Entering the age of human upgrades

Chemistry-wise, a human being is a glorified chemical cocktail that wasted no time to grow a humongous ego. Chemists will tell you that the elemental ingredients of a human are the following: 

But having the right ingredients is not enough. We humans, as with other living beings, contain within us not pure isolated blobs of these elements, but smidgens, dashes, stains, stretches, or streaks of all 22 elements, linked with one or more of each other, in different shapes and sizes.

These are the forms that these elemental friendships take: DNA, hormones, cells, tissues, fluids, organs, or any living part of our bodies. Cells are masters at figuring out how to convert all that dinner you just had into energy for the work that you love to do. Kidneys and livers get alerted on demand when there are substances to clean and process. The heart siphons blood in and out to circulate oxygen throughout your body. Lungs recruit its stationed army of air sacs that receive air and can tell (and take) which is useful oxygen, and which is carbon dioxide or other gases to be released out of your body. They all form biological and physiological tales that could make you cover your mouth in surprise, open your eyes wide in fascination, or flip your palms up in acknowledgement of such showboat performances. You carry multiple biological and physiological circus shows day after day.

But these tales are now getting revolutionary upgrades. When in 2006, Dr Shinya Yamanaka discovered how to make adult stem cells "forget" their age and go back to a stage where they could be any kind of cell, medical research entered a whole new understanding of what goes on inside us by looking at the very fundamental unit of life, which is the cell. Armed with this kind of technology, scientists have built up ways to reprogram what we have been born with so that our body can fight its own battles from within. With this development, knowing how to make a human is no longer nearly as fascinating and important as knowing how to cure a (sick) human.

One such endeavor is research being done in Kyoto by Thyas – a company supported by Kyoto University where Dr Yamanaka developed his Nobel Prize-winning work. Essentially, they reprogram T cells – the type of cells that recognize "antigens" (the ones that are alien to the rest of our cells, like cancer cells or infected cells). They do this by rejuvenating T cells with heightened powers to recognize tumors and kill them. Patients with cancer and chronic viral infections have T cells that become exhausted to battle it out with the "aliens" (cancer and viruses), so resurrecting T cells with specific "superpowers" matter in this cellular game.

Also, cancer cells have a way of tricking the immune system so that the immune system does not attack it. With the kind of cell technology being developed in Thyas, when the warrior T cells are reprogrammed, they do not mute the immune system. As a result, the T cells can achieve their assigned mission, as they can carry antibodies that can cure, for example, 10% to 20% of lung cancer or melanoma patients. Thyas has also been working up the T cells to have very specific tumor-killing powers and for the T cell army to never run out of members.

Almost 10 years ago, Dr Anthony Atala talked about regenerating sick body parts using our own stem cells, and he gave an inspiring talk on the promise of regenerative medicine based on this. Tissues are also now routinely grown and printed in labs for medical use. Last week, a pig's lung that was grown in a lab was successfully transplanted into a pig. It grew blood vessels and even microbes that were normal for pig lungs to grow. When perfected enough to be done for human organs, we would theoretically eliminate the problem of shortages in donated organ. This is not the Frankenstein-esque scenario that older generations imagined for us. These are major updates – positive upheavals, in fact – to a living system that has been jamming with evolutionary music for hundreds of years.

It turns out that in medicine, one key to new resurrections can be found in jumpstarting faulty, old lives. Good thing that it is built-in in the scientific process to never forget where it put the key. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.

Body image via Shutterstock