Thursday, July 18, 2013

What Druids Think About #1: Stem Cell Research

Hello and all hail! How is your summer going? It's hot as all get out here in the Smokestack State.

For those of you just joining us, my name is really Anne Johnson, and I am a Druid.

If you read up on Druids, you'll find that there's not a whole lot of solid source material. Even the name comes from the Greeks and/or Romans. But I have always thought of the Druids as a social caste. They were not rulers or warriors, nor were they growers and hunters. They were the educated people who gave advice, sang songs, performed religious rites, conducted legal business, and taught the next generations. Mind you, no one Druid did all of these things! They were just the educated caste.

I'm pretty educated myself, which is why I accept the mantle of Druid without completing a great deal of religious study.

This week I have been touring all sorts of large businesses here where I live in Southern New Jersey. I'm doing this as part of a teacher group. It was an honor to be chosen for this three-week workshop, and I'm learning a lot.

On Monday, our group went to the Coriell Institute, a research lab that collects and stores genetic material for use in curing diseases.

The good news is that stem cell biology has reached a phase in which they need not use human embryos for stem cells. They can take a cell from your skin, reader, and re-program it back to stem. Then they can tell it what kind of cell to turn into. Then it turns into that kind of cell.

Coriell also collects genetic material that scientists use to pinpoint the less than one percent of DNA that varies from person to person. These are the markers that predispose you to certain syndromes, or certain adverse reactions to medication, or mental illness ... the entire spectrum of hereditary diseases. It is already possible to get a scientist to analyze your personal DNA to find all the predispositions you have in your genetic code. (Coriell collects DNA and analyzes it, but they're not doing any further collecting from the likes of you and me, ever since they got permission from the Air Force to use its personnel and no one else. We'll call this Ethical Conundrum A.)

 All over the country, researchers are using stem cell research to try to find cures for cancer, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, and a laundry list of rare genetic disorders that cause suffering and early death. Some day in the future, when you and I get sick, doctors will be able to make stem cells from our skins that will be re-programmed to get in there and fix what ails us. Heartbreaking diseases like Alzheimer's will be as gone as polio.

As we were leaving the Coriell lab (where we all got to see specimens stored in liquid nitrogen, like something out of science fiction), some of the other teachers were joking about how great it would be to get those stem cells cranked up until we could all be 13-year-olds again.

I was thinking the opposite. I was thinking, where's the end game? Let's call it Ethical Conundrum B. Are we going to have Americans who live to be 150, 200, or longer, while the rest of the world starves to death? And what if the rest of the world doesn't starve to death? What if new methods of water purification are found? What if GMO plants make deserts tillable?  Will we stop having babies, because everyone is living forever?

Does this stuff ever bother you?

This is what Druids should think about. We should think of ourselves not as individuals, but as members of the Body of Humanity. It is imperative that we die. Don't think for a minute that I'm one of these cocksure religious people who fully expects eternal life/reincarnation/alternate reality. I dread death. It very well may be the end. But we need to do it.

Can we afford to upset the balance of life on this planet more than we've already done? Can we even keep going at our current pace? When does curing a disease become worse than the disease itself?

A character in Romeo and Juliet observes, "We were born to die." It has been that way so far. Think about a world where death is optional, or prolonged indefinitely. What's a Druid to do?


Laura said...

It's not just Druids that think about that kind of thing. While I would love for cures to be found for those horrible diseases, I think they are looking in the wrong place. I don't think the answers are in stem cells, but are in the earth. There is a plant or combination out there that could probably cure everything, if only we would stop poisoning our bodies and the earth with GMOs, etc.

I also just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Well, if past history is any indication, only the wealthy and powerful would have the wherewithal to purchase extra-long lives. So Donald Trump will live to be 200. Nice.

Anonymous said...

We need to transform the world into a place where people are more important than money. Many people are working on that -- by democratizing our businesses and institutions.
However, what I really wanted to say is that there is a technology that gets pure drinking water out of the air. Here's a link:
When we finish our solar electric generator we are inventing, one of the things to do with it is to hook it up to a water maker: the combo would be great in disaster areas: both electricity and water without being hooked up to a grid. I can dream, can't I?

Maebius said...

The show "Torchwood: Miracle Day" is a father interesting take on this very thing. It's sci-fi, but basically one day no one dies. Car accident? You may have all your limbs ripped, but you are alive. Got sick? Alive.
It's both fascinating and horrifying how the government of the show deals with it. (basically, classify people as "dead-enough" and incinerates them a-la a treatise on genocide)

As for the more druidic outlook, I agree, we are worm food. As much as I would not like to pass along anytime soon, it should hapen. Not doing so is going against the flow of How Things Work(tm) in my view. Quality of Life advances and such, are wonderful and great, but not at the risk of splitting the have-nots further, for corporate gain.