Cyberpunk today: two examples of immortality.
Ever heard of the woman Henrietta Lacks? Ever heard of a beautifully weird critter called Turritopsis nutricula? If you’ve ever pondered the notion of immortality then these two names should be sitting stoutly on the stage of your imagination.
In 1951, a poor black tobacco farmer from Virginia was diagnosed with a malignant tumor of the cervix. During her examination cells were harvested without her knowledge. Those cells, part of a tumour, went on to grow and now survive indefinitely, the foundation layer of so much of the biotechnology that has transformed medicine over the past sixty years. The cells were declared to propagate like no other cells ever had before. A goldmine of research potential. I’m not certain now many labs are maintaining her cells in suspension cultures, but what is a fact is that every week new cells are being produced around the world. Which is kind of an eerie thought to contemplate. In nearly three decades, one lab alone has produced roughly 1/125 th of an average human mass from Henriette’s tumor.
Sadly, it took 24 years before her family were ever informed of the remarkable contribution her tragic illness and rapid death gave to the world. Rebecca Skloot recently authored a book that you might find of interest: The Immortal Life.
This remarkable jellyfish might be only 4.5 mm tall and wide, but the squat hydrozoan is capable of using a process known as transdifferentiation to regenerate its entire body during adverse conditions, effectively escaping death. Transdifferentiation is a term used in stem cell research and a technique used by few creatures; the salamander can use it to regrow limbs, for example. In simple terms it involves one type of cell type transforming into another cell type. Turritopsis nutricula uses it to revert from a mature adult back into a polyp state, and then back again, rendering it biologically immortal. In practice, most of these critters get eaten or succumb to disease but the notion the mechanism already exists in nature is rather intriguing. Could human understanding of this become one small first step in the unlocking of the immortality process in larger, more complex organisms? Flash forward to a corporate medical facility in the not-too-distant future. A hydrogel tube, bristling with power cables and feeding tubes, contains the nebulous form of a once elderly human, now sheathed in a glistening slug-like membrane formed of cells that are applying transdifferentiation to reverse the aging process.
Anyway, I thought I’d share these little morsels of discovery to feed your imagination. Life is very often the equal to fiction, even if rarely as glossy and sleek.