In Jean-Luc Godard’s celebrated film Breathless, a writer and intellectual wittily avows, during an interview, that his greatest ambition is “to become immortal and then die”. As paradoxical as this assertion seems, it betrays a profound reality – the not uncommon sentiment by which we sympathize with the inevitability of death, yet yearn for a counterfeit immortality through our accomplishments and the memories of our loved ones. Even the legendary Gilgamesh, in the end, relinquishes his quest for immortality and finds consolation in the conviction that his path to immortality lies in the erection of monumental works. Nevertheless, the existential yearning for immortality is not dead – only stifled by the hegemonic reality of immemorial and unremitting death and the prevailing ethic that the desire for immortality, not obtained through communion with the gods, represents the highest hubris. Against this attitude, filmmaker Woody Allen famously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment”.
If anyone feels like Woody, he will be elated to discover that the 21st century is most accommodating as world-renowned scientists like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil are convinced that radical life-extending technology is achievable within our lifetime. In fact, there is worldwide ideology known as life extensionism dedicated to achieving that very mission. The article borrows its title from a book by Kurzweil which expresses the belief that if present day middle aged persons can live to approximately 120 years, they stand a reasonable chance of an indefinite lifespan via the advent and development of radical life extending technology. British life extensionist Aubrey de Grey expresses a similar conviction that the first person to live to 1000 years is almost definitely alive today.
What exactly is life extension? Life extension, more formally known as biomedical gerontology, is a burgeoning scientific field dedicated to delaying or reversing the effects of aging with the intent of increasing both the average and maximum human life span (which is hypothesized to be approximately 125 years, with the oldest person on historical record, Jeanne Calment, having attained 122 years 164 days). It may be alternatively defined as the science dedicated to an indefinite protraction of the human healthspan (the period of one’s life during which one is generally healthy and free from life threatening disease), with the augmentation of lifespan only an incidental feature of a protracted healthspan. As such life extension is merely a continuation of healthcare and presumably its inevitable culmination.
What is aging? Masoro, in the Handbook of Aging, defines aging as “deteriorative changes with time during post-maturational life that underlie an increasing vulnerability to challenges, thereby decreasing the ability of the organism to survive”. Aubrey de Grey further emphasizes that aging “is not an extension of development but a decay”.
The idea of radical life extension is not without its controversies and is often received with appropriate skepticism. Its impossibility is often pronounced on the premise that aging is a universal phenomenon. Not only does this conclusion not follow from the premise but more importantly, the premise itself is flawed. Is aging universal? The answer is an emphatic no! There are a number of organisms that do not display “an increasing vulnerability to challenges” with chronological age. These organisms are said to be negligibly senescent and include the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii, tardigrades, bacteria (at the colony level), hydra, lobsters and planarian flatworms. The strategy by which Turritopsis achieves its negligible senescence – transdifferentiation – is particular impressive. Transdifferentiation facilitates rejuvenative reversion of the T. dohrnii adult to a sexually immature polyp stage if confronted by environmental stress, physical stress, sickness or aging and has gained it the title of ‘immortal jellyfish’ (as in the absence of predation and disease the process of transdifferentiation may proceed indefinitely). Another frequent premise for the assertion of the impossibility of life extension is the belief that the second law of thermodynamics mandates the inevitability and irreversibility of aging. The law effectively states that all closed systems decay irreversibly to equilibrium (which in biological terms translates to the inevitability of aging). However, the error in such reasoning is that a biological system is evidently not a closed system and consequently suffers no such limitation.
Many overlapping theories of aging have been tendered. These include the telomerase theory, the free radical theory, the DNA damage theory, the antagonistic pleiotropy hypothesis and the Disposable Soma Theory. The multiple theories have in turn birthed a variety of existing and prospective strategies for ameliorating the aging problem and attaining indefinite life extension. These strategies include stem cell therapy, tissue regeneration, organ transplant, prosthetic organs, cloning, antioxidants, caloric restriction and caloric restriction mimetics, telomerase therapy, genetic modification, SENS, molecular repair nanotechnology, cryonics, mind uploading, and reversal of information entropy (at the level of the individual and that of society). To date, the most effective strategies (based on tests on mice, yeast and nematodes) have proven to be caloric restriction and genetic manipulation. For example, caloric restriction and genetic manipulation has been discovered to increase lifespan of mice by as much 40 percent and 150 percent, respectively. Also, genetic manipulation in nematode worms and a combination of genetic engineering and caloric restriction in yeast have increased the lifespans of these organisms ten-fold. The long term effect of a caloric restriction study on rhesus monkeys remains inconclusive.
(Check out next Saturday’s STAR Newspaper for part two.)