Controversial medical advancements deserve support to extend human lifespan

Illustration by Parker Wilhelm

In 2012, Emily Whitehead was on death’s door. The 7-year-old’s acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer, had resisted chemotherapy for more than a year.

Determined to save their daughter, Emily’s parents enrolled her in a gene therapy trial at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There, an engineered virus programmed Emily’s own immune cells to eradicate cancer. In less than a month, Emily was cancer-free. According to a May 2012 Centre Daily Times article by Heather Hottle, Emily was the first child in the U.S. to receive this sort of treatment.

Opposite this medical miracle, however, lies an implicit societal tragedy. While gene therapy may be new to Americans, Chinese oncologists have been using it to cure patients for years. In 2003, in fact, American businessman Arthur Winiarski traveled to Beijing to receive a treatment that had not yet been approved in the U.S.. Though Winiarski had been given months to live and had a tumor the size of a fist, his gene therapy sent it into complete remission, according to a July 2004 article in The Telegraph by Adam Luck.

Emily’s recovery, though spectacular, happened nine years after Winiarski’s. I shudder to imagine the number of patients that our country needlessly failed to save during that time. While awkward government regulation is a setback in and of itself, I’m convinced that part of the problem is our culture’s suspicious attitude toward any advancements that offer to help us live longer.

The column opposite mine is likely an example of this skepticism. When we hear that some genetic or prosthetic discovery may one day extend our longevity, our fears of inequality, overpopulation and “playing God” compel us to shirk away. The result may be that we fail to save people like Emily.

As someone to whom faith is important, the notion that certain medical advancements constitute “playing God” has never resonated with me. Religion is about both acknowledging and transcending human limitations. Theism and improving the human condition aren’t simply compatible, they are congruent. To a theist, in fact, the devaluation of life is a devaluation of creation.

If life is a gift from God, we ought to affirm it by enjoying it for as long as we can. Rejecting medicine does not glorify God — it only exalts emptiness and death.

Those who caution that certain medical advancements might cause overpopulation have a more interesting double standard. Contrary to popular belief, people rarely die of non-specific “old age.” The two leading causes of death in America are heart disease and cancer, respectively. If gene therapies like Emily’s could reliably cure other cancers, it would greatly increase average life expectancy. Are Malthusians willing to deny cures to suffering 7-year-olds in order to prevent overpopulation, or would they prefer to appoint a committee to arbitrate who will live and who will die?

Moreover, there’s little reason to anticipate that there would be a larger population increase as a result of extending the lives of healthy people. We didn’t go extinct when people lived shorter lives because they had children sooner than we do now. Likewise, if some treatment increased our longevity, many would forestall having children until later in life. While I personally think it’s beneficial to have children early, I have no wish to impose this preference on others.

Appeals to equality are perhaps the most senseless objection to medical innovation. Consider the fact that, every year, many people die of malaria in the developing countries even though it is easily treatable with chloroquine. There are two ways we could go about equalizing this disparity. One way would be to send more chloroquine to impoverished nations. Another way would be to keep sick people in wealthy nations from getting chloroquine. Though both scenarios get us equally closer to equality, nobody would be better off in the latter.

The former solution is preferable because equality, in and of itself, should never be pursued as an end. As political theorist Edmund Burke wrote in 1795, compulsory equalizations “pull down what is above. They never raise what is below,” and “they depress high and low together beneath the level of what was originally the lowest.” While it’s a shame that chloroquine is not more accessible, the treatment would benefit no one if it hadn’t first originated somewhere.

A February 2012 article in Nature by Heidi Ledford discusses a study that suggests that, in mice, the overexpression of a sirtuin gene can increase lifespan by about 15 percent. Should research of this kind one day benefit humans, humanitarians should respond by welcoming it just as we’ve welcomed antibiotics, eyeglasses, pacemakers and other technologies that have improved the human condition through ingenuity.

Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to