Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Elixir of Life

Do you want to live forever? Be careful what you wish for. Henrietta Lack has immortality, of sorts. Pieces of this unremarkable lady can be found growing in labs all over the globe. In 1951 Henrietta was dying from ovarian cancer when an enterprising physician removed cells from the tumour and placed them in a flask where they continued to grow and grow. In fact they have never stopped growing. Her cells were rebranded as He La and exported everywhere, for profit.  What is remarkable about cells growing you may ask? Aren’t cells supposed to grow? Well yes, cells grow. If they are sensible they mature and then stop growing. Eventually cells senesce and die- cells are programmed to die. Each cell has an internal clock which counts the number of divisions it undergoes. With each division, a new cell is born and after a while, and after a regulated number of divisions, the mother cell dies. He La cells (for it is none other) have a clock with a broken main spring. As long as we provide the necessary nutrients and conditions, these cells will continue to replicate. Like all cancer cells, Henrietta’s cells are non-compliant to normal regulatory processes and represent the first ever immortalised cell lineage.

He La cells have become the cornerstone of biological research and have contributed to a number of breakthroughs including the successful search for a polio vaccine. It is estimated that He La cells have been cited in more than 70,000 research papers.

Why we age and subsequently die is a great biological mystery. Over the past few decades researchers have diligently applied their skills to uncover the ‘last great mystery’. Imagine the rewards and riches which await success. Could the Alchemist’s dream of producing the ‘elixir of eternal life’ be within our grubby, grasping mitt? Probably not. Tis an extremely complex conundrum and we are no closer to producing an answer to the question why we age and die than we have of manufacturing gold from lead. The fundamental mechanisms underpinning cell obsolescence and death are poorly enumerated and those mechanisms that have been identified are understood, poorly, if at all. Of course we could apply the engineer’s maxim: ‘Don’t understand, just fix’. A great approach when considering mechanical devices. When applied to highly complex biological systems the consequences are highly unpredictable. Mrs Shelley should have known better.

The He La story has taken another turn, unrelated to complex biology. When the immortal cells were removed from the moribund Henrietta and grown in a dish 60 decades ago it was done so without the dying woman’s permission. Her family have fought a long battle over the years for acknowledgement and recognition of Henrietta’s important contribution to science. A whole raft of ethical and legal issues are involved. This is not a topic I would like to become enmeshed in- tis a very tangled weave indeed. In this instance a voluntary code of practice has been worked out which is acceptable to surviving family members and the scientific community, although no one bothered to consult me. There is nothing binding in the legal sense and Henrietta’s family have never received money for their dead relative’s legacy.

In Greek mythology, the Dawn goddess, Eos, becomes infatuated with the mortal Tithonus. She asks Zeus to confer the gift of immortality on Tithonus so she can enjoy his beauty, forever. However, foolish Eos, perhaps distracted and infatuated with love, forgets to ask Zeus to bestow eternal youth on the young man. Tithonus ages but never dies, succumbing to the ailments of old age, but never its fulfilment. Eos becomes bored with the boorish senilic (is this a real word?) old man and locks him in a room to pass an eternal declining dotage until the end of time. He begs for death but eventually his cries become a whisper and are heard, no more......  

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

                                                                Tithonus- Lord Tennyson


  1. Imagine Blair, Brown, Campbell and Mandelson as eternals...

    Some things are better left alone.

    1. Sad, but true- it is likely to be the aforementioned folk. The technology, if it ever comes, will be at a price that only the rich will be able to afford. 'Those that rape us will live forever'. Maybe that will be their punishment.

  2. It'll be ok if you keep your marbles. However I suspect ennui will be hard to fight.

    1. Can't say I will be queuing up. Quite content with my 3 score and ten. I'm looking forward and deserve my oblivion. Anyway, I've seen the future.......

  3. Perhaps 6 decades ago? Fascinating stuff = FS = you!

  4. Have you watched 'Jupiter Ascending' - an interesting little film about how the Earth was seeded after killing off the dinosaurs by more humans who wait until the population reaches a certain level when they harvest the people to make the elixir of life.

    Apparently, one bottle takes 100 humans to make. I suspect Spivey will be able to explain how this truly believable conspiracy got leaked and made into a film...

  5. "........What is remarkable about cells growing you may ask?....."

    I cannot speak for the other cunts here abouts, but I for one, won't.


    I spent a few blissful weeks one summer in Drumcliff, County Sligo, Republic of Ireland.
    Ahhhhh......... the halcyon days of my misspent youth.
    One warm and dewy night, while meandering about in a drunken haze after imbibing too many "Marmite Shots" at my local, I happened upon the restful graveyard of St. Columba's.
    Memories of my recent tryst in the loo with a "mad, bad and dangerous to know" rapscallion raced through my mind.
    Feeling a bit flushed, I took off my clothing and lay upon a nearby bed of cool, river-washed pebbles and fell fast asleep.
    Upon awakening hours later, in the shadow of a grey monolith, I found myself surrounded by a group of Yankee tourists staring in pity upon my nubile yet gravel-ly form.

    "Cast a cold Eye
    On Life, on Death,
    On pebbled Cunt.
    Horseman, pass by!"

    Is all I said.