The gods of mythology possessed the ultimate power: the power over life and death, the ability to heal the sick and prolong life.Foremost in our prayers to the gods was deliverance from disease and illness.
In Greek and Roman mythology, there is the tale of Eos, the beautiful goddess of the dawn. One day, she fell deeply in love with a handsome mortal, Tithonus. She had a perfect body and was immortal, but Tithonus would eventually age, wither away, and perish. Determined to save her lover from this dismal fate, she beseeched Zeus, the father of the gods, to grant Tithonus the gift of immortality so that they could spend eternity together. Taking pity on these lovers, he granted Eos her wish.
But Eos, in her haste, forgot to ask for eternal youth for him. So Tithonus became immortal, but his body aged.
Unable to die, he became more and more decrepit and decayed, living an eternity with pain and suffering.
So that is the challenge facing the science of the twenty-first century.
Scientists are now reading the book of life,which includes the complete human genome, and which promises us miraculous advances in understanding aging. But life extension without health and vigor can be an eternal punishment, as Tithonus tragically found out.
One of the scientists who is unlocking the secrets of life is Robert Lanza, a man in a hurry. He is a new breed of biologist, energetic, and full of fresh ideas - so many breakthroughs to be made and so little time. Lanza is riding the crest of the biotech revolution. Like a kid in a candy store, he delights in delving into uncharted territory, making breakthroughs in a wide range of hot-button topics.
He came from a modest working-class family south of Boston, where few went to college. But while in high school, he heard the astonishing news about the unraveling of DNA. He was hooked. He decided on a science project: cloning a chicken in his room. His bewildered parents did not know what he was doing, but they gave him their blessing.
Determined to get his project off the ground, he went to Harvard to get advice. Not knowing anyone, he asked a man he thought was a janitor for some directions. Intrigued, the janitor took him to his office. Lanza found out later that the janitor was actually one of the senior researchers at the lab. Impressed by the sheer audacity of this brash young high school student, he introduced Lanza to other scientists there, including many Nobel-caliber researchers, who would change his life. Lanza compares himself to Matt Damon’s character in the movie Good Will Hunting, where a scruffy, street-smart working-class kid astonishes the professors at MIT, dazzling them with his mathematical genius.
Today, Lanza is chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology, with hundreds of papers and inventions to his credit. In 2003, he made headlines when the San Diego Zoo asked him to clone a banteng, an endangered species of wild ox, from the body of one that had died twenty-five years before. Lanza successfully extracted usable cells from the carcass, processed them, and sent them to a farm in Utah. There, the fertilized cell was implanted into a female cow. Ten months later he got news that his latest creation had just been born. On another day, he might be working on “tissue engineering,” which may eventually create a human body shop from which we can order new organs, grown from our own cells, to replace organs that are diseased or have worn out. Another day, he could be working on cloning human embryo cells. He was part of the historic team that cloned the world’s first human embryo for the purpose of generating embryonic stem cells.