Will science let you live forever? The genetics of immortality say yes!

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The biggest names in science and technology want one thing: to achieve immortality. The genetics of immortality are slowly becoming understood, while scientific and technological breakthroughs are imminent. Google’s Calico program recently expanded its reach by partnering with QB3, Broad Institute and AbbVie to pump billions of dollars into research programs focused on the process of aging, among other areas of scientific interest.

We are all aging, and we will all benefit from the discoveries made in this program and the therapies that will result…Tackling aging requires a translational perspective and multidisciplinary approach that QB3 is well-placed to coordinate.Calico, Director Regis Kelly

Believe it or not, immortality has been observed in nature on countless occasions. A rare genetic condition has left a handful of people around the world free from the ill effects of aging. On top of that, many organisms are protected by similar mutated genetics. For example, the lobster never stops aging–but it still eventually dies due to disease or predation.

Of course, Calico isn’t only interested in genetics. The program also invests money into medicine, drug development and molecular biology.

How do we confer the genetics of immortality to humans?

According to statements made by futurist Michio Kaku four years ago, the doubling of computer power every 18 months would lead to the sequencing of human genomes for about $1000 within ten years. Of course, he was off by quite a bit–because we can pretty much already do that.

At the time, Kaku said this price point would allow us to sequence enough genomes to isolate the genes in which aging takes place. If we know which genes are damaged, and how those genes work, then we can start to repair or protect them. When biology is reduced to computer science, he says, we’ll be able to confer the genetics of immortality to humans.

Many researchers believe that those of us alive today will be living and breathing for a thousand years or more.

For now, most scientists agree that the biggest priority for life extension is to cure heart disease and all forms of cancer. Not until we eliminate these ailments can we hope to tackle the longtime dream of living forever.

Here’s a TEDx Talk on immortality. If you don’t think we should learn about the genetics of immortality, Aubrey de Grey does a pretty good job of explaining why you’re wrong. Hint: one of the most obvious reasons revolves around the ever-growing costs of healthcare. Check it out:

About Author

Jeff is a self-proclaimed pragmatic futurist; that is, he has high hopes for absurd life-altering technologies which sound too good to be true, and probably are. Although he writes on a variety of subjects, his real passion is for technological innovation and the people who make it happen. By day, he enjoys fuzzy bunnies, kittens, puppies, roller coasters and a sardonic written word or two. By night, he's busy running memyselfandrobot.com, replaying a random Final Fantasy game, or pretending to be Batman. He currently resides in Upstate NY.

3 Comments

  1. jimmie.evans@wowway.net'
    Jimmie Evans on

    This is indeed an interesting subject. I agree that conquering aging is an attractive goal. But like all other scientific advances, nobody ever seems to think about what happens if and when the goal is actually achieved. For instance, who will receive the benefits offered by an extended life? Based on the shape of the world today, those benefits would be reserved for the rich and/or powerful, or for those who are useful to whatever power structure exists where they live and work — and then only for as long as they remain useful. It’s safe to say that Joe on the street will never benefit. Considering population pressure on finite natural resources, it would still be necessary for the vast majority of people to die early and for only the privileged elite to enjoy long lives. I’ll further hazard that governments are closely following efforts in this direction and, at the last minute when the goal is finally achieved, will claim the right by necessity for deciding who gets long life and who dies on schedule.
    I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But I am indeed tired of seeing this governmental pattern repeated ad infinitum. Why not open travel to the stars and other worlds before taking this genie out of the bottle? Because I assure you, if anyone attains this capability, everyone is going to want to benefit. When that comes to pass those who are denied long life are going to rebel with potentially devastating consequences. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the gift of long life resulted ultimately in the deaths of millions or billions on the face of this globe?

  2. john@drjohnty.com'

    I felt I might as well throw in my thoughts because its a very interesting article which is of great interest to me and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions in this area. Personally I don’t think we will find a CURE for aging in the foreseeable future. Whilst it would be ideal we must be realistic and work on the basis that it will probably not happen. In my opinion, we must work from where our knowledge is currently at. Our strongest area of knowledge lies in that, although we understand the reasons why the body deteriorates with age, we do not have the requisite knowledge to intervene in a way that influences the actual ongoing metabolic processes.

    I am often asked “how long before we can cure aging?” To understand let’s keep in mind that we are already adding two months to life expectancy every year (or 5 hours per day) and this has been consistent for the last 30 years or so. If you then consider that many people including myself see a better than 50% chance of controlling aging within 25 years the whole issue starts to become very interesting. As far as the time span for an actual cure, I would hazard a guess that it is at least 100 years away. The alternative approach is to aim at controlling aging and repairing the accumulated damage and this should be our primary goal because we understand how the damage is laid down even though we understand very little about actually slowing aging or influencing metabolism. This is the essence of Aubrey de Grey’s SENS theory regarding the engineering approach and it holds the best prospect of success in the first half of this century. Having said that two other well funded organizations are waging war on aging so when you factor those two into the equation things look very positive, the first company is Calico which is an independent R&D biotech company established in 2013 by Google Inc. and Arthur D. Levinson and the other is Human Longevity Inc these two show the field is attracting serious funding and these will be followed by numerous others big and small so we are at the beginning of a serious push being made to tackle the problem which aging poses to everyone currently alive.

    I am pretty confident that with SENS and other routes being explored that we do not have to find a cure for aging itself, therefore, we bypass the problems that our lack of knowledge in the area of metabolism and the aging process creates because what Aubrey de Grey terms “engineered negligible senescence” can potentially extend life indefinitely while not actually curing the underlying aging process which is allowed to continue as normal.

    The key lies in the fact that we have a sufficient understanding of genetic and biochemical processes that lead to metabolic damage that we can already envision what is termed the engineering approach. Aubrey frequently uses the question “how long will a house last?” Of course, the answer is that, if you look after it, it can last forever! The key here is that Aubrey proposes that we find a method to undo the damage that has accumulated over the first 50 or 60 years of a person’s life. Repairing the damage means we do not need to understand all the processes of aging, only that we need to know enough to extend healthy lifespan by let us say 30 years.

    So how would it work in practice?

    It’s actually quite easy to follow and what this means in essence is this, let’s say you are 60 years old at the time of the first intervention and that this early and fundamentally imperfect treatment repairs 75% of the accumulated damage. Then 10 years later you would reach the chronological age of 70 but would be biologically only 45 years old and look and feel like a 45 year old. We now come to the vital key to the whole theory which is this, let’s say 20 years after the first treatment, when you are chronologically 80 but biologically 55 years old, clearly both your doctor and yourself will realize that the damage that was not repaired in the first treatment combined with further damage accumulated over the 20 years since is again posing a health risk. At this point it is time for another intervention. It is now that the progress in medicine comes into play because, by the time 20 years has gone by, anti-aging medicine will have moved on significantly and, whilst the first treatment bought you an extra 20 or 30 years by repairing a fair amount of the damage accumulated over 60 years of living, it did not repair it all. 20 years later progress will mean that the latest treatment will not only repair all of the damage corrected by the first intervention but also some of the damage that was not able to be repaired 20 years earlier so in essence you are now chronologically 80 (but biologically in your 50s) and having intervention number 2 which will not only repair all of the damage that was repaired by intervention 1 (along with the 20 years of damage since the first intervention) but also some (but probably still not all) of the damage that couldn’t be repaired by the first treatment. This means that, whilst you will have aged 20 years, chronologically you will be biologically younger after the second intervention than you were after the first.

    This is the essence of Aubrey de Grey’s theory and pretty much any other theory based on rejuvenation and damage repair, essentially, it’s a short cut to radical life extension. It is not a cure but it acknowledges that it does not need to be because it simply buys time and leads to a situation where regular interventions at say 15/20 year intervals with increasing effective treatments could extend life virtually indefinitely.

    Will it happen?

    My opinion is that we are well on the way in a number of areas such as gene therapy, stem cell therapies, tissue engineering and numerous other types regenerative medicine. Progress depends on funding although a number of factors will drive things forward and interest is increasing among both Scientists and the general population. The greatest driving force of all is that the baby boomers are aging and this will place increasing demands on healthcare systems. Keep in mind that the average person costs more in medical expenditure in the last year of their life than all the other years put together. Also, the number of workers is declining in most developed countries which means that we need to keep the existing population working and productive as long as possible.

    These are just two reasons but jointly they pose a serious economic problem to many governments worldwide. So what time-frame do I put on it? I made a projection some time back and, based on current research, I feel we will be pretty much able to treat and manage aging within 25 years given sufficient motivation, appropriate research and robust funding. In the absence of adequate funding we will still get there but it will simply take longer because many of the therapies are progressing quite well already but without a comprehensive intervention targeting all of the types of damage that arise due to aging the treatments individually will most likely just allow a person to grind on for 5 or 6 years. Of course there are other routes other than the engineering approach and I think even Aubrey de Grey knows SENS is only a means to to get a foot on the ladder but clearly once SENS strategies are perfected they will certainly save millions of lives and prevent a great deal of suffering. As I see it there are five technologies which will ultimately lead to radical life extension during the course of this century, these are advanced Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Advanced Robotics, Genetics and Robust Artificial Intelligence often just referred to just as AI, the effect these technologies will have on life extension differs greatly but my guess is that there are two potential approaches which are likely to come to fruition first, one is SENS which is biotechnology the other is a combination of robust artificial intelligence combined with whole brain emulation. Whole brain emulation is where the brain is uploaded to a digital medium and increasingly enhanced and replaced with non biological components until it reaches a stage where the non biological components can model the biological part so accurately the original brains loss would be irrelevant from a functional perspective. Personally I feel the outcome long term will ultimately be a combination of the five, the crucial point is that each of these technologies individually has the potential to get us to where we need to go. What this means is that for the development of radical life extension to fail all of these technologies must also fail and that simply won’t happen so my guess is we will reach the stage of having a decisive level of control over the aging process within 25/35 years. We must also factor in that there is also a possibility that we could find a faster route and that treatments to lengthen telomeres might have a greater benefit than assumed. Clearly lengthening the telomeres in certain cells through temporary activation of telomerase through a drug developed for the purpose, or maybe permanently by gene therapy could be interesting. The implications for tissue engineering are interesting too but it is not even certain whether the relationship between telomeres and aging is causal so that again is speculative. Its possible the shortening is a consequence of aging and not a cause. Nevertheless the implications of combined stem cell and lengthened telomeres could mean we can greatly improved our abilities regarding biomedical repairs.

    If you are unsure whether this is a war worth fighting consider this. When the war on aging is won (and it’s a case of when not if) 100,000 people per day would be saved! This is because, of the 150,000 people who die each day, two thirds die from aging. This is a staggering figure and what this means is that, of nearly 60 million people who die each year, 40 million die from age related issues. I believe we will achieve significant positive results within the next decade in research on mice and that the knowledge acquired will then be transferred to humans and, hopefully, end the horrific descent into senility and old age of the millions of people who linger in retirement homes and suffer the indignities that come with the passing years.

    Conquering aging is pretty much the same as beating any other disease, albeit aging is a complex issue involving many different processes but that does not mean that it is not a realistic goal to render it a chronic albeit manageable condition within a 25 year timeframe.

    • Kristian Markus on

      We truly appreciate your thoughtful comment. The subject is complex indeed, and there are certainly a variety of medical approaches that will be taken to ease and lengthen the process of aging.