Sirtuins: Miracle protein or Pandora’s Box?

eternally

It seems that the answer to that quandary would depend on your point of view. Sirtuins are the talk of the town these days. Fierce controversy rages on about whether or not they do (or could do) what some scientists speculate they do.

Because you see, sirtuins could prolong life.

Longevity, and the curse of aging that we’re all stuck with from the moment of our birth, have for centuries been a subject of fervent research and heated discussion, both from the scientific and religious fields. People just do not want to get older, it seems.

Enter sirtuins, the fulcrum upon which may swing the next step of human evolution.

But what exactly are sirtuins?

Without descending into purely academic territory, sirtuins are a class of proteins that regulate some important biological pathways in certain organisms. The name “sirtuin” is a portmanteau of the name for the yeast gene ‘silent mating-type information regulation 2’, the gene that is responsible for cellular regulation in yeast.

Scientific research has associated sirtuins (sirtuin 6, SIRT6, in particular) with influencing certain cellular processes, including aging. SIRT6 has been proved to lengthen the lifespan of male mice by as much as 15.8%, for instance

But don’t go planning your 250th birthday bash just yet. While initial results are encouraging, we still are a long way off from opening a new chapter in the very definition of human life as we know it. The strain of mice used in such research is prone to tumours, for instance, specially the males. Since SIRT6 may also have an anti-cancer effect, it is conceivable that the test mice may have lived longer because they did not become ill, as opposed to not aging.

Sirtuins also do not prevent aging, only appear to slow it down (in test male mice, remember. This thing has yet to be tested on humans, assuming it ever does). Thus, you shall not stay forever looking as you did when you were 19, nor will eternal life be granted unto you, thus challenging all known laws of Nature. Your lifespan may be extended, by how much (if at all), nobody knows.

These musings do pose some interesting questions and challenges, however.

If society were to become a huge community of 200-plus year old geriatrics, how, and when and for how long would our pensions be funded, for example? What would the legal retirement age be, then? 90? 150? 300? Or how about the prison system? Would our jails be inhabited by 400 year old undying ‘old timers’, languishing in 3×3 cells, and wishing they had never set their thieving eyes on those blue pills a couple of hundred years earlier? Perhaps prison authorities could introduce a mandatory prisoner cull, anyone over the age of 275, let’s say, if only to make room for the next batch of walking mummies.

And what about the holy institution of marriage? Take the vows and you’re doomed to have sex with the same person for the next 400 years. How does that sound? Though perhaps some legislation could be introduced to force a mandatory divorce every hundred years or so, if only to keep the statistics of spousal murder rate at an acceptable level.

More interesting concepts: How long would females remain fertile? Until they’re in their hundreds, perhaps? Would centuries pass between siblings? It is conceivable that women could be churning out babies for hundreds of years. The nappy industry would collapse with the demand. If one follows that train of thought, what would the nurseries of this topsy-turvy world of unprecedented longevity look like? Mega-locales where thousands of screaming and shitting babies would have to be looked after for decades, since they age slowly (assuming they are given the wonder pill at birth, that is)? The same concept applies to schools all over the world. How long would you be on your teens? A firestorm of raging hormones lasting 15, 25 years, who knows.

The nursery idea raises the question, would everyone be given sirtuins at birth (i.e., would it be a right, a natural entitlement like your individual freedom), or would the privilege of ancestral longevity have to be ‘earned’, somehow, or paid for? If it’s the latter, would only the richest in society be able to live until well past their sell-by date? Where is the moral demarcation?

Pharmaceutical companies would sell their souls to be the first to commercialize a sirtuin-based drug that really prolonged longevity. The profits would rank in the hundreds of billions. And indirectly, the very raison-de-etre for those same companies would become their leitmotif. The equation would go somewhat like this: Humans would live longer. A lot longer. Longevity means more time and frequency to become ill. Frequent and abundant morbidity requires plenty medicinal drugs output. K-ching!

It is unlikely that any of us will see any significant development in the sirtuin front in our lifetime. But one day, mankind may rise to challenge the very immortality of the gods.

The question, however, is, do we want to?

 

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