Science and the Future of Cloning: Is Immortality Possible?

Jul 15, 2010 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

An MSNBC poll shows that 81 percent of Americans don't believe in the afterife. Yet, a Pew Forum poll shows that 82 percent do believe in an afterlife. How can two respectable organizations be so different in their surveys? On-line poll crashing perhaps. Well, 90 percent or so of Americans claim to believe in a God, so chances are the Pew version is closer to reality.

Whether you believe or not, most of us have thought about death, and for many "something" after our present life seems better than a dark eternal gloom forever. Hoping the Bible, Koran and virtually every religious publication are right, let us nevertheless speculate on the biological option, for there is a finite chance that they might all be wrong. I certainly haven't seen anything close to compelling proof.

What is "eternal life?" In one sense, all living creatures today are essentially already immortal. We should be able to, someday, trace ourselves back through 50 billion DNA copyings over 4 billion years to determine our LUCA. Our DNA has, thus, had everlasting life. While our species almost became extinct in that Great Toba Supervolcano Eruption of 73,000 BC, where Homo sapiens dropped to perhaps a thousand breeding pairs, we have recovered well, survived the potential nuclear winter of the Cold War, and have no obvious doomsday event on the horizon, except, maybe, for The Venus Syndrome.

Of course, we will also live through our children and their children. Plus, the products of our life, such as letters, books, digital photos and statues, will be around long after we expire.

However, Woody Allen has expressed a sense that he was not satisfied with immortality through his works, for he wanted to live forever by not dying. Conscious eternal life, if not rejuvenation and reversal, then, is an ultimate goal on the level of world peace and universal happiness. Sounds a bit like Heaven.

There are at least two pathways to continue your presence. One does not involve human cloning. Without going into telomeres and ribonucleoproteins, let me just say that science is actually close to finding and checking the aging gene. Someday, you might be able to take a pill and stop growing old. The question is, can this technique be perfected before you get too old? You can still, then, of course, get killed in an auto accident or through an illness, but that so-called 130 year old lady from Georgia (of the former Soviet Union) could someday be commonplace.

The other is cloning, and there are two kinds: therapeutic and reproductive. The former is almost okay, while the latter is verboten, except in certain countries where the laws are fuzzy. You can expect some future breakthrough in countries where religion is not dominant.

Animal reproductive cloning is old news. Scotland produced Dolly in 1997, with mice in Hawaii (1998), Prometea in Italy (horse, 2003), Little Nicky in the USA (a cat, 2004) and Snuppy in South Korea (dog, 2006). Thus, the concept of reproductive cloning has been proven to be real.

So let's get to reproductive human cloning, laden with legal and moral land mines. I sat in on a seminar by Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg almost half a century ago while a student at Stanford, where this concept came up during the discussion. The field has both come a long way, and not really that much, over this period.

The UN General Assembly in August of 2005 did adopt a declaration prohibiting all forms of human cloning. The vote was 87 in support, 34 in opposition and 70 abstaining or absent. But the edict was non-binding. The European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine prohibits human cloning, but has not been ratified by most countries. There is, further, a Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which bans reproductive human cloning, but it has no legal standing.

So where is the USA on human cloning? Human cloning is legal in the U.S., but there are some Federal prohibitions against research. The George W. Bush regime was especially difficult, and Barack Obama ended the ban on embryonic stem cell research, while remaining opposed to human cloning.

Stanford formed a stem cell institute in 2003 and Harvard initiated efforts to clone human embryos in 2006. They initially were attempting to fund this work with private donors without any government assistance. Mind you, they are not cloning humans, as Harvard would like to harvest stem cells to fight leukemia and diabetes. The University of California at San Francisco announced a similar pursuit. Advanced Cell Technology of Massachusetts is commercializing human embryonic stem cell cloning services.

Some countries have observed the American reluctance to support human cloning research and have taken definite steps. There was South Korea and their scandal. The situation is somewhat foggy in the United Kingdom, as the University of Newscastle in 2005 claimed to clone the first human embryo.

Singapore, a former British colony of 4.5 million people, has entered the competition. For all intents and purposes, while a democracy, it is about as close to a benevolent dictatorship as there exists today. The government decides what is best and gets the job done. Biotechnology is a priority area. They created Biopolis, a $300 million, 2 million square foot research center focused on biomedical development, recruiting world class scientists, some who were fed up with the national politics in their own country. Singapore is trying to establish a world sanctuary for stem cell research. While first inaugurated in 2003, Biopolis is already home to scientists from 50 nations. While reproductive human cloning is banned, I can see this island someday becoming the site of choice for therapeutic cloning, as depicted in a former CBS television drama Century City.

What about China? Is China a cloning paradise? University of Connecticut animal cloning director Jerry Yang Xiangzhong told The Standard, China's business newspaper, that China can jump ahead of the U.S. in three years if their scientists were given the green light to proceed. His contention is that in much of the developed world scientific progress in this field is hindered by political and religious debates. There is also the moral problem with something called human dignity. Apparently, these difficulties would not be experienced in China. Tragically, Professor "Yang" passed away last year at the age of 49.

Okay, let's say someday human reproductive cloning is attained. The concern always comes up about what good this is, as I won't know this will be the real me. Well, it has been speculated that by the time all these bioethical hurdles are cleared, computer technology will be developed to the stage where your memory can be transferred to this new body. The field now exceeds 100 trillion calculations per second (1014 cps), and should be at least ten times faster in a decade, at which capability the brain can be simulated. Such a computer should only cost about $1000 in 2020.

That's not all. There are algorithms and biological interfacing challenges. This field is just beginning, but the odds are, this fantasy for immortality could be possible in 25 years.

Finally, the cost factor. Originally only billionaires might be able to afford eternal life. So if you were worried about exacerbating our already overpopulated world, economics, as they are already affecting birth rates, will also check the growth of human reproductive cloning. However, while we all know how Moore's Law has precipitously dropped the price of computing power, the reduction of genome sequencing costs has been a lot more dramatic, so immortality could well be closer than you think.

Part 1 of Human Cloning appeared last month. Chapter 2 of
Simple Solutions For Humanity (see icon below) covers eternal life. This series has to do with the afterlife. Chapter 5 of my book goes into a nationally popular topic in afterlife discussions -- the religious afterlife.

Finally, click on

for a HuffPo on anti-aging science. He recently wrote a book entitled THE YOUTH PILL.