Hacking The Code of Aging
Immortality is soon within humanity’s collective grasp. Scientists warn of overpopulation, class war, and inequality in the wake of growing life spans. But we’ll have time to figure it out.
“If you had to choose between living forever, or having children, what would you pick?”
The question from my friend annoyed me. I had talked enthusiastically about overcoming death for years but never reflected on the price I was willing to pay for eternity. If there was a way for me to be immortal, but it for some reason meant I had to give up the ability to have children, what would be more important? As we were having the existential conversation over breakfast, the morning news show on TV serendipitously talked about the growing human life expectancy. “Some say the first person to live to a thousand years has already been born,” the TV host said, and the doctor who was being interviewed nodded. “Some argue that, yes.”
I was initially fascinated by the prospect of living forever when I had just moved to California to work as a freelance tech and science reporter a few years ago. I had read about a man, Dr. Joon Yun, who had made it his mission to “hack the code of aging”. The former Stanford-doctor-turned-investor was giving out a million-dollar prize to whoever could advance the research in a substantial way. When I arrived at his office in Palo Alto for an interview a team of five people was waiting for me in a gigantic conference room; his assistant, a two-person private media team, a business partner, and Dr. Joon Yun himself. This guy was clearly serious about everything he set his mind to.
What about overpopulation?
From that day on, I couldn’t let go of the idea that dying didn’t have to be something imminent and unavoidable. Joon had introduced me to a number of people who didn’t deem the undertaking of putting an end to aging impossible – or at least pushing the deadline dramatically. Rather, they were all surprisingly convinced it could be done within our, or at the very least our children’s, lifetime. Obviously, there are questions and potential problems that arise with the idea of humans staying around for decades and decades. What about overpopulation? Will living for hundreds of years or more undermine our drive and appreciation of life? Will the technology be available to everyone?
The idea of living forever is not in any way new. Ever heard of the Greek myth of Tithonus? He was a prince of Troy and a lover of the goddess Eos. In fear of losing her lover, Eos begged Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality. But she forgot one thing; to ask that Eos also would have eternal youth. Tithonus kept aging until he had shrunk to the size of a grape, unable to die, illustrating a fear of never ending old age that goes back thousands of years.
In Silicon Valley, immortality is something that can’t be bought for money (yet). But it is safe to say that prolonging life has become an obsession for some. Ray Kurzweil is a renowned computer scientist at Google, known for his books on singularity and his resolute fight against time. The 70-year-old allegedly takes hundreds of supplements every day for anti-aging and health purposes. I once listened to Kurzweil speaking at a medical conference where he talked about uploading our brains to the cloud and having nano robots cleaning our blood. Not surprisingly, futurist Kurzweil has signed up for cryonics (low temperature preservation of human corpses) in hope of there being a way to bring him back to life in the future in case he dies.
Overpopulation won’t be dramatic
So, what are the most promising methods of extending the human lifespan? And who are the people most likely to make it happen? At the Google research and development company Calico in California, scientists are trying to come up with possible solutions that could enable people to live longer and healthier lives. For these visions to succeed, however, “an unprecedented level of interdisciplinary effort and a long term focus” will be needed, according to the company. The same conclusion was reached in one of the meetings I attended during my time in Silicon Valley. Representatives from some of the most influential companies and institutions in the US had gathered to talk about the possibilities and challenges that the endeavor of curing aging entails.
According to Sonia Arrison, author of the book “100 Plus”, overpopulation won’t be as dramatic as you might expect. Population growth is mostly driven by birth rates, not death rates. When one person doesn’t die, it is only one person. But when people have children, they might have one, two, three, four, five… Equality might be a bigger concern, Arrison argues. The wealthier will always get new technology first. But what happens if there is a huge time lag between the wealthy and the poor getting access to the therapies, and the gap between the highest and the lowest average life expectancies widens from 40 years to a century or more? “There could be civil war. This is something that people could literally fight for their lives for”, Arrison says.
“Senescent cells have been described as the ‘zombie cells’ of our bodies.”
When it comes to the methods for extending human health- and lifespan, there are a number of scientific approaches. If we narrow it down to some of the discoveries that are about to begin human trials in the near future and that could benefit people who are alive today, there are few worth mentioning. Senescent cells have been described as the “zombie cells” of our bodies. Each time a cell copies itself, it loses some DNA at the end of the chromosomes. To protect our genetic information, chromosomes have long “useless” bits of DNA at the ends, called telomeres. In some cells, however, these will eventually run out. Your cell is now a zombie, hanging around, harming tissue around it. The older we get, the more senescent cells we collect. But what if we could get rid of these toxic remnants?
When scientists genetically engineered mice so that they could destroy their senescent cells, the mice lived up to 30 percent longer than average mice. We can’t genetically modify all cells in a human (there are about 70 trillion), but there might be a way to kill the damaged cells without harming the healthy ones. Cells like senescent cells underproduce a protein that tells them when it is time to die. When scientists injected this protein into mice, it killed about 80 percent of all the senescent cells with almost no other casualties. Today there are a number of companies looking to come up with anti-aging treatments involving senescent cells.
The first anti-aging pill
Another hot candidate is NAD+. It is a coenzyme that plays a central role in the metabolism and energy production of living organisms. At the age of 50, we only have about half as much of it as at the age of 20. Low amounts of NAD+ has been linked to various diseases such as skin cancer, Alzheimer’s and MS. When mice were given a substance that turns into NAD+ in the cell (NAD+ can’t enter the cell itself), the mice showed a higher ability to repair their DNA and also had a slightly increased lifespan. If human trials show similar effects, some believe NAD+ could become the first human anti-aging pill.
Lastly, we have stem cells. These are cells with a unique ability to develop into specialized cell types in the body. You can think of them as little factories that produce fresh cells to various body parts. Our stem cells decline with age, and therefore, so does our ability to repair ourselves. When scientists injected stem cells from baby mice into the brains of middle aged mice, the fresh cells reinvigorated the older stem cells and improved the mice’s muscle and brain function. When fresh stem cells were injected into their hearts, the older mice were able to exercise 20 percent longer.
More funding is needed
There probably isn’t a quick fix to cure aging; no secret potion or single magic bullet. And as we all know, humans aren’t mice. There are no guarantees that these and other therapies will have the same effects on us. For scientists to really investigate the limits of the human health and lifespan, the field needs more attention and funding. And to those who feel it is simply unnatural to manipulate the way of nature: isn’t anything that humans can achieve natural in some way? Is it not in our instincts to push our boundaries? What about the question from my friend about what I would pick between eternal youth and bringing a child into this world? Hopefully, there is no rush. If all goes well, I will have at least another couple of hundred years or so to figure it out.