Friday, August 18, 2006

Shangri-la

Yesterday I had occasion to sit for the better part of an hour in the lobby of a local medical center (yes, I am back in the States). I was struck by the human traffic.

On the one hand there was a parade of old folks, my age and up, shuffling to and from their doctors' examining rooms. I didn't know whether to be exhilarated or depressed: exhilarated to know that I have a way to go yet; depressed to see how halting the going might be.

On the other hand, there was a steady stream of pharmaceutical reps with black sample cases, every one stunningly young and beautiful in a tailored dark suit, the women mostly knockout blondes, the men trim and fit, all with Ipana smiles, the very pictures of health. Again, I didn't know whether to be exhilarated or depressed.

What is this thing about pharm reps? Why are they all young and gorgeous? Have the drug companies discovered that the only way to distract doctors from their busy schedules is to offer them eye candy with the pill samples? Or do drug reps who radiate an aura of robust good health make the pills look better?

Hey, I'm not knocking big pharm (although I've done my share of of that). I would love for one of those willowy blonde reps to let me shuffle through the pills in her sample case, a cornucopia of life extension. Two hundred years ago the average human lifetime was 37 years; I have pretty nearly doubled that already -- and I have the drug companies at least partially to thank.

The futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicts that within 15 years we will be adding more than a year annually to remaining life expectancy, and you know what that means. His book is subtiled Live Long Enough To Live Forever. Maybe too late for me, but if Kurzweil is right, those good-looking young sales reps can look forward to the prospect of genetically-engineered immortality -- barring accident or disease.

In 1990, it cost $10 to sequence a base-pair of DNA. The cost is today less than a penny and dropping exponentially. Biology, in the new dispensation, is information, and soon genetic engineers will be rewriting the body's programs as readily as computer engineers rewrite computer software. Live long enough to live forever? I don't know whether to be exhilarated or depressed.