The Pursuit of Immortality

clock

This clock represents a single day of your life – the day you were born.

The average person will be granted 29,200 of these clocks that will comprise a lifetime. Each tick embodies a choice, an opportunity, a path forward in our lives. 

By the time we reach our 18th birthday, 6,570 of these clocks have already been spent, and much of the remaining time will be out of our control. 7,543 clocks fade away while we sleep. 4,130 will be dedicated to our careers. 418 clocks vanish as we shower and brush our teeth. 2160 clocks will take away nearly six years of our lives as we surf the internet. 2,517 clocks will disappear while we watch TV. The time we spend 1 on 1 with our parents and children amounts to only 2,730 clocks.

When you count all of these moments, you will find that from the journey that began with 29,200 clocks, this is all that remains. How many have you already spent? Half? Even more? What would you do differently if all you had left was a single clock, a single day?

As we get closer to this inevitability, it is important to ask yourself this question: “What if you could have more time to realize your dreams, spend with your family, and undo your regrets?”


In 1971, longevity researchers boldly proclaimed that science would unravel the mystery of aging within five years. Five years later, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “human life could be extended to 800 years.” That same year, a company called Microwave Instrument Co. said they would have immortality drugs on the market within three years. But here we are, decades later, still dying of old age.

The problem might be with our mindset. Many people would never consider aging a disease. But the cold truth is that general frailty is a disease. It just so happens that everyone gets it about the same time, in about the same way. The reason we don’t give this disease a weird name is that we are conditioned to accept that everyone gets it, so we don’t recognize it as a disease. The fact that aging isn’t seen as more of a threat in today’s society is absolutely mind-boggling, especially when you consider that aging kills 100,000 people a day, exponentially more than any other disease. To put that number into perspective, that is about 30 World Trade Center tragedies every single day.

Aside from aging being a huge killer, it is also really really expensive. If historical rates in the United States continue, US healthcare spending will be nearly 34% of GDP by 2040. Incase you are unaware, that is a boatload of money. In 2015 alone, the United States spent $3 trillion on healthcare for people 65 and older. Longevity research makes sense not only because it will help people stop dying, but also because it is an economically sound concept.

Despite the general publics ignorance to the topic, there are a few research companies leading the efforts in longevity. Among these companies are Google’s Calico, Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research foundation, and Larry Ellison’s Ellison Medical Foundation.

This article will be focusing on Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research foundation.

Aubrey de Grey is the chief science officer and co-founder of SENS Research foundation who’s mission is not to squeeze a few more years into ones lifespan, but to reverse the accumulation of damage in human cells that starts when humans are born. Aubrey de Grey boldly proclaimed in 2014 that the first person to live to be 1,000 years old is alive today. Plus he has a sweet beard.

So let’s dive in!

Aging as a disease

Only two hundred years ago, 40% of babies died from infectious diseases before they reached the age of 1. Since then, most of these infectious diseases have been prevented through a number of methods, including sanitation, vaccines, antibiotics, and carrier control. Today, less than .001% of babies die from from infectious diseases before they reach the age of 1.

Despite the prevention of infectious diseases, age-related diseases have not been prevented. Why is that?

In order to answer that question, one must first understand what aging is. Aging is defined as “the life-long accumulation of damage to the tissues, cells, and molecules of the body that occur as an intrinsic side-effect of the body’s normal operation.” The human body can tolerate some damage, but too much damage and it will cause disease and disability, which ultimately lead to our death. Simply put, aging is a side effect of being alive in the first place.

Similarly, age-related diseases occur, obviously, as humans age. Age-related diseases are widespread – meaning you are bound to eventually encounter one of them if you live long enough. The only thing that stops a human from getting cancer is dying of heart disease first, and vice versa. Also, the care for these age-related diseases is insanely costly, as I mentioned earlier, in 2015 alone the United States spent $3 trillion on healthcare for people aged 65 and up. Finally, age-related diseases are typically not medically curable, at least in the strict sense.

When you cure an infectious disease, you treat it once and the treatment eliminates the disease from the body so that the patient never experiences it again. Aging is not like that. Aging is a side effect of being alive in the first place, and it cannot be eliminated from the body the way an infectious disease like tuberculosis could be. However, aging can still be treated, albeit different methods.

The Approach

Traditionally, there has been three approaches used to tackle the problem of aging.

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Geriatric Approach

The Geriatric approach has in the past been very popular among the general public. A large percentage of people think that aging is about treating the effects of old age as if they were like other diseases one would want to eliminate from the body, blindly bashing away at the symptoms and sorta just hoping for the best. These people don’t really know what is going on and they enjoy pretending that their research will have some kind of effect despite the fact that it never has had any results, and because of the nature of old age, it never will have.

So this approach is pretty much worthless and it’s advocates pretty much suck.

Gerontology Approach

This approach is more promising than the Geriatric approach, but still not too solid. Basically there were a lot of scientists who realized early on how pointless the Geriatric approach was, so they looked for another approach to the longevity problem. They observed that some animals within the same species seemed to live a lot longer than other animals within the same species. Likewise, some humans seemed to age more slowly than other humans. So these scientists thought, maybe they could study that and find out (in far greater detail) how that happens, and having done so, they could turn that knowledge into therapy that will slow down the aging of humans.

It sounds like a solid plan, right? But there is one huge problem to this approach: so far it hasn’t actually worked. The reason why is because in order for this approach to work, scientists would need to tinker with metabolism. Metabolism is the word scientists use when they want to say “being alive” – it is the normal operation of the human body, everything the body does from one moment to the next, day-to-day, year-to-year, until it dies. The reason we can’t tinker with humans metabolism is because we understand very little of it, the prospect of trying to rebuild a humans metabolism to make it run slower would most likely do more harm than good because of the fact that we don’t know what we are doing.

This lack of knowledge of metabolism and the human body itself is extremely depressing, and it is why scientists who have adopted the Gerontology approach have become very pessimistic over the years towards the possibility of ever developing machines that could substantially postpone the disease and disability that accompanies old age.

Maintenance Approach

Alas, there is a third approach that has been nearly completely overlooked in the past, until Aubrey de Grey began to promote it. It is called the maintenance approach.

The maintenance approach is essentially a combination of the Gerontology approach and the Geriatric approach. It basically says “lets not try to slow down this process where metabolism creates damage (Gerontology), and lets not try to combat this process where damage eventually leads to the diseases of old age (Geriatric). Instead, lets uncouple those two processes from each other by separating them and periodically diving in and repairing this damage when it is still sub-pathogenic.”

That last part is key.

Repairing the damage when it is still sub-pathogenic is essential. At a sub-pathogenic level, the damage is not actually yet causing a disease because it is tolerated by the way the body is naturally set up.

We already know that the earlier you treat an illness, the better the outcome is, the less treatment you need, the less invasive the treatment is, and ultimately, the less money you will spend. For example, preventing someone from ever getting diabetes is the most cost-effective way to treat it. The next best bet if you end up with diabetes is to keep your blood sugar in check. The worst-case is doing nothing and now you need to get to the ER and have your foot amputated. That procedure will be more expensive than a life-time of insulin.

ER

And the same holds true for any disease. Treat it early, treat it often, treat it cheaply. The maintenance approach is like the equivalence of car maintenance. Cars designed to last 20 years can end up lasting 100 years. The reason it still runs is because the people who own it have done a lot of car maintenance. It’s much more efficient to get the occasional oil check, tire change, and paint job than it is to duct tape your door onto a car that is falling apart. So if it works for cars, whats to say it won’t work for humans?

Categorizing Damage

Although there is many many many different kinds of damage at the molecular level and cellular level, they can all be classified into seven major categories. These seven categories have been the same since 1982, when the last type of damage had been confirmed. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that these are the only seven types of damage that a disease can inflict on the body.

Damage Type

I’ll briefly break down what each category means as well as the consequences of each:

  • Cell loss, cell atrophy
        • The process of cells dying and not being automatically replaced by the division of other cells
        • The decrease in cell number causes the heart to become weaker with age, and it also causes Parkinson’s disease and impairs the immune system.
  • Division-obsessed cells
        • Changes to the nuclear DNA, the molecule that contains our genetic information, or to proteins which bind to the nuclear DNA.
        •  Certain mutations can lead to cancer
  • Death-resistant cells
        • Phenomenon where the cells are no longer able to divide, but they also do not die and let others divide.
        • Proposed as cause or consequence of type 2 diabetes
  • Mitochondrial mutations
        • Mutations to the DNA of mitochondria affects a cell’s ability to function properly
        • These mutations may accelerate many aspects of aging
  • Intracellular junk
        • Molecules that can’t be digested by cells accumulate as junk inside our cells.
        • All kinds of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) are associated with this problem
  • Extracellular junk
        • Molecules that can’t be digested by cells also accumulate as junk outside of our cells.
        • Amyloid senile plaque that is seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is one example of this.
  • Extracellular Matrix Stiffening
        • Cells are held together by special linking proteins, when too many cross-links form between cells in a tissue, the tissue can lose its elasticity
        • This causes problems such as arteriosclerosis, and presbyopia.

The Relationship of Damage and Disease

Some of these diseases have a very simple relationship with the damage. Take, for example, cancer.

Cancer

Cancer is a division-obsessed cell. Cancer occurs when cells divide when they are not supposed to. The relationship between cancer and damage is a 1:1 relationship. Simple.

However, it’s not like that with heart disease, because a lot of things can go to shit in the heart over the course of someones life.

Heart Disease

Sometimes its loss of cells – which is when one’s heart stops because their pacemaker cells that control the heart are insufficiently numerous (cell loss, cell atrophy), sometimes it is atherosclerosis (the number one cause of death in the western world) which causes heart attacks or strokes and is the result of molecular garbage accumulating inside cells in the artery wall (intracellular junk), sometimes it’s actually junk accumulating between cells (extracellular junk), which causes a very unfortunate phenomenon called senile cardiac amyloidosis which is the number one “old people killer” in the world ( ages 100+). Finally, sometimes it is possible to get arteriosclerosis, which is the stiffening of arteries (extracellular matrix stiffening) which causes hypertension and all of the effects that comes along with that, like kidney failure, high blood pressure, etc.

Likewise, Alzheimer’s can also be caused by a plethora of damages to the cells.

Alzheimers

Alzheimer’s is a disease that was defined more than a century ago as the combination of both molecular garbage inside neurons called tangles (intracellular junk) and molecular garbage outside of neurons called plaques (extracellular junk). Only recently was it discovered that neurons also die in Alzheimer’s disease (cell loss), causing less cognitive function.

Finally, General Frailty is a combination of nearly every type of damage excluding division-obsessed.

General Frailty

Solutions

So now that we know what the maintenance approach is, how will it be implemented?

There are four fundamental paradigms for the maintenance approach. They are:

  • Replace
  • Remove
  • Repair
  • Reinforce

Cell Loss Solutions

Stem cells are a type of cell in your system that have a unique ability to “transform” into another type of cell. so, for example, if your body needed more liver cells for whatever reason, stem cells could come in and become liver cells, and everything’s all good. Through the maintenance approach, cells would be put into the body with the purpose to divide and differentiate to replace cells that the body is not replacing on its own when they die.

The best example of stem cell therapy is it’s use with Parkinson’s disease. The key to treating Parkinson’s disease is the introduction of stem cells to the appropriate parts of the brain in order to divide and differentiate into the type of neuron that produces dopamine. When it was first tried 15 years ago, it only sometimes worked – some patients were cured and others weren’t. But when it did work, it fucking WORKED. Patients who were cured never again had any symptoms of Parkinson’s disease after the initial treatment. However, because it only sometimes worked, an enormous amount of pessimism grew in the field and eventually stem cells were abandoned altogether.

In the last few years stem cell interest has been reignited and pursued with great vigor. In the past, stem cells occasionally failed because scientists simply were not good at consistently getting the stem cells into the right states, but now scientists are exponentially better. Due to the intense research and enormous progress being made, Grey believes we will have a cure to Parkinson’s disease within the decade.

Stem cell

Division-obsessed Cells Solution

Cells that are division-obsessed (that aren’t supposed to be) often turn into forms of cancer. In order to combat this, Grey proposes using a technique called ‘WILT’. The way to defeat cancer is to remove the cancer cell’s ability to reproduce indefinitely. And in order to do this, the telomerase gene (the gene that allows the cell to duplicate) must be removed. Since this cannot be targeted at only cancer cells, his ‘WILT’ idea is to delete the gene in the DNA. Obviously, this would interfere with all the cells that need to continually divide, such as the skin, immune system, and bone marrow, but his solution is to periodically replenish stem cell stores with new stem cells that have elongated telomeres.

Telomere Deletion

Death-resistant Cells Solution

There are two main approaches to the problems associated with Death-resistant cells: Develop a drug that is toxic to abnormal cells but harmless to healthy ones, or stimulate an immune response that targets and selectively kills unhealthy cells. Each type of cell has different surface molecules, and these surface molecules serve as markers, or identification for that cell. Liver cells have a different group of molecules on their surface than blood cells, for example.

Likewise, abnormal cells have abnormal surface molecules, making these cells easy to target for therapy. So if there is a group of little bastard cells that refuse to die, a drug targeting its molecular surface can be taken to kill it. Likewise, an immune system can be stimulated to kill the ‘unkillable’ intruder by being exposed to it in small amounts, similar to how a flu shot works.

cell killer

Mitochondrial Mutation Solution

It would be great if we could prevent mitochondrial deletion from happening, or fix it before it does any harm; but unfortunately, we do not know nearly enough about this stuff where that would be a realistic goal.

So instead the approach is to place a ‘backup copy’ of the mitochondrial gene in the nucleus, so that even if a deletion in the mitochondria occurs, the backup copy could still supply the proteins needed to keep normal energy production going.

It’s not ideal, but it keeps the cell from dying in a worst case scenario.

Mitochondria back up

Intracellular Junk Solution

Intracellular junk is caused when molecules can’t be digested by cells, so they accumulate as junk inside of the cell. More specifically, the problem occurs when lysosomes are unable to break down the molecules. Therefore, the most direct solution to this problem would be to supply them with new enzymes that could break down those molecules.

Lucky for us, we know that enzymes capable of breaking down these materials exist – specifically in the soil bacteria and fungi that help to decompose dead bodies. If these enzymes didn’t exist, we would be waist-deep in 600 million years of dead things. Gross.

waist-deep in dead people

So the idea is to find the enzymes these organisms use to digest lysosome wastes, modify them a little bit so that they can work in humans, and then deliver them (via needle) to where they need to go in our cells.

Extracellular Junk Solution

Extracellular junk that accumulates outside of cells can be removed from the body by specialized antibodies that target the junk specifically. These antibodies would be delivered via injection.

Simple.

Vaccine

Extracellular Matrix Stiffening Solution

Extracellular Matrix Stiffening occurs when too many cross-links form between cells in a tissue. When this happens, the tissue loses its elasticity, often leading to hypertension. Fortunately, the crosslinks that occur in our tissues have very unusual chemical structures, way different than anything the body naturally produces,  making it possible to design drugs that can react with the crosslinks and sever them, without breaking apart any of the bodies natural tissues.

Crosslink

Our Future

Okay, so the science behind all of this looks pretty sound. But what does this mean for our future?

In the future, nobody will get Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, or really any kind of age-related disease. This will eliminate many of the worlds most deadly diseases, therefore having dramatic consequences toward health.

Dammit Jack, I didn’t click on this freaking article to read about health span. I want to live forever!

Calm down please, I am getting there.

Aubrey de Grey believes that with the maintenance approach he will be able to add about 30 years on the human life.

30 years?! I thought you said 1000 years at the beginning of the article? Why wo—

You have been muted.

I have muted you.

As I was saying, because the Maintenance Approach is a rejuvenation therapy, that means that the solution will be taking people who are already 60 and fixing them well enough that they won’t be biologically or mentally 60 until they are chronologically 90.

So then what?

Well the thing is, 30 years is a really long time in technology, and especially in medical technology. So what those 30 years are doing is essentially buying you time while medical technology advances to a point where the patient could be re-rejuvenated. What this means is we are talking about the possibility that by the time those people who were rejuvenated come back as 90 year olds who are biologically 60, the therapies will have improved enough so that you could be re-rejuvenated a second time so that you won’t be biologically 60 until you are chronologically 150 and so on until you eventually get to be 1000+ years old and we all become robots that are completely incapable of dying – or something like that.

The term ‘Longevity escape velocity’ is the minimum rate at which we need to improve the comprehensiveness of the therapy in order to stay one step ahead of the problem. Essentially what it means is we are kicking the ball up the road faster than time is passing for as long as we like.

As soon as the first generation of therapies is successful (providing the patient with an additional 30 years of life) the rest is easy. This is due to the exponential growth of technology. For example, if it takes us 30 years to figure out how to add an additional 30 years of human life, it should take us 15 to add 60, 7.5 to add 120, and so on.

Our future looks bright… and long. 


I kind of stumbled upon this topic last week when I was trying to find interesting things to write about. I had heard about Calico and other longevity companies before, but I never paid any attention to it because it always just sounded like a load of bullshit to me. And then of course I dove into the topic and became strangely obsessed with it for four or five days. I literally would have dreams of playing cards or going bowling with Aubrey de Grey, and that was very weird – if anyone has ever watched one of his interviews, you will know exactly what I am talking about. He is a skinny man with a huge beard and he basically looks like Santa Claus, if Santa was a homeless meth addict.

Anyways, after the first hour of research I couldn’t believe my eyes. I fell deeper down the rabbit hole and just kept falling. It went from something that sounded like an absolute scam to something that not only seemed completely feasible, but something that was totally possible within my lifetime.

And then it became so hard for me to accept the fact that so little people were talking about the subject.

I mean this is immortality people! The thing mankind has been obsessed with since the beginning of time! The reason why kings killed children and bathed in their blood! The reason why Voldemort divided his soul into 7 objects! Are we going to let that sacrifice go to waste? Now more than ever, the prospect of living forever is right in front of us. It is mind boggling to me that this topic has not received more fame.

But, Jack’s awe aside, it is very interesting to think about what life would be like if you lived for 1000 years. Would you be more careful when performing common but dangerous tasks like driving? Would you go to school for 100 years? Would there still be wars if humans placed a much greater value on life?

I can’t help but wonder how it would affect me emotionally. Surely I would see everyone I love grow old and die. Repeatedly. Would this turn me into some kind of emotionless robot, incapable of love, or would I just get really good at loving and grieving? Would I get bored with living? And ultimately, if age is no longer a terminal factor, would suicide become moral? How else could someone end an infinitely long life that they were tired of living?

Jesus my head hurts.


Sources

Calico

Drug worm study

UNITY – Biotech

Immortality Business

SENS Research

Aubrey de Grey – Life extension interview

Ray Kurzweil

Telomere shortening

Longevity and Aging in Humans

Maria Konovalenko

Aubrey de Grey – Google Talk

Aubrey de Grey – TheGuardian

Jack

My names Jack. I like fruit snacks, coffee, and knock-knock jokes. My mom thinks I need to go outside more.

2 Comments

  1. No you wouldn’t be incapable of love because if you are living forever then your loved ones will also undertake a similar procedure. So you will be with your loved ones forever. And as for suicide you don’t have to kill yourself. Just don’t go for a regular maintenance and you will die a natural death… I see only solutions and no problems.

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