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LIFE WITHOUT DEATH
by Duncan Turner
Until recently, the thought that there might ever be a cure for ageing seemed preposterous. Growing older and more decrepit appeared to be an inevitable and necessary part of being human. Over the last decade, however, scientists have begun to see ageing differently. Some now believe that the average life-expectancy may soon be pushed up to 160 years; others think that it may be extended to 200 or 300 years. A handful even wonder whether we might one day live for a millennium or more.
Behind this new excitement is the theory that the primary cause of ageing lies in highly reactive molecules called free radicals, left behind by the oxygen we breathe. Free radicals react with the molecules in our bodies, damaging DNA, proteins and other cell tissues, and are known to be implicated in diseases as diverse as cataracts, cancer and Alzheimer’s. The body does its best to protect itself against free radicals by producing its own chemicals to prevent ageing, such as vitamins E and C, but it is always fighting a losing battle.
A year ago Gordon Lithgow of the University of Manchester discovered a way to help combat free radicals. Using one of these anti-ageing chemicals. he managed to increase the lifespan of one species of earthworm by 50 per cent. Despite cautionary words from the scientists, many welcomed this as the first step towards a drug which would extend life. Research involving the mutation of genes has also thrown up fascinating results: after identifying two of the genes that appear to control how long the earthworm lives, similar genes were found in organisms as various as fruit-flies, mice and human beings. When one considers the vast evolutionary distances that separate these species, it suggests that we may have discovered a key to how ageing is regulated throughout the entire animal kingdom.
In June last year a small American company called Eukarion sought permission to carry out the first trials of an anti-ageing drug, SCS, on human beings. Although it will initially be used to treat diseases associated with old age, Eukarion said, that ‘if the effect of treating diseases of old age is to extend life, everyone’s going to be happy.’
Some scientists, however, are quick to discourage extravagant speculation. ‘There is no evidence whatsoever that swallowing any chemical would have an effect on mammals’, says Rich Miller of the University of Michigan. ‘And those people who claim it
might need to go out and do some experimenting’. Some research, moreover, has produced alarming results. As well as controlling ageing, these, genes also partly control the hormones which regulate growth. The upshot of this is that although the lives of mutant mice can be extended by up to 80 per cent, they remain smaller than normal.
Quite apart from these sorts of horrors, the ethical implications of extending human lifespan are likely to worry many people. Even if the falling birth-rates reported in the world’s developed nations were to be repeated throughout the world, would this be sufficient to compensate for massively extended life-expectancy, and would we be willing to see the demographic balance of our society change out of all recognition? David Gems, the head of the Centre for Research into Ageing at University College, London, is enthusiastic about the opportunities opened up by extended life, but even he observes, ‘If people live much longer, the proportion of children would. of course, he very small. It strikes me that it might feel rather claustrophobic: all those middle-aged people and very few children or young people.’
The philosopher John Polkinghorne emphasises that any discussion of the merits of life-extending therapies must take into account the quality of the life that is lived: ‘One would not wish to prolong life beyond the point it had ceased to be creative and fulfilling and meaningful,’ he says. ‘Presumably, there would have to come a point at which life ceased to be creative and became just repetition. Clearly, there are only so many rounds of golf one would want to play.’
But Polkinghorne, a member of the Human Genetics Commission, also observes that so far our experience of extended life-expectancy has not resulted in world-weariness. Throughout the last century, life-expectancy rose consistently, thanks to improved diet, better hygiene, continuous medical innovation and the provision of free or subsidised healthcare. In 1952 the Queen sent out 225 telegrams to people on their 100th birthday; in 1996 she sent out 5218. ‘Consider also, the lives of our Roman and Anglo-Saxon ancestors’ he says. By and large, the doubling of human lifespan we have seen since then has not been a bad thing. Life has not become frustrating and boring. For example, we now live to see our children’s children, and this is good.’
High-tech crime-fighting tools
Crime-fighting technology is getting more sophisticated and rightly so. The police need to be equipped for the 21st century. In Britain we’ve already got the world’s biggest DNA database. By next year the state will have access to the genetic data of 4.25m people: one British-based person in 14. Hundreds of thousands of those on the database will never have been charged with a crime.
Britain is also reported to have more than £4 million CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras. There is a continuing debate about the effectiveness of CCTV. Some evidence suggests that it is helpful in reducing shoplifting and car crime. It has also been used to successfully identify terrorists and murderers. However, many claim that better lighting is just as effective to prevent crime and that cameras could displace crime. An internal police report said that only one crime was solved for every 1,000 cameras in London in 2007. In short, there is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of cameras, so it is likely that the debate will continue.
Professor Mike Press, who has spent the past decade studying how design can contribute to crime reduction, said that, in order for CCTV to have any effect, it must be used in a targeted way. For example, a scheme in Manchester records every licence plate at the entrance of a shopping complex and alerts police when one is found to belong to an untaxed or stolen car. This is an effective example of monitoring, he said. Most schemes that simply record city centres continually — often not being watched – do not produce results. CCTV can also have the opposite effect of that intended, by giving citizens a false sense of security and encouraging them to be careless with property and personal safety. Professor Press said: All the evidence suggests that CCTV alone makes no positive impact on crime reduction and prevention at all The weight of evidence would suggest the investment is more or less a waste of money unless you have lots of other things in place.’ He believes that much of the increase is driven by the marketing efforts of security companies who promote the crime-reducing benefits of their products. He described it as a lazy approach to crime prevention’ and said that authorities should instead be focusing on how to alter the environment to reduce crime.
But in reality, this is not what is happening. Instead, police are considering using more technology. Police forces have recently begun experimenting with cameras in their helmets. The footage will be stored on police computers, along with the footage from thousands of CCTV cameras and millions of pictures from numberplate recognition cameras used increasingly to check up on motorists.
And now another type of technology is being introduced. It’s called the Microdrone and it’s a toy-sized remote-control craft that hovers above streets or crowds to film what’s going on beneath. The Microdrone has already been used to monitor rock festivals, but its supplier has also been in discussions to supply it to the Metropolitan Police, and Soca, the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The drones are small enough to be unnoticed by people on the ground when they are flying at 350ft. They contain high-resolution video surveillance equipment and an infrared night vision capability, so even in darkness they give their operators a bird’s-eye view of locations while remaining virtually undetectable.
The worrying thing is, who will get access to this technology? Merseyside police are already employing two of the devices as part of a pilot scheme to watch football crowds and city parks looking for antisocial behaviour. It is not just about crime detection: West Midlands fire brigade is about to lease a drone, for example, to get a better view of fire and flood scenes and aid rescue attempts; the Environment Agency is considering their use for monitoring of illegal fly tipping and oil spills. The company that makes the drone says it has no plans to license the equipment to individuals or private companies, which hopefully will prevent private security firms from getting their hands on them. But what about local authorities? In theory, this technology could be used against motorists. And where will the surveillance society end? Already there are plans to introduce smart water’ containing a unique DNA code identifier that when sprayed on a suspect will cling to their clothes and skin and allow officers to identify them later. As long as high-tech tools are being used in the fight against crime and terrorism, fine. But if it’s another weapon to be used to invade our privacy then we don’t want it.
Chinese Stretch to Catch up with Teenage Model
THE young in China are going to desperate lengths to add extra inches to their height in pursuit of celebrity and wealth. They are being urged on by a government shamed by the news that, for the first time in history, the Japanese now stand taller than the Chinese. There is constant pressure on Chinese adolescents to think tall. The government is encouraging them to drink milk as a way of promoting growth, while magazines and television are replete with the images of lanky supermodels and basketball stars.
One of the greatest influences has been the astonishing success of Huang Xinye, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from a fishing village in southern China. She was whisked away by talent scouts for a modelling contest late last year. Until then, her 6ft 1in frame had marked her out as a gawky also-ran in the school playground. Having won the contest, Huang was spotted by the international modelling agency Elite and flown to Europe. The news of her glamorous new life and the £12,000 that she won in the modelling contest has inspired thousands to attempt to follow in her footsteps – even if they don’t have her natural advantages.
Teenagers are inundating hospitals that claim to be able to enhance their height with requests for leg-lengthening operations. Xia Hetao, a doctor whose clinics perform the operation said: “I have received many letters from people saying that, because they were born short, they have suffered and are looking for some solace.”
If they are accepted on Xia’s waiting list, the aspiring patients are guaranteed only more pain in the short run. Xia slices the thigh bone in half and inserts a steel rod supported by a metal frame on the outside of the bone. The patient cranks the mechanism wider every day, forcing the leg to grow longer. Most can stand the pain only for the month that it takes to stretch an inch, but others persist. The record is held by a young man who gained 6.5 inches. Last year, The Telegraph highlighted the case of the British girl, Emma Richards, 16, from Wadebridge, Cornwall, who underwent a series of leg-lengthening operations to gain an extra five inches so that she could become an air stewardess.
Even in successful cases in China, the lengthening and attendant physiotherapy and rehabilitation lasts months. Frequently, however, the result is disastrous – the bone never sets properly, but constantly breaks, eventually turning the patient into an invalid.
Those who either cannot afford the equivalent of the £2,000 that the doctor charges or are unwilling to suffer the pain that it entails can take advantage of scores of products that claim to boost growth – ranging from the absurd to the downright dangerous. In department stores throughout the country, salesmen entice shoppers to try the Wanlijian shoe pad, a magnetic insole that claims to stimulate pressure points in the foot, triggering the release of a natural growth hormone.
White-coated salesmen on the same shopping floors tout a vast array of lotions and pills for enhancing growth, such as “Increasing Brains and Stature” tablets, which contain a double boost for the anxious consumer. Manufacturers of such products claim that sales are booming, thanks in large part to the emergence of towering young role models such as Huang Xinye.
Zhang Mei is one of the many who want to look like Huang. She says cosmetic surgery will create undreamt-of opportunities for her. She and her friends swap tales of operations to lengthen their legs, enlarge their breasts, reduce their thighs, straighten their noses and tuck their eyelids. She said: “A nice body is the passport through the door leading to our dream life.”
Teenage boys have their own giant heroes, in the form of a trio of basketball players known as the “Walking Great Wall”. The average height of Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and Menk Bateer is 7 ft 6 in. At last year’s Olympic Games, they towered over rivals from Scandinavia and confidently looked the American Dream Team straight in the eye. Since then, China’s growing legion of basketball fans has been proudly confident that a Chinese player will one day establish the country as a great force in the sport.
For centuries, the Chinese have derisively referred to the Japanese as “dwarfs”, which is why the news that the average Chinese person is now smaller than his Japanese counterpart caused such official consternation. The explanation is undoubtedly the better nutrition enjoyed by recent generations of Japanese, which is why Beijing has made it compulsory for every schoolchild from nursery school upwards to drink a quarter-pint of milk every day. Officials believe that the reason for China’s physical shortfall is the fact that Japanese children drink 18 times as much milk a year as Chinese infants. However, the order to drink milk is not popular with children, most of whom (as with the majority of Chinese) are lactose-intolerant and, therefore, have difficulty digesting the natural sugars in milk. It has been accepted by all, however, as a necessary evil if modern Chinese people are to achieve the greater goal of a taller nation.
Height and beauty, though, are not always enough, as Huang Xinye is discovering. “When I have enough money, I will buy a place in Beijing for my family,” she said as she boarded a plane for Geneva late last year. Sadly, her parents are still in their fishing village as Huang is struggling to make her name on the international modelling circuit.