Let us be clear. For now, immortality is still well and truly in the realms of science fiction. But that doesn’t stop people speculating about it and what it might mean for society should science ever provide us the required knowledge to pursue it, and history suggests that many will want to. The speculation is helped along by incremental, yet continual advances in knowledge that tout its potential. Hey, if species such as jelly fish can manage it, how big a leap is it to get us clever humans to achieve it?
Immortality, or its potential, was brought to our attention again by the media’s recent attention on the discovery of the “molecular fountain of youth”, a gene and its protein products that rejuvenated old stem cells from mice. The research team from UC Berkeley were able to reverse the molecular clock of mice by infusing the blood stem cells of old mice with a protein called SIRT3. SIRT3 is one of a class of proteins known to help regulate ageing.
Previous studies have shown that the gene that codes for the SIRT3 protein is activated during calorie restriction, a diet that been shown to extend lifespan in various species. Plenty of humans are eagerly trying it also, but none for long enough to see if it actually works. I like chocolate and food in general way too much to even consider it.
Red red, wine, stay close to me
Like food too much? Well there may be hope for those of us not willing to starve ourselves. Resveratrol, a molecule in red wine and berries, among other foods, is in the news again with further and more convincing evidence that it actually might help in protecting the body against ageing. Resveratrol has been implicated as the molecule that activates another sirtuin, SIRT1, which protects the body from diseases by perking up our cell’s mitochondria. Mitochondria are the energy-making organelles in our cells. The role of resveratrol and its ability to stave off ageing has, over the years, been questioned, and still is, but this research seems to quite convincingly determine how resveratrol works and hence supports the claims made, though it is a long way from understanding the mechanism of how it works to some form of drug or clinical application that will actually work in humans. Although that provides hope for me, I suspect they will have to genetically modify the wine to ensure it has enough resveratrol to have a clinical effect, which if done would be interesting to see how the public respond. Will the few who care see it a medical drug and, like other medical drugs generated using transgenics, accept it, or will they see it as food and reject it?
EurekAlert media release on this story here
We may not achieve immortality any time soon, if ever, but we will extend life. By how much is unknown, but there seems a fair bit of support for an extra seven years for our latest generation. Regardless of whether it is seven years or 100 years, even forever, what does a longer life mean for human society and indeed Earth and our place on it?
What is ageing and does it matter?
Whether trying to achieve immortality or longer life is unethical would depend on the context. Are we figuring out how to rid ourselves of the age-related diseases such as dementia, cancers, or heart disease and with the years we do have enjoy a greater proportion of them before we fall off the perch – meaning we may extend our life by one or a few decades, but a greater proportion of those years will be healthy and active ones? Or are we actually tweaking genetics to halt or reverse the natural ageing process? Beating disease to get us past the 100 year mark is surely no different than attempts to vaccinate and get us past childhood, but striving to live longer because we want to defy ageing and be forever young raises different ethical questions, though the societal consequences will be the same.
What is natural?
Is such extended existence unnatural? Anyone who uses this line must first define what they mean by unnatural and why in this context attempting to defy the ageing process is bad. 100 years ago we were lucky to reach 60; 500 years ago we got elder rights in our 40s. It is 2013 and I am in my 40s and feel I am just hitting my straps. Vaccinations, good diet, better medical knowledge (from drugs to organ transplants) means I can look forward to getting some good fishing time in through my 80s. Is that unnatural and if so, is this bad and how does it differ from trying to use similar knowledge to get another 20 years of healthy productive life. It means I may have to work another 20 years, but that is 20 more years of contributing to society, paying taxes, creating wealth and being better able to support myself when I do decide to down tools and pick up a fishing rod. And because I am healthier I will be less of a burden on the public purse – in theory. This reflects an argument by Olshanksy, et al who say that in such a situation economies will flourish referring to the phenomena as the “Longevity Dividend”.
Age-related diseases cost an economy billions of dollars. Knowledge that will allow us to live longer lives that are largely free of these diseases will free up this money. The concept is indirectly backed up by research with mice on calorie restricted diets that live longer and experience declines in the risk of a wide variety of age-sensitive, nonlethal conditions such as cataracts, kidney diseases, arthritis, cognitive decline, deterioration of immune function, and many others.1
Of course, this applies to my developed nation situation. How it might work in other countries less fortunate than Australia I don’t know?
This raises the questions of fair and equal access to such technologies. Will only the wealthier be able to afford this gift? Fair and equal access is a basic ethical principle applied to any of these biotechnologies, but my issue with it is that although it is a great notion and one we should aim to achieve, the reality is that it is unachievable. One only has to look at the world already regarding access to even the most basic medical care, for example dialysis. Even vaccinations are unavailable for many. And the same applies to the latest plasma TV, iPad, food…Inequality is everywhere and I think it shall remain so for some time, if not forever. So should we worry about fair and equal access? Yes, but be aware of reality.
Doc, I’ve got these wrinkles…
A different perspective is that ageing or age is a disease state the same as cancer, osteoporosis, dementia or macular degeneration and hence should be treated in a similar way. But that only takes us so far. When we go the next step and start finding ways to replace worn out joints, organs, neurons and other vital bits that takes us beyond what are our biological limits – at least the limits evolution has allowed us at the moment. So should we make a distinction between simply defeating diseases of the aged and technologies that take us beyond that, potentially even enhance our capabilities beyond what we were capable of before? Or are these just improved versions of hip replacements and organ transplants, which most of us seem to accept? Arthur Caplan expands on this and the concept on death as an unnatural process here.
There are those such as Ray Kurzweil who seek or at least are supportive of the pursuit of immortality
From my understanding, however, it is not that medical researchers are actively conducting research to find the fountain of youth. They are simply trying to understand the biological mechanism behind ageing and disease to treat human illness and improve the quality of life. It is the same basic principles that have seen the improvement of our own average lifespan compared to our grandparents. Eventually, way into to the future this accumulation of knowledge may unlock the key to immortality. And as I always tell people, it is not the science, but how society chooses to use the science. We cannot stop the pursuit of this knowledge to treat disease or understand human development because it puts us on the slippery slope to immortality. That is like telling the caveman he can’t invent the spear to protect his family from wild animals and more efficiently catch animals for food because someone else will want to use it as a weapon, then someone else will build a bigger spear, then a club, then a catapult, sword….rifle…
Boom or bust
Let us say we manage to extend life, where ‘extend’ is relative, but my basic notion is longer than about 30 years. Should we go down this road, to achieve extreme longevity? What is wrong with this, if anything? One obvious reason, and one that is constantly raised by any group I am in discussion with on this topic, is that it will contribute to the already existing problem of overpopulation and the growing environmental footprint it has. Will it? Most likely, but the question is whether we can adapt and learn to live within our means? This is a big ask, given human history. Interestingly, this is also a rationale, for many, for not developing GM crops. That is, we already have too many people on this planet. If we grow more food, then it will just allow more mouths to be fed and a greater population. I’ll let you digest the ethics on that one.
Should we achieve immortality, or even significantly longer life, then over population will become a greater problem. The solution according to Aubrey de Grey, a proponent of getting us to 1000 years of healthy life, is to ensure the birth rate equals the death rate. This is a decision society has to make, the question is whether if we had the ability we would be prepared to accept the reduced birth rate. I expect it would require regulation and enforcement and I am unsure if we would accept that, but then the generation around when we achieve this may think differently.
De Grey is up there with Kurzweil in his focused pursuit of longevity. De Grey’s concept of living to 1000 relies on advances in technologies and knowledge that will come online at a rate that will let us keep ahead of age-related death. That is, as we approach 100, technologies will exist that will keep us happy and healthy until we are 150. As we approach 150 years, new technologies will keep us going to 250…and so on. He calls this his Longevity Escape Velocity.
What we don’t know, and what is acknowledged by de Grey, is how long it will take to develop these first generation therapies that will kickstart de Grey’s Longevity Escape Velocity theory.
De Grey Ted Talk
Win a prize
Aubrey deGrey is backed or involved with numerous organisations, foundations and research aimed at achieving his 1000 year goal including the $3.8 million M-Prize offered to those who can either produce a healthy mouse that beats the current lifespan record, or improve the life of mice already in middle age. This encourages research into life extension that could be applied to humans already living.
More on SENS
The Mprize – for longer healthier life
And the New Organ Prize – for developing immune compatible replacement organs
But that is not all
There is no shortage of others dedicating their research to extending life. For example, the Science for Life Extension Foundation whose mission is to prolong youth and postpone old age.
Regardless of how remotely feasible, or not, the theories and predictions of Kurzweil and de Grey are, their enthusiasm should at least get us thinking and discussing the possibilities and implications that come with living longer. For now, though, forget about immortality.
- R.A. Miller, S.N. Austad, “Growth and aging: Why do big dogs die young?” in Handbook of the Biology of Aging, E.J. Masoro, S.N. Austad, eds., New York: Academic Press, 2006, pp. 512–33.
- Institute for ethics and emerging technologies: Do we really want immortality
- Association of FOXO3A variation with human longevity confirmed in German centenarians, 2700–2705 _ PNAS _ February 24, 2009 _ vol. 106 _ no. 8
- The Conversation: The Longevity Risk
By Jason Major
Ah, the irony. Have we forgotten that death is not an option to the point we are willing to take life threatening risks to cheat the grim reaper?
I have posted lots on stem cell tourism before and there is nothing new in this article in the Harvard Gazette, except for the last line: there is a kind of “faith in science that draws” some people to any promise of a cure for disease, no matter how specious. What fuels this false hope, she said, is “one of the most dangerous elements of our culture: that we have forgotten how to die.”
I thought this a profound comment by Jill Lepore, Professor of American History and chair of Harvard’s History and Literature Program as it reflects so much other commentary about emerging technologies, especially the human enhancement technologies, though you could also add xenotransplantation, nanotechnologies and pharmaceuticals.
All ways look on the bright side of …
Are we truly wading into dangerous waters with which, for many, might be considered an obsession, for life? Have we always been like this or only since science has teased us with immortality or at least reaching a longer, healthy old age. In addition to the prospect of beating all disease, science has given a sneak peek at the possibility of a revitalised, boosted, improved and extended life – a hope that is exploited by many to line their pockets at the expense of vulnerable people, or just people that are willing to take a risk and have the money to do so. Additionally, there is the hope of a cure for everything.
I will take a speculative guess here and suggest that 500 years ago death just a part of life, unwanted, but accepted for the most part. Maybe a stronger belief in the life after death allowed this. Maybe because, once illness struck, any hope truly was minimal and known to be so? Armed with science and a glimmer of hope, have we truly forgotten how to die, or at least no longer willing to accept death as readily as we used to. One question this raises, is whether highly religious people or anyone who believes in heaven or some form of afterlife, are more accepting of death?
Forever young. I want to be forever…
Science has provided the potential, though probably not in my lifetime, to tweak genes that will defend against diseases such as cancer and other scourges, boost muscle strength, athleticism and stave off physical decline as we age. Add to this a growing list of pharmaceuticals and various implants and intervention technologies such as opto-genetics and one could argue we will circumvent nature and natural selection and start designing the human race. Unless you consider of course that all humans are part of nature, this behaviour is part of being human and so this is part of the natural order of things.
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m…?
A question: is taking this path of foregoing death until we are good and ready a bad thing? Such a path will have implications, but what will they be and will they necessary be detrimental? And more importantly, is it only us – the generations alive today and unlikely to “benefit” from such technologies – that will think such consequences will be detrimental? If my grandkids or whichever generation are around to actually take this path will it just be another small progressive step, one to take in their stride that would be akin to blood transfusion, antibiotics and organ transplants for those alive today?
We live in exciting times
Front page image: Grim reaper from graphicleftovers.com
Dramatic developments in genetics, including the ability to tinker with our inheritance, has thrust the issue of eugenics back into the headlines.
Inviting artificial intelligence into our bodies has appeal – but it also carries certain risks.
Fasting might not be the only route to a longer life – a hormone seems to work just as well, for mice at least.
More stuff on living longer and the Fountain of Youth
Iron Man is one of those few superheroes representing a more “realistic” take on what might be possible.
Will we go beyond the Olympics and para-Olympics to the enhanced and unenhanced games?
Scientists have constructed a material that merges nanoscale electronics with biological tissues—a literal mesh of transistors and cells.
The future of the human brain may be more directly in human hands.