Or ever have.

Biologists have uncovered a deep link between lifespan and cancer in the form of a gene that switches off stem cells as a person ages.

The critical gene, already well known for its role in suppressing tumors, seems to mediate a profound balance between life and death. It weighs the generation of new replacement cells, required for continued life, against the risk of death from cancer, which is the inevitable outcome of letting cells divide. To offset the increasing risk of cancer as a person ages, the gene gradually reduces the ability of stem cells to proliferate.

The new finding, reported by three groups of researchers online Wednesday in Nature, was made in a special breed of mice that lack the pivotal gene, but is thought likely to apply to people as well.

The finding indicates that many of the degenerative diseases of aging are caused by an active shutting down of the stem cells that renew the body’s various tissues, and are not just a passive disintegration of tissues under life’s daily wear and tear, as is often assumed.

“I don’t think aging is a random process – it’s a program, an anti-cancer program,” said Dr. Norman E. Sharpless of the University of North Carolina, senior author of one of the three reports.

I find this article interesting on a number of levels. Let’s start with the idea that this scientist says that aging is not a “random process”, rather that it is “an anti-cancer program”. This, to me, really stretches the credulity with which one must view evolution. Somehow, over the years of random changes, a program emerged through natural selection. But since the vast majority of mutations result in a degradation of the organism, the odds of such a program being written are astronomical, on top of all the other odds-beating events like the formation of life itself. (Talk about having faith in your religion.)

Another interesting thing is that the Bible talks about people in the book of Genesis who lived hundreds of years. This discovery could point out one of the scientific reasons this occurred. Further, it points to an idea opposite that of evolution; instead of the program being randomly formed until it was better and better, this program was written by a Programmer and sin has degraded this program, as the law of entropy would suggest is more likely.

The finding’s implications for cell therapy based on using a patient’s own adult stem cells are not yet clear, but news that the cells get switched off with age does not seem particularly encouraging. The result may undercut opponents of research with human embryonic stem cells who argue that adult stem cells are sufficient for cell therapy. Dr. Sharpless said his finding emphasized the need to pursue both types of research.

No, not necessarily. The stem cells of an 80-year-old patient may not be useful for regeneration of his own organs, but why does this automatically mean that you have to go after embryos and pull in all the ethical issue that entails? How about the stem cells of a 30- or 20-year old? This question is not answered or even asked in the article.

The researchers assume, but have not yet proved, that the increasing amounts of Ink-4 made as a person ages will thrust the stem cells into senescence, meaning they can never divide again. The evolutionary purpose is evidently to avert the risk that a damaged stem cell might evade controls and proliferate into a tumor.

There’s that classic anthropomorphism of the evolutionary process again. Evolution could not have a purpose. A creator could.

A fascinating finding, with potentially fascinating developments.

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