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How to Live to 114

By Shlomo Maital

Yisrael Kristal

   The world’s oldest man, Yisrael Kristal, passed away quietly in Haifa on Friday August 12 and was buried the same day.   He was officially recognized by the Guiness Book of Records.   It is said that only the righteous die on the eve of the Sabbath.

   Just think of what this man lived through. He was born in Zarnow, Poland, on Sept. 15, 1903, to a religious family, 3 months before the Wright Brothers made the first manned flight. When he was 10 his father fought in World War I and was taken prisoner. His father died in 1919.     Kristal learned how to make candy and opened a factory in Lodz. He married his wife Feige, and at the onset of WWII they had two sons, aged 8 and 10.   Both sons died in the starvation conditions prevailing in the Lodz Jewish ghetto.  

   During the initial years of Nazi occupation, Yisrael survived because of his candy-making skills. The Nazis had him make confections for their parties. But in May 1944 he and his wife Feige were sent to Auswicz. When the camp was evacuated, they did the Death March. Kristal survived, in the end weighing only 37 kgs. (80 pounds). Feige perished.   At the end of the war, Kristal returned to Lodz and re-opened his candy factory.   There, he married Bat Sheva, who also had lost all her family to the Nazis. In 1950 they emigrated to Israel, and had children.  

       At the age of 113, Yisrael had his bar mitzvah – delayed by 100 years owing to the Holocaust. His great-grandchildren, grandchildren and children celebrated with him.

     He was lucid to the end. He remained in his own home almost to the end – his son, a doctor, cared for him, and had him moved to a hospital on Wednesday Aug. 10; he died peacefully two days later.

       The secret of his longevity?   Optimism. He loved his country, and was a perpetual optimist. I think he found immense satisfaction in building a new family, with many great-grandchildren, in a new country, and outliving his persecutors.  

       Optimism and hope for the future are wonder drugs. We should use them more widely, even if we are not 114 years old.

Fixing Bad Genes: A First!

By Shlomo Maital

Shoukhrat Mitalipov  

   Virtually at the same time — President Trump proposes legislation to limit immigration to the U.S. and an immigrant from Kazakhstan named Shoukhrat Mitalipov manages, for the first time, to ‘edit’ mutated genes in embryos and ‘cure’ genetic disease, enabling the babies to be born healthy.

     This is hugely significant. Parents who undergo genetic testing, and who test their unborn babies, are at times tragically told: Your unborn infant carries a ‘bad’ gene that will make him sick or even die.

       The parents ask: What can we do?

       The tragic answer, until now — Nothing. Abort or —     accept its fate.

         There have been 3 previous published instances of gene editing, all in China.   According to MIT Technology Review:   “Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases. Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”

   How did he do it?

   Mitalipov and his team used CRISPR Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPR is now the dominant technology for gene editing. Try as I might, I do not know enough biology to explain how it works. The initial work was done in Japan, at Osaka University.

     CRISPR often makes mistakes – disastrous if you are trying to heal a bad gene. Mitalipov figured out how to avoid those mistakes.

   Who is he?

   “Born in Kazakhstan when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mitalipov has for years pushed scientific boundaries. In 2007, he unveiled the world’s first cloned monkeys. Then, in 2013, he created human embryos through cloning, as a way of creating patient-specific stem cells.”

       Is it coincidence that Mitalipov is an immigrant? I don’t think so. By definition an outsider,   such ‘outsiders’ try daring things that those comfortably within the establishment might not.

     Is there any reason to worry?

   Yes.  We can genetically modify embryos. We can do this to cure gene defects – or to modify embryos to make taller kids (NBA), smarter kids (Einsteins), or handsomer kids, or blonde kids… etc.

       “Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.  The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

 

 

The Death of Imagination

By Shlomo Maital

   Tuesday’s New York Times has an article, “How to make a movie out of anything”, by Alex French. In it he describes how Hollywood producers are desperately searching for IP, slang for intellectual property, as the basis for movie scripts. Translation: Find something people recognize easily, and build a plot around it.

   Examples: the Lego movie; the recent Emoji movie; the Angry Birds movie; and soon, yes, the Fruit Ninja movie.

     So what’s wrong with that?

     I grew up in the 40s and 50s, in the era of radio. I listened to Boston Blackie and the Cisco Kid. I heard horses hooves, a pistol firing…and I had to imagine the horse, the revolver… everything.

       Today? In the era of TV, MTV and virtual reality and smartphones – all the images are there, given to us…no need to imagine. A Lego movie? Lego is building blocks. How can you make a blockbuster Lego movie? Turns out that you can – if you start with something people are familiar with, they do not need to use their imaginations.   But if you start with a conventional movie plot, a story, however strong, people need to imagine – and it looks like our young people no longer can. We need to have the images stored in our brains already, because…we’ve lost the ability to create them ourselves.  

   This sounds like a cranky old curmudgeon yearning for the good old days. Perhaps.   But if this new Hollywood trend portends the death of imagination – then we’re in real trouble. Worse yet, nobody seems to care much.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
August 2017
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