Is Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality a fate worse than death?
Funded by elites, researchers believe they’re closer than ever to tweaking the human body so we can live forever (or quite a bit longer)
Sat 23 Feb 2019 02.00 EST. Last modified on Sat 23 Feb 2019 13.54 EST. The Guardian.
China’s first emperor ordered his subjects to search for the elixir of life in a quest for immortality. In 16th century France, nobles would drink gold in a bid to extend their lifespans. Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king at the heart of humanity’s earliest epic poem, found a magic herb, but a snake ate it. In 2015, a woman on the MTV series True Life: I’m Obsessed With Staying Young bathed in pig blood.
In 2019, the quest for everlasting life is, largely, though not always, more scientific. Funded by Silicon Valley elites, researchers believe they are closer than ever to tweaking the human body so that we can finally live forever (or quite a bit longer), even as some worry about pseudoscience in the sector.
Scientists and entrepreneurs are working on a range of techniques, from attempting to stop cells aging, to the practice of injecting young blood into old people – a process denounced as quackery by the Federal Drug Administration this week.
“There’s millions of people now who won’t see death if they choose,” said James Strole, the director of the Coalition of Radical Life Extension, an organization which brings together scientists and enthusiasts interested in “physical immortality”.
At present our bodies are built to last – “if you took perfect care of your body” – 125 years, according to Strole. The problem is that if someone did live to be 125, they are unlikely to remain spry into their final decades.
“Who wants to live in some decrepit state?” Strole said.
“We’ve increased lifespans a lot, but we haven’t improved quality of lifespan.”
That’s where what enthusiasts called “super longevity” comes in. A number of billionaires have pumped money into research that aims to keep people fighting fit as they age. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have pumped millions into Calico, a secretive health venture which aims to “solve death”. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the billionaire Peter Thiel are backers of Unity Biotechnology, which hopes to combat the effects of aging.
The idea of never dying might sound like something from science fiction, but the experimental techniques are far removed from a brain in a jar, a body in a freezer or a heart wired up to a car battery.
Sierra Sciences is another company racing to cheat death. Its focus is on treatments that can lengthen telomeres – the “caps” at the end of each strand of DNA. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell copies itself. Because our cells copy themselves throughout our lives, the telomeres eventually get very short, and our cells cannot regenerate: we get old.
“If you can get the telomeres back to the normal state they were at when you were born, that could reduce your biological age back to 25,” Strole said.
“You wouldn’t be reversed back to a baby. You stop where maturity begins and ends.”
Among Sierra Sciences competitors is BioViva, whose CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, is so committed to the cause that she became one of the first humans to undergo telomere therapy in 2015. Writing in 2018, she claimed a measurement of her telomeres showed they had “grown younger” by roughly 30 years since she received the treatment – her body was reverse-aging.
Others claim they can already prevent aging in animals. George Church, a Harvard professor and the founder of Rejuvenate Bio, uses gene therapy to add anti-aging instructions to DNA. Church says he has succeeded in making mice live twice as long, and the secretive company is said to be planning imminent testing on dogs.
The discovery by Calico scientists in 2018 that naked mole rats – which look exactly how they sound, except with bigger teeth – essentially do not age fueled further excitement in the quest for immortality.
According to Science magazine the defiance is due to “very active DNA repair and high levels of chaperones, proteins that help other proteins fold correctly”, and the hope is that some of the discoveries could be applied to humans.
If and when these technologies became available, they are likely to be fantastically expensive. Strole said demand could eventually lower the price, but plenty of non-billionaires could die in the meantime.
Besides that, everyone living much, much longer would cause many other problems. Where do the children of these centenarians live?
Until workable life-preserving technology is available, immortality enthusiasts are also obsessed with staying healthy – some fast on certain days, others watch calories, most exercise – so they are around long enough to benefit from emerging anti-aging science.
The aim, as many in the “physical immortality community” put it, is to: “Live long enough to live forever.”