“What makes an Indian differ from a blond?”, asked Brazilian geneticist Lygia Veiga Pereira during her speech at the Plenae launching in São Paulo. “It is due to a small variation, 0.2%, in the genome sequencing” – the so-called recipe that forms each living being. In the case of human beings, it comprises 3.2 billion letters. And it’s the genes that provide the “recipe’s” instructions.
The main challenge of the 21st century is to discover the connection between variations and characteristics. Just like researchers discovered genes that determine physical characteristics – color of skin, eyes, hair and height – and a series of body functions, it is believed that it is possible to arrive at a combination that leads to aging.
“Genetic investigation could be the true key to eternal life,” said Lygia, researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Biosciences Institute Center of Cellular Therapy. “When we discover the aging processes that genes are responsible for, it will be possible to understand life expectancy and health with efficient and specific medication.”
When studying families with exceptionally low levels of cholesterol, scientists discovered that they possessed a specific gene alteration. They lacked the coding gene of a given protein. By inhibiting it with a specific drug, they balanced cholesterol levels. Similarly, understanding which proteins provoke the formation of muscles, for example, can help formulate medication to stay in shape.
Stem cells. However, the secret is not only in the genes. “Dracula perhaps was not totally wrong when he associated blood with eternal life,” said Lygia, toying with the audience. A Stanford University study shows that blood transfusions in younger mice helped repair cognitive and neurological damage in older species. Another study revealed that blood removed from the umbilical cord of human babies increases brain activity in older mice.
“We still don’t have similar treatments for humans,” said the researcher, but there’s no reason to worry. “Changing one’s lifestyle also has a positive effect.” The life of a mouse, for example, can be increased by 50% with a low-calorie diet.
Even with all the care, body tissue and organs lose their function and deteriorate over time. Stem cells obtained from the mass of a human embryo function as a sort of “trump card”. They can transform into anyone of the more than 100 types of cells in an adult.
In a laboratory, it is possible to multiply them to form a network of neurons. By substituting reagents, they become cells from the cardiac muscle. What does this mean? “One day, we’ll be able to substitute body tissue and organs just as easily as we substitute a carburetor in a car,” says Lygia.
According to her, with the genome and stem cells we could become eternal. If this happens, we need to care for the place we live in. In Brazil, life expectancy in 1840 was less than 40 years. Today it is 76 years. On the other hand, less than 30% of the population has access to sewage treatment. “The challenge of building a better country is more important than understanding the genome. It’s easier to land a robot on Mars than to solve the conflicts in Syria or Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha.”
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