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Aging, Biotechnology, and the Future.

Aging, Biotechnology, and the Future

Catherine Y. Read, Robert C. Green and Michael A. Smyer The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008, hardback, 250pp., $45.00 or 28.00 [pounds sterling] ISBN: 978-0801887888

In 1894, the United States had 44 states, and Grower Cleveland was President. Emil Fischer formed the basis for what is now known as enzyme specificity, and Henry John Horstman Fenton discovered an important reaction resulting in oxidative damage to cells. (l,2) Gertrude Baines was also born this year.

Gertrude celebrated her 115th birthday on 6 April 2009, the oldest living person on earth. She seems to have won the genetic lottery, but environment might have also contributed to her centenarian stamina. An environment Gertrude likes to fill with hot dogs and crisp bacon. (3,4)

Paradoxically, Gertrude is the world's future. Modern health care and improving environment will ensure that by 2050, the number of people in America aged 85 years or older will double and the number of those aged between 65 and 84 will treble. (5) The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 more than 2 billion people will be 60 or older. (6) The union of the world's graying population and increasing health-care costs prompted Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) President Jim Greenwood to say this was a dragon biotechnology must slay. (7)

So how does biotechnology slay an aged dragon? First, warriors must be familiar with the issues. Enter swinging swordfighter Aging, Biotechnology, and the Future. This book is a compilation of many viewpoints, for answers to questions about cloning, aging and health '... cannot be described by any one author or from any one disciplinary perspective or for any one subset of the population. (8) s It's multi-disciplinary and multi-author format is the right approach. Nineteen articles from respected scholars discuss the confluence of technology and humanness on issues such as cloning, ageing and immortality, genetic testing and ethics. Readers completing the book have walk away with a good sense of the issues from multiple considerations.

Unfortunately, Aging finds itself caught up in one world of a two-world universe it hopes to unite in discussion: the interested and the uninterested. The book reaffirms the fears and facts of the interested, but falls short in stoking the focusing fires of the uninterested. Although tough questions regarding cloning and immortality affect everyone, and almost all authors in this book unanimously extend a call for everyday citizens to become involved, the book reads well only to the academics who already have familiarity with the issues.

In 19 articles, there are 443 references or about 20 references per article. Additionally, in 256 pages, I managed to find only three figures. Each figure addresses some form of risk and Alzheimer's disease. Of course the dense text and dearth of figures may metaphorically represent the difficulty of the issues society faces, but unfortunately these characteristics wrap the book in an academic, think-tank blanket which has the same warmth and invite as re-reading a transcript from a recent ethics conference. Aging is the kind of book one starts with good intentions but lays on the nightstand forgetting to pick it up again because it loses its way in catalyzing questioning vigor in the average citizen.

Still, the book has gems. It's thrilling to read perspectives from scientists at the vanguard of research and bioethically oriented thinking. Heavy fighters like George Annas and Thomas Shannon come out swinging with hard stances against cloning and immortality. Laurie Zoloth demonstrates that ceasing technology-related health advances will be difficult, and Robert Lonza reminds how quickly those advances are approaching.

This book's message is timely. None need look further than Dr Zavos' attempts in April to implant cloned embryos or a recent report updating the financial collapse of America's Social Security and Medicare programs to know the questions raised in this book are already knocking at the world's doors. (9,10) Aging is a good start in the debate citizens and biotechnology need to have.

Today, more is known about enzyme specificity and the prevention of oxidative damage, but society is unable to answer if it should be prevented. Perhaps by the time the aging crisis is solved Gertrude Baines will still be here to tell us how we're doing.

doi: 10.1057/jcb.2009.20


(1.) Bromme, H. J., Morke, W. and Yeschke, E. (2002). Transformation of barbituric acid into alloxan by hydroxyl radicals: Interaction with melatonin and with other hydroxyl radical scavengers. Journal of Pineal Research 33(4): 239-247.

(2.) De Duve, C. (1991) Blueprint for a Cell: The Nature and Origin of Life. Burlington, NC: Neil Patterson Publishers, Carolina Biological Supply.

(3.) Bermudez, E. (2009) For Gertrude Baines, reaching 115 isn't old hat. LA Times, 7 April, la-me-baines7-2009apr07,0,7035273.story.

(4.) World's oldest person celebrates 115th in LA (2009). WTOP News, 6 April, ?nid=104&sid=1643675.

(5.) Census Bureau. (2006) Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

(6.) The World Health Report. (20013) World health organization, whr/2008/whr08_en.pdf.

(7.) King, H. (2001) Maryland and Virginia unite at 2007 mid-Atlantic bio conference. Journal of Commercial Biotechnology 14: 189-191.

(8.) Read, C.Y., Green, R.C. and Smyer, M.A. (eds.) (2003). Aging, Biotechnology, and the Future. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

(9.) Connor, S. (2009) Fertility expert: 'I can clone a human being'. The Independent, 22 April, fertility-expert-i-can-clone-a-human-being-1672095.html.

(10.) Goldstein, A. (2009) Alarm sounded on social security. The Washinton Post, 13 May, article/2009/05/12/AR2009051200252.html.

Harley King is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins MS/MBA Biotechnology program and is currently a PhD candidate in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at the University of Maryland. He owns Quantiforma, a scientific visualization company and blogs at

Harley King

University of Maryland, Bladensburg, MD 20878, USA.
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Author:King, Harley
Publication:Journal of Commercial Biotechnology
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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