Thursday, March 16, 2006

Biological Simulations - the Next Great Era in Science & Health (and Software)

Researchers Simulate Complete Structure Of Virus
A massive Congratulations to the geek studs and stud-ettes from the computational biology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the crystallographers at the University of California at Irvine for creating the first computer simulation of an entire life form - a virus.

I sincerely believe that biological simulations can thrust us into the most prolific period of medical advancement in history. My suggestion for the next big Biology project (i.e. Human Genome Project) should be a government, academic and/or industrial effort to completely model and simulate the human cell. A concerted effort recruiting some of the greatest computer scientists, computational and biological modelers and the foremost biologists available in industry and academia, following a schedule such as this:
  • 1 year analysis and standards phase where the "vernacular" for all the computational and biological elements are defined (W3C type standards)
  • Continue with three to five (3-5) year parallel efforts to cover all the major organelles of human cells
  • Followed by an extensive integration effort that lasts another 3-5 years to complete the cell model with membranes, nuclear and cyto plasms, intra-cellular matrices, etc...

This can be the next great era of medical science and health, especially if government and the general public (especially in the US) start getting more interested in public health. The Human Genome Project should be just the first of a series of Great Biology Projects that the government can help initiate and co-sponsor. I think most of us can agree that it sounds like a relatively good use of tax dollars ... especially relevant these days where trillion dollar debt and $400 billion dollar annual military budgets are the norm. Much too frequently, do we, the public and leaders of the U.S., disregard good medical science because of inflexible religious attitudes, extremist agendas and apathy in regards to good health and longevity. Only when loved ones are struck by sickness or death do we, as individuals, tend to take an interest... please support the efforts of our great institutions that spend day and night fighting disease and disability, such as:

  • NIH, CDC, WHO and other great governmental health agencies
  • Academia - we are blessed in the U.S. with amazing universities, professors and students
  • Patient advocacy groups

I'll jump off my soap box now and finish by saying that you, the public, should take an hour or two each week or month (steal it from your TV time) and stay aware of the great happenings and research efforts around the world to help combat disease, disability and death.

Nature Web Special (PDF) - 2020 Computing

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cryonics - Freeze my head please

Generally, religion and politics are the two topics that provoke energetic, diverse and enraging commentary and conversation … but in my personal experience there have been two other topics that can provoke similar reactions from individuals and those are 1) ghetto stories and 2) Cryonics.

Cryonics is the practice of preserving individuals with current technology in the expectation (or faith) that future medical technology will be able to revive them by

  1. reversing the effects of the preservation process
  2. reversing the original cause of death

Upon hearing this definition, most people either start giggling and laughing or they start shaking their heads rigorously or their faces contort in strange configurations trying to absorb the shock of such a strange, ridiculous and selfish proposition…… at first….. then a small number of people jump off the subject entirely but a majority of others enter the “are you fucking serious” stage where they start peppering you with questions, accusations or a litany of jokes referring to popular references to movies & cartoons.

During my “younger times”… late teens and early twenties, I never quite understood why people reacted so strongly (and strangely) when I spoke about the validity of the Cryonics concept especially since I felt then (and now) that it is a valid alternative to either cremation, organ (or full body) donation or ground burial …. but as I got older I started understanding how Cryonics touches on an entire sleuth of taboo subjects that people are not comfortable in addressing such as

  • issues regarding death & dying

  • religious thought and afterlife

  • using technology to reverse conditions such as disease and death

I learned about Cryonics around 1989-1990 after picking up a Cryonics Magazine at a Tower Records bookstore on South Street in Philadelphia (I was around 17-18). I couldn’t believe that people were actually signing themselves up to be frozen upon death and the magazine described in somewhat gory detail the process that was used to preserve someone’s head!! The Cryonics Magazine is a quarterly published by the Alcor Foundation, a cryonics organization currently based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Alcor has been popularized during recent years with numerous documentaries and articles from business journals, magazines and newspapers. Historically, cryonics has always dealt (pretty successfully) with legal obstacles and none larger then a very public spat between the heirs of baseball hall-of-famer Ted Williams – which resulted in huge publicity, both negative and positive, for Alcor.

At this stage of my life (end of high school) – I was pretty much thinking about 3 things all day …. 1) violent death, 2) science & technology and 3) girls. Since I was literally ducking bullets during my teenage years in Camden, NJ and witness to an endless stream of friends and neighborhood acquaintances getting shot, stabbed or assaulted on a daily basis -- the notions of violent death (and how to avoid it) weighed heavy on my mind on a minute-to-minute basis every day and all day …. so when I noticed there was a community of individuals involved in the “death avoidance” business, I was naturally attracted to what these guys were about.

I decided to read about and research cryonics (and Alcor) for the following several years before taking the leap of signing up for a membership. I started talking to my friends about it and they initially thought I was nuts (and my cousin still jokes about it all the time … even though deep down I know he’s interested too) but they all expressed interest of some for or another. The major PRO-cryonics question that I find most useful is the “What are the alternatives?” question … the only tangible alternatives after being “declared dead” are burial, cremation or anatomical donation (organs or full body) and all of the intangible alternatives revolved around faith in some form of an afterlife. During that stage of my life; I could never logically reconcile that a moral, personal form of God can exist while so many people were stealing, murdering, dying in my neighborhoods – so faith was pretty much thrown out the window -- which left me with the tangible alternatives named above (burial, etc.) – this lead me to the conclusion that if cryonics only had a one percent (1%) chance of success; then I was willing to invest (and gamble) resources on that 1% since all the other tangible alternatives had a 0% chance of “death avoidance”.

Cryonics procedure in a nutshell

  1. Sign up for either a neuro-suspension (head only) or a full body suspension membership.

  2. Setup financial arrangements for payment – approx. $150K (USD) for full body and $80K for neuro-suspension. Most people fund payment through a life insurance vehicle to minimize cost.

  3. A standby team is deployed by Alcor to the hospital if you’re very sick and near death. Ideally, you should be transferred to a hospice location near Alcor headquarters

  4. Once you’ve been declared dead (your heart stops) then the Alcor teams initiates their protocols and procedures, summarized as follows
  • You’re placed in an ice-water bath

  • Blood circulation and breathing are artificially restored by a heart-lung resuscitator (HLR).

  • Intravenous lines are also established, and protective solutions are administered

  • Blood is also replaced with an organ preservation solution that is specially designed to support life at low temperature

You’re then packed in ice and transported to Alcor facilities - at this point you’re officially chilling… (sorry .. bad joke)

  • Once at Alcor facilities, your organ preservation fluid is then replaced by a mixture of cryoprotecant fluids near 0 degrees C in a process that last several hours

  • After this then your body begins a more pronounced cooling phase until you’re ready to be placed in long term storage

Obvious concerns that I have

  1. The shit ends up never working because the freezing damage cannot be reversed.
  2. The financial and legal viability of Alcor as an organization/entity (and Cryonics as a practice) doesn’t last 50, 100, 200 years from now

  3. I dislike the notion of giving any person (or entity) a financial incentive for my “death”; so I don’t like life insurance in general but its an affordable option for most members.

  4. Someone forgets to do their job because they’re playing some XBOX Holographic sex game in the year 2075 and I de-frost.

  5. Alcor employees die off and a bunch of swindlers take over the company and sell my precious body to pirates

Seriously, I hope I never need Cryonics, ideally life can be safely extended in the near future by just popping a pill or something … but one thing I know for sure … life is way to damn short for my tastes …. 40,50, 60, 70 years? some see this as selfish, others see it as unnatural, some see it as logical and obvious --- I’m not sure how I see it ... but I feel that it’s within my rights to try to maximize my life span and help others do the same.

Resources & Articles
Ralph Merkle Cryonics Page
Wall Street Journal - Personal Revival Trusts
ABCNews Article - Jan 25, 2006
Alcor Cryonics FAQ