Noman Akhter

Is there an elixir of youth? Can we keep young and healthy for hundreds of years? Can we stop those wrinkles developing on our faces as we grow older and have a face of a 19 year old even when we reach the age of hundred? The cosmetics industry sells billions of dollars of anti- wrinkle creams each year relying largely on human psychology manipulated by advertising rather than by real science. All that is about to change. Scientists have discovered certain compounds that not only slow down the ageing process but reverse it. When these compounds were administered to old animals, it made them younger! It appears that humanity is at the thresh hold of a new world order. We are beginning to develop a deeper understanding of  the chemical basis of ageing and how to interfere with this process so that we may live longer healthier lives.

There are several causes of ageing. One is related to a phenomenon (called “apoptosis”) that causes cells to stop dividing and die. Nature has created a mechanism within a cell to only keep on dividing for a certain time period. When the end of this time period is reached, certain chemical signals are released within the cells, telling the cell to stop dividing and die. Scientists are learning what these chemical “death signals” are and how to interfere with them so that the cells can keep on dividing indefinitely. Another reason for ageing is oxidative degradation. Oxygen, so necessary for our life, is also nature’s poison that is responsible for our death! There is a reactive form of oxygen (oxygen radicals) that is created in our body that attacks our DNA and causes it to degrade. When we are young, an enzyme present in our body very efficiently removes this harmful form of oxygen, but as we grow older this enzyme gradually loses its efficiency, allowing the damage to increase progressively with age. The development of anti-oxidants has therefore been one important area of active research. At the end of our DNA (the twisted helical molecular ladder that is nature’s software for our development) is a protective cap (called “telomere”). As we grow older, this protective cap gradually erodes with cell division. Finally it is gone and DNA itself starts eroding, contributing to the ageing process. Scientists are now learning how to prevent this erosion of the protective cap by activating an enzyme (“telomerase”) involved, and thus to slow down the ageing process. Prof. David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School has discovered a natural compound (resveratrol) which when administered to old mice made them younger. Another compound NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) was also found to reverse the ageing process in animals and it will undergo clinical trials on humans. The elixir of youth appears to be round the corner! http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/20/anti-ageing-human-trials

These and other exciting developments in medicine, genetics, engineering, electronics, agriculture and other fields are transforming our planet in ways that man has never witnessed before since the very birth of mankind. These developments are occurring at mind boggling pace and nations that are investing in strong knowledge based economies are forging ahead on the strength of education, science, technology and innovation.

Alas Pakistan remains paralysed even in the context of what is happening in this region. India has already forged far ahead in science and engineering and is planning to place man on the moon and undertake trips to Mars. Bangladesh has also overtaken Pakistan economically. Our present government seems lost in myopic projects involving creating more visions, building more roads, and cosmetic gimmicks such as artificially strengthening the Pak rupee against the dollar by borrowing money from IMF and launching bonds in international market at ridiculously high interest rates that this nation will have to pay back years later at steep cost.

It is not realised that the real wealth of nations lies in their youth. Pakistan cannot progress by giving away a few thousand computers or by giving loans to a small fraction of our youth. We need to tackle the problem of socio-economic development at the grass roots. This involves massive investments in high quality schools, colleges and universities, and building world class centres of excellence in selected fields as was done by Korea, China and Finland among others. We need to unleash the creative potential of our 100 million children that are below the age of 19 — some 56% of our population.

The present government is however lost in a series of unnecessary distractions. It needs to extricate itself from situations that are antagonising our army such as the attempt to disgrace former President Musharraf or by having statements issued by Ministers against our ISI. In the case of President Musharraf there is an attempt to apply a law of treason on him with retrospective effect, since placing the Constitution in abeyance was not a treasonable act at the time when this was done. Moreover the action was declared legal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan subsequently. The government also needs to implement proper electoral reforms so that the massive bungling witnessed in the last elections is not repeated. The suggestions by Allama Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan to reform the electoral process and those made by me to bring in a Presidential system of democracy need to be given serious consideration. If this is not done, the army will have no option left but to step in and derail this so-called democracy in order to save Pakistan once again from the clutches of the feudals and the corrupt. The steadfast refusal to hold local government elections is a part of the strategy of corrupt politicians in the provinces so that they can continue their loot and plunder without any hindrance.

Pakistan must give the highest priority in its national plans to education, science, technology and innovation/entrepreneurship. There is so far little evidence that this is happening and the promises made by PML(N) in its manifesto ring hollow in our ears. In spite of PML(N) manifesto commitment to invest massively in education, the present government seems determined to give education the lowest priority. We are allocating only 1.9% of our GDP on education and spending 1.7% of our GDP as allocated funds are often not released. This ranks us among the bottom 8 countries of the world. The Higher Education sector needs to be given the highest national priority as it is directly linked with excellence in electronics, engineering, biotechnology and other fields that in turn impact our high technology exports. The vice chancellors are concerned because the Ministry of Finance is recommending a budgetary cut to the development grants for higher education in the forthcoming budget, in defiance of the PML (N) manifesto, taking us back to the stone age. The enemies of our country are among us— wolves in sheep’s clothing!

Ms. Maryam Nawaz seems to be championing the cause of youth. Can she do something to convince the present government to change tracks and invest in our youth since our destiny depends on quality education for all?

 

The author is the former Federal Minister for Science & Technology, former Chairman of Higher Education Commission and currently President of Pakistan Academy of Sciences

October 13, 2017
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