Its All About Time

I concluded my talk with Professor Wallace by asking where he thought stem cell technology could lead, especially if the obstacle presented by the mitochondria was conclusively resolved. He replies, "I think we're back to the same issues that are currently being discussed about stem cells, which is, 'Can you get them to differentiate?' 'Can you get rid of the potential to grow uncontrolled and hence form tumors?' 'Will they enter into the cell and form the right connections and do the right jobs?' "

Wallace thinks that these technical challenges are resolvable— but that it will take a lot more time. It is in the nature of experiments with human systems. "They're slow," he explains. "You have to grow the cells, you have to have model systems to test the things, and all of these things take time. So, the idea that we will be able to have therapeutic solutions to complex degenerative diseases in a very short period of time, I think, is extremely optimistic. These solutions will come, but they will come in the matter of years, not months."

It all comes back to the subject of time, whether as part of the stem cell research timetable or the life clock of a cell. And yet Wallace's speculation as to the nature of a "barrier" set up by the cell's mitochondria—assuming it can be overcome—leads one to a startling conclusion. If it is possible to "turn back the clock" of biology by replacing, say, a dying organ with one that is in the prime of health, then how long, in theory, could the human body's workable lifespan be extended? It could be a substantial amount.

If that is the case, the ultimate irony would be that the mito-chondrial "barrier" is actually a gateway—one that provides a glimpse of clinical immortality.

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