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Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 1999 /9 Kislev, 5760

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Fountain of Youth -- ON THE EDGE of the millennium, this is the prospect: A child born in 2000-plus may have more than a 1-in-3 chance of living in good health beyond the age of 100. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average life expectancy was about 46 years for the male, 48 for the female. There has been a convergence of discoveries of the most thrilling nature, and they will benefit lots of us who may not be around for 2050. Last week, for instance, researchers announced that they had grown complete heart valves in the lab, a dramatic example of the explosion in tissue engineering. Researchers are already cultivating cells to create new blood vessels, new skin. Within the next few years, we'll be able to replace bones and cartilage and some aspects of joints, tendons, and ligaments.

Bionic man must genuflect to a variety of brilliant minds, men and women who had the nerve to reject the conventional wisdom handed down from before the Renaissance. Health, until then, had been a mysterious process, wholly in the hands of God; mortal intervention was permitted only through religion or obscure herbs. Think of the Frenchman Louis Pasteur, outraging medicine with the preposterous notion that there were invisible microbes that infected our bodies and killed us. We owe the doubling of the life span directly to that man, to the doctors who pushed for antiseptic procedures in surgery and childbirth, to the politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson who insisted on protecting our food and water.

Visionaries. Consider the forces that, even today, urge specious excuses to resist clean air and water for all the people. Then contrast them with the visionaries like Jonas Salk, who devoted their lives to developing vaccines to prevent epidemics of polio, smallpox, diphtheria, and typhoid, a predominantly American disease. Today, few of us will die from the microbes Pasteur discovered.

The second medical revolution began when chemistry and science exploded. Disease was now seen as internal chemistry gone awry, the remedy the addition of new ingredients to the body to combat microbes from without while righting the chemical imbalance within. The result was a great pharmaceutical revolution, an age of biochemical medicine, its principles applied to internal killers, i.e., cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, arthritis, etc. Examples were drugs that cut cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, and, more recently, improved quality of life.

Now we are on the threshold of yet a third revolution, this one based on James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s. Amazingly, we may be able to use genes and their products to rebuild and restore damage to our bodies wrought by the trinity of disease, trauma, and time. Researchers will be able to reset the rheostat, the clock that tells the cell the age of the host body. This opens up the prospect of chemically inducing the manufacture of a stem cell that can be cultured indefinitely so that we may rebuild damaged organs, tissues, and cells. When we're young, our bodies maintain good working order by systematic and orderly replacement of worn cells and tissues. As we come to understand these repair processes better, we may be able to maintain the health and youthfulness of our bodies for much longer. This new gene-based medicine will do far more than patching the punctures of workaday life.

Transplants of organs will give way to organ regeneration by the regrowth of healthy tissues as younger cells are introduced and integrated. Such genetic intervention will enable us to cure cardiovascular disease affecting 50 percent of men and 30 percent of women over 40. In fact, we will be able to extend human life in a spectacular way. The Fountain of Youth lies within us all!

We have barely begun to ponder the profound implications of this third revolution. Industrial countries now devote more than 10 percent of their GDP to health care. With expenditures devoted primarily to the chronically ill and the really old, health care costs will fall sharply. It is the social equivalent of the Big Bang, changing the economy, retirement, relationships and politics. A brave new world indeed.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Mortimer Zuckerman