blocks that can replace damaged tissue or worn out cells. One theory is that stem cells replace damaged cells in humans every day, but the magnitude of damage in aging is greater than the capacity of stem cells. Hence, by somehow shifting the balance of regeneration and deterioration in the favor of stem cells, it might be possible to extend human lifespan.[5]

 

Research conducted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine on mice shows that the number of neural stem cells in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus naturally declines during the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging.[6] The researchers found that by intentionally disrupting these neural stem cells in middle aged mice, aging took place much faster than in the control specimens whose neural stem cells were left alone. When new stem cells were inserted into the hypothalami of any of the mice, the aging process was slowed down, or different aspects of aging were counteracted altogether. It would be interesting to see the effects of increasing the amount of neural stem cells in the hypothalamus of a human being.

 

In 2018, a company called “Celularity” received a massive 250 million dollars in funding and they say their ultimate mission is “to make 100 years old, the new 60, and to provide people with maximal aesthetic, mobility, and cognition as they age”.[7] They seem promising because they have found an alternative to the ethical and sourcing limitations of embryonic stem cells – placental stem cells. According to the company, stem cells taken from any placenta can be injected into any human without the risk of the body rejecting them. Furthermore, placentas are extremely abundant as hospitals just discard them as waste. This makes it much more convenient for research purposes and could also lead to very affordable treatments in the future.

 

It has been said that mammals, and especially humans have paid a high price for their ascent of the evolutionary ladder, because they have lost much of the regenerative power found in lower animals. For instance, planaria on decapitation will regenerate a new head within five days, hydra on having its body halved, will heal into two new organisms in 7-10 days and salamanders can regrow lost limbs in a matter of days. The common factor in all of their regenerative powers is either the presence of or de-differentiation of other cells into a significant number of stem cells. It is not difficult to imagine that humans can harness the amazing power of stem cells using science to greatly enhance their own lifespans and qualities of life in the next few decades. If this is done, the evolutionary price we paid in losing the regenerative abilities of lower animals could instead be viewed as a really good investment.

 

ETHICAL ISSUES

 

So, stem cell research opens up a means to extend our lives beyond their traditional deaths, as we become able to grow cells, organs, and much more. But, are there any downsides? The research process itself remains controversial, as getting stem cells for research used to involve discarding a human embryo, which, to many, is unsettling, as it prevents the embryo from ever developing into a human baby which could have otherwise lived a full healthy life. Phrased even more harshly, the action of preventing an embryo from developing essentially ‘kills’ that baby.[8]

Due to this threat of unnecessarily taking a life, stem cells for research are not procured by intentionally discarding human embryos. Instead, the cells are procured through in vitro fertilization clinics, where women have the option to donate the embryos which are not going to be implanted after their procedure, for research purposes, and which would have been discarded otherwise.[9] Unfortunately, reducing the source of embryos like this has also slowed down the pace of stem cell research.

This creates difficult questions regarding the ethics of how much a living human life is worth vs. a developing human life. We don’t have hard boundaries defined on when life begins, so we can’t say when it is or isn’t okay to discard an embryo either; does life begin at fertilization, in the womb, or at birth? In addition, an embryo is just a developing cluster of cells; is it even given any rights, like the right to live? And perhaps the most challenging ethics questions relating to stem cells: is destroying one or more embryos for the sake of research justifiable if that research will lead to saving the lives of many more people?8 Ethical questions like these, where your logical reasoning may conflict and contradict itself, demonstrates how the area of stem cell research is not so black-and-white as we usually enjoy, but rather is in an ethical gray area. For example, on one hand we have a duty to prevent or alleviate suffering (by researching stem cells), and on the other we have a duty to respect the value of human life (by preserving the stem cells); which one outweighs the other?[10]

One common misunderstanding with stem cells is equating all stem cells with embryonic stem cells and not knowing the difference between embryonic and adult stem cells. An adult stem cell is a stem cell which is specialized in creating a certain type of body cell, whereas an embryonic stem cell can create any type of body cell.[11] The use of embryonic stem cells for research is controversial, but for decades, the use of adult stem cells has shown to be effective in the treatment of certain cancers and blood diseases, and is currently being researched as a medical tool.[12]

 

CULTURAL ISSUES

 

A question raised by stem cell research is how religion plays a role in shaping public opinion. For many traditional Christians in our society life begins at conception, equating stem cell research to homicide because it results in the destruction of human embryos[13]. “Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and are subjects with rights; their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence,” the late Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life6. However, national polls indicate that the majority of Americans support the research. According to the Virginia Commonwealth University Life Science survey, public support for stem cell research in the United States went from 40 percent in 2002 to about 65 percent in 2010[14].

Now, this could be the result of the changing political dynamics in our society. In October 2017, a Gallup poll found that there are increasingly more Democrats in our society than Republicans[15]. Democrats religious beliefs are less influential in their political beliefs than Republicans. In general, Democrats have a narrower view of “personhood” than Republicans (the majority of them being Christians) who largely believe that human life begins at conception[16]. These perspectives are reflected in a 2004 poll by Gallup results showing that 76% of Democrats supported easing government restrictions on stem cell research. 12% of Democrats favored greatly reducing research restrictions, and 8% supported no funding at all. Republicans were divided with 37% supporting expanded research and 36% favoring continued restriction at the current level9. Thus, the growing number of Democrats could very well be an explanation for why the majority of Americans are open to stem cell research. America’s Democratic loyalties could also have been an individual response to Barack Obama’s unique personal appeal. In 2005, he himself voted for legislation that would have allowed federal funding for stem cell research using embryos slated to be discarded from fertility clinics6.

Global perspectives on stem cell research enable us to see a link between the US and a growing international consensus to continue it. In the past few years, several other countries have also become leaders for the study of stem cell research and taken advantages of their therapeutic uses. For example, in 2004 South Africa became the first African nation to create a stem cell bank. They enacted legislation maintaining a ban on reproductive cloning but did authorize therapeutic cloning of embryos[17]. China prohibits human reproductive cloning but does allow for the creation of human embryos for research and therapeutic uses. They continue to permit researchers to conduct clinical trials on stem cell therapy10. In 1999, Israel passed legislation banning reproductive, but not therapeutic, cloning. Israeli scientists have made important breakthrough discoveries in stem cell research, including the first extraction of stem cells from blood in the 1960s. Continued research focuses on using stem cell research to treat diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease10. One would expect to see religiosity in these countries as being associated with more negative views towards stem-cell research. This is because many African and Asian countries are ranked high in importance of religion. We know the dominant religion is Judaism in our example of Israel. However, Israeli Jews are known to be divided into two groups: the majority who are secular and the much smaller minority who are religious. This is very similar to the dynamics of our American society with the majority of people being Democrats who are less religiously influenced, and the minority of the Republicans. In China, support for stem cell research is primarily due to innovation being the driving force behind development for building a modernized society. Thus, China aims to make itself a country of innovators to create more opportunities for itself and the rest of the world. The same can be seen in South Africa’s government that seeks advancement to support the path of growth.

 

This goes to show that religion has its minimal impact on stem cell research. It would even be hard to access how much religion impacts the use of stem cell research because churches have different patterns of services, and there are other non-dominant religions that would make it hard to generalize with confidence. With that being said, comparison of “webs of social relationships” are of interest because many societies are subject to the same dominant political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Finally, what is most important to note is the processes of modernization in these societies. New advancements and discoveries of medicine information are less relevant to everyday norms and customs. Thus, the development of stem cell research has unequivocally revolutionized and standardized healthcare.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

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Moldovan, Susanna Priest, Sally Stares, and Paul Stoneman. “Religion and the Public

Ethics of Stem-Cell Research: Attitudes in Europe, Canada and the United States.”

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Conservatives Are Dying Off.” Intelligencer, March 1, 2018.

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[1] “Stem Cell Basics I.” NIH Stem Cell Information Home Page. 2016. Accessed April 07, 2019.

https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm.

[2] “Types of Stem Cells.” International Society For Stem Cell Research. Accessed April 08, 2019.

https://www.closerlookatstemcells.org/learn-about-stem-cells/types-of-stem-cells/

 

[3] Ullah, Mujib, and Zhongjie Sun. “Stem cells and anti-aging genes: double-edged sword-do the same job of life extension.” January 10, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2019.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5763529/#CR13

[4] Ho, Anthony D et al. “Stem cells and ageing. The potential of stem cells to overcome age-related deteriorations of the body in regenerative medicine.” July 2005. Accessed April 08, 2019.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1369281/

[5] Ho, Anthony D et al. “Stem cells and ageing. The potential of stem cells to overcome age-related deteriorations of the body in regenerative medicine.” July 2005. Accessed April 08, 2019.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1369281/

[6] Zhang, Yalin et al. “Hypothalamic stem cells control ageing speed partly through exosomal miRNAs.” Nature International Journal of Science. July 26, 2017. Accessed 08 April, 2019.

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature23282

[7] Buhr, Sarah. “With $250 million, Peter Diamandis’ new startup is all about taking stem cells from placentas”. Accessed 08 April, 2019.

https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/15/peter-diamandis-new-startup-is-all-about-taking-stem-cells-from-placentas-so-we-can-live-forever/

[8] Genetic Science Learning Center. “The Stem Cell Debate: Is It Over?.” Learn.Genetics. Accessed

April 07, 2019. https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/stemcells/scissues/.

[9] Baylis, Françoise. “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines: The Ethics of Derivation.” Journal of

Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada: JOGC. February 2002. Accessed April 07, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12196881.

[10] Hug, Kristina. “Embryonic Stem Cell Research: An Ethical Dilemma.” Embryonic Stem Cell

Research: An Ethical Dilemma. May 02, 2018. Accessed April 07, 2019.

https://www.eurostemcell.org/embryonic-stem-cell-research-ethical-dilemma.

[11] “Stem Cell Basics V.” NIH Stem Cell Information Home Page. 2016. Accessed April 07, 2019.

https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/5.htm.

[12] Irish Stem Cell Foundation. YouTube. December 12, 2009. Accessed April 07, 2019.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JTw2RpDo9o.

[13] Elazar, Daniel. “How Religious Are Israeli Jews.” How Religious are Israeli Jews? Jerusalem

Center for Public Affairs, n.d. http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles2/howrelisr.htm.

[14] “Stem Cell Research at the Crossroads of Religion and Politics.” Pew Research Center’s Religion

& Public Life Project. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, January 17,

  1. https://www.pewforum.org/2008/07/17/stem-cell-research-at-the-crossroads-of-religion-and-politics/.

[15] Allum, Nick, Agnes Allansdottir, George Gaskell, Jürgen Hampel, Jonathan Jackson, Andreea

Moldovan, Susanna Priest, Sally Stares, and Paul Stoneman. “Religion and the Public

Ethics of Stem-Cell Research: Attitudes in Europe, Canada and the United States.”

PloSone. Public Library of Science, April 20, 2017.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5398703/.

[16] Liu, Joseph. “Stem Cell Research Around the World.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public

Life Project. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, March 7, 2013.

https://www.pewforum.org/2008/07/17/stem-cell-research-around-the-world/.

[17] RepublicanViews.org. “Home.” republicanviews.org, June 23, 2017.

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7 Comments

  1. Reading this post was very interesting because it almost seems like an immediate version of cryogenics because people are extending their lives immediately rather than dying and “coming back” to life. It was really helpful to have all the definitions of the types of cells in the beginning of the post because I was not aware of the different types of stem cells and what they were able to do for the body. I was very intrigued by the part discussing mammals versus lower animals and how we have lost some of the abilities they possess. Because of the controversies due to religion and ethics, do you think there will ever be a change to focus research on regaining these abilities rather than extending life? And would the benefits of “100 being the new 60” outweigh the consequences it could cause considering the world is already overpopulated and having people live longer and longer will only make this matter worse?

  2. This article is very informative and contains a lot of helpful information for understanding the possibilities for stem cells to extend the human lifespan. I like that this group started with the definitions of different types of stem cells and gave additional background information about stem cell research. This would largely help readers like me, who have little prior knowledge on this topic. It is interesting that religious and cultural norms play a role in stem cell research as some people think that using stem cells is ethical and others are more skeptical of this practice. Would reframing the way that the public views stem cell research increase public approval of it? Or will the way that stem cells are retrieved continue to prevent this research from advancing?

  3. Rebecca Burton

    April 24, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    I think another ethical question regarding stem cell research and extending life in humans is whether or not the act of extending life is ethical on its own. Besides the religious factor of extending life going against “God’s Will/Wishes,” there is also the factor that we have unlimited resources and space on our planet. If we get to the point in research where people’s lives can be extended, we will run into global issues of higher pollution, lower amounts of open living spaces, lower levels of non-renewable resources, and destruction of ecosystems. Is it ethical to push our world towards these conditions? If extending life will result in these problems, should we even attempt to make those scientific discoveries? Your post did a great job of explaining stem cells, stem cell research, and the relationship between stem cells and aging thoroughly. I also think you all did a great job of explaining the challenges of this research.

  4. In my belief, I think there is a bias against stem cell research regarding those who have religious beliefs against it. I have a close friend who very recently underwent a procedure which involved his own stem cells being extracted and grown to be implanted into his spine. Too many people generalize stem cells, thinking “baby-killer” as soon as they hear the term. I believe there should be more coverage on what it is and what it does before people form an opinion towards it. Because of that surgery, my friend now no longer has any back problems—he can actually get out of bed in the morning and lift his backpack to put it on. Adult stem cells can do so much more, yet there are people who try to argue against it. There should be more emphasis on the repair of humans, rather than the extension on life. There are currently 7.7 billion people on this planet. It is projected to increase by one billion over the next twelve years—not even from a religious standpoint but just general thinking—is the extension of life really necessary?

  5. This is an area of research that I have not heard much of, so it was very helpful to have the discussion of STEM cells at the beginning of the post. I was surprised to hear of the ethical arguments against this research as it seems to be a great way to save and extend lives. I am wondering how often this practice is used today despite these ethical challenges. I could also see doctors facing an ethical challenge in administering this sort of process because of their oath to save lives, based on if they see the human embryo as a life. This relates to the posting on physician-assisted death, as many doctors refuse to administer life-ending drugs based on their religion, and I could see the same thing happening here.

  6. The use of stem cells to improve medical conditions and potentially allow for longer lifespans is an exciting thing to think about. If one is given the choice to improve their lives through medical treatments (if said person has some form of illness/disability) then more than likely it will be taken. However, with the extension of one’s life may create a more divisive answer choice. With the statistics and assignment given to us earlier this semester, I surveyed people on ways to extend their life given the technology is possible, and it seemed a vast majority of them would not accept the chance to live longer. That is not to say the results I gathered will be conclusive of what the majority thinks, but it was interesting to see how many people I surveyed would not want to prolong their lives. My question is what perspective do people take on when they don’t want to prolong their lives? Is it a religious one where extending your life would be a denial of whatever is to be offered after death? Or is one that considers the deterioration of a healthy living style as one gets older? Overall very interesting article and it provided me with new perspectives on stem cell research as I don’t have much knowledge in regards to the subject.

  7. It was really interesting to see a scientific approach taken towards this subject! I grew up in a very pro-life household that was religiously opposed to stem cell research. As I learn more and develop my own opinions, I am realizing how complicated the issue is. I would like to see a little bit more about what the stem cell research actually entails – what are scientists using them for and what are they trying to achieve?

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