Thursday, November 22, 2007

Humans live long, too long? Interesting words from a Nobel prize in medicine winner

As usual, I read newsletters from Medscape. One headline linked to

caught my eyes, "Science and Sensibility: An Interview With Professor Rolf M. Zinkernagel, Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine 1996". Since the Medscape site needs login (account is free though), I'm copying some of the startling words as follows. I put some words in bold.

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Q: HIV, SARS, multiple Drug-resistant tuberculosis, Ebola -- the list is endless. We never had them until a few years ago. Why do we continue to grapple with all of these diseases despite our scientific prowess?

A: This is simply because the life span of human beings has far exceeded what it was intended for. The main function of human beings in evolution is procreation, which is usually completed by the 25th year of age. With our scientific prowess, we have prolonged our age, thus inviting a host of new diseases. I would add autoimmune diseases to the ones that you have mentioned. However, from an evolutionary point of view, this is perfectly fine. Most of the diseases affect man after the age of 25, by which he has procreated in any case. So it doesn't really matter if you die after then; your contribution to evolution is complete! The irrational behavior of human beings has also significantly contributed to the above-mentioned predicaments.


A: But there has to be some lasting solution against the menace of HIV?

Q: A virus such as HIV is too smart for us. It keeps mutating so that it can accustom itself to the human body, thus fooling our immune response. For any solution, we would have to fight this variability, this mutability of the virus, which I do not think is possible. In fact, I wonder whether it is even necessary.

Q: Are you suggesting that we should resign ourselves to the onslaught of HIV?

A: Well, it's an onslaught only as of now. Look at HIV-2. In many parts of the world, the HIV-2 virus has found a way to live symbiotically in the bodies of human beings. This is the way that it was intended to be in the first place! It continues to be transmitted but rarely causes disease. It isn't eradicated, but it's harmless. Thus, it has become an ideal vaccine in itself -- preventing reinfection by inducing a protective immune response. A few hundred years down the line, I see the HIV-1 virus adapting to the human body in a similar fashion. So we don't really need to eradicate it. By trying to eliminate it, we are actually compounding the problem!


Q: Just where are we messing up in our approach to infectious diseases?

A: As I have earlier mentioned, most of the chronic diseases have resulted from the prolongation of man's own life and his irrational behavior. We must understand that it is not in the nature of microorganisms to kill human beings (take HIV, for instance), because, as viruses, they wouldn't be able to survive if they killed the host. This pursuit of trying to eradicate an infection may principally be wrong. Our objective to dominate nature has led to most of the problems like, say, antibiotic resistance.

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Not everybody will appreciate Dr. Zinkernagel's insightful comments. But they're good food for thought, new to my ears and brain. There's not much practical advice to the general public but we're cautioned by him to live a healthy life, no unsafe sex, no overeating, etc. That part I didn't quote since I assume everybody knows and every reader of this blog practices.

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