On a dark Swedish afternoon, thoughts of eternal life
It’s not everyday one meets a Nobel laureate who is said to have offered a tantalising clue in the search for the fountain of youth.
American scientist Elizabeth Blackburn was here in Stockholm to collect her Nobel prize for medicine and everyone attending her news conference wanted to know the same thing. When will our lives be measured in centuries not decades? Could we one day stave off death itself? But for those hoping the scientific Holy Grail was in reach, Blackburn had some sad news. She said scientists were a long way off from being able to significantly slow the ageing process.
Winters are forever linked with the idea of ageing and Stockholm’s winters can be particularly grim.
So it was at least fitting that we could discuss our mortality on a typically Swedish December afternoon of icy rain and 3 p.m. darkness. Blackburn was one of three winners of this year’s Nobel
prize for medicine for the discovery of an enzyme, called telomerase, that helps prevent the wearing down of chromosomes that underlies ageing.
After the news conference, I went up to ask her not so much about the science of her work — biology was not my best subject in high school — but about its philosophical implications.
That morning I’d been in the gym with a friend (yes, an effort to slow the hands of time) who suggested I ask whether it was even desirable to live forever.
“Of course, in some way, we treasure the idea of immortality,” Blackburn told me.
But she had mixed feelings and said the focus should be about improving the quality of the current lifespan, not just about extending it.
“I think that most people value a healthy life. I don’t think that so many people so much value the (idea of) hundreds of years of life,” she said.
Based in San Francisco, Blackburn gets to share the $1.4 million prize with fellow American scientists Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, who were also at the news conference with her. Blackburn, known for being outspoken, did most of the talking. Her readiness to speak her mind had already got her in the news well before this year. She was fired in 2004 from President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, which many scientists contended was a result of her criticism of his policy on human embryonic stem cell research.
Those who can’t buy enough anti-wrinkle cream can take comfort in Blackburn’s remark that clinical trials are at least underway on how her discoveries can affect ageing. But while we might like to dream on a Swedish winter afternoon about living well into the 22nd century, Blackburn was less reassuring.
“I think that’s an intriguing possibility to play with mentally, but I don’t see it scientifically about to happen,” she said.
-Written by Mia Shanley, a Reuters correspondent based in Stockholm covering Swedish financial and macroeconomic news as well as developments in Iceland following a brief stint in equity research at Kaupthing bank. She was previously employed for five years with Reuters in Singapore and has also spent time working and studying in Taipei and London.-