Could immortality be on the horizon?

Cassandra Coburn

Humans have been questioning life's limits since the dawn of time. But how close are we to catching up with death?

Getting older is something so natural and normal that we barely think about it. Whether we’re teenagers looking forward to the privileges that turning 18 brings, or thinking about saving for retirement, we don’t question that we will change, grow and age over the course of time. However, there's a growing body of scientific research that suggests that ageing might not be a biological inevitability after all. And the world has noticed. Silicon Valley is investing in companies which aim to solve the mysteries of ageing—and maybe sell us the cure

The human desire to halt ageing has a long and slightly ridiculous history. In the 13th century, philosopher Roger Bacon believed that the breath of young virgins or swallowing pearls could reverse the ageing process. In the late 19th century, the physician Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, who is best known for discovering hormones, claimed to have devised a different cure. He created a concoction—which he grandly named the Brown-Séquard Elixir—made mainly of the crushed testes of unfortunate guinea pigs and dogs. He injected this into his patients to, perhaps unsurprisingly, no recorded success. Then there's the myth of the Fountain of Youth: a supposedly miraculous body of water which washed age from those fortunate enough to swim in it. There have been several supposed sightings of these waters over the centuries, driving explorers to all corners of the earth in search of it (including Juan Ponce de León, who inadvertently discovered Florida instead).

But just because none of these bizarre remedies or escapades led to a "cure" for ageing doesn’t mean scientists stopped trying to investigate it. We’re so used to ageing that it takes a minute or two to consider what an odd process it is. For no apparent reason, our bodies slowly begin to decline in very similar ways. For a long time, people thought of ageing simply as the result of "wear and tear": continuous use of our bodies inevitably led to mechanical failure and harm. They believed that just like old cars, after a certain point, bodies could no longer cope with what was being asked of them. But the difference between cars and bodies is that humans have an amazing ability to self-repair. We can fall, break a bone, and the two ends will obligingly grow back together. Why should simply being alive for longer impede this ability?

"A 13th century philosopher thought virgin girls' breath could reverse the ageing process"

 

Many scientists have taken these questions into the lab in an attempt to answer them. One intriguing question was whether there was any genetic component to ageing. Because ageing is such a complex process, there was never going to be a single gene which we could switch off to stop it. However, some researchers reasoned, very similar animals have dramatically different lifespans. For example, a rat lives for three years whereas a healthy chinchilla can live for ten. Such a difference in lifespan indicates at least some element of genetic involvement.

To test this, they looked at an unlikely animal: a tiny, transparent worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. Known affectionately to those who study it as C. elegans, this millimetre-long worm has a fascinating characteristic which makes it an ideal choice of study. In the perfect conditions of a laboratory, C. elegans have a normal lifespan of around 19 days. However, if during its early development the worm is stressed— for example, by a lack of food—it can transform itself into an entirely different state known as a "dauer" form. (Dauer is a German word meaning "to endure".) Dauer worms are strikingly different from normal worms. They’re much thinner, and can’t eat: a cuticle grows over their mouth as part of the transformative process. Worms can exist in this state for months. When the environment becomes less stressful, (for example, if they can sense food supplies), the worms return to their normal state and continue to live out their full lifespan as if nothing ever happened. There are limitations to the dauer state—the worms can only form dauers early in their developmental cycle, and they can’t become dauers more than once—but it’s still an incredible increase in lifespan with no apparent ill-effects.

 

In 1993, a group of researchers led by a scientist named Cynthia Kenyon discovered that if a particular gene (daf-2) was switched off in worms, they would grow and develop as normal (ie, without entering the alternative dauer life cycle state), but their lifespan increased by about 230 per cent. Moreover, these animals behaved like young worms at ages when their normal brethren had already died. This finding had an amazing implication: it showed that biological age (how much time we’ve been alive) and physiological age (the physical changes to our body that happen with advancing age) aren't intrinsically linked. While we can’t stop time, these results showed that physiological ageing was something that is at least partly under genetic control. And if physiological age is under genetic control, it’s something we might be able to manipulate artificially.

"They discovered that if a particular gene was switched off in worms, their lifespan increased by 230 per cent"

Buoyed by this news, researchers worldwide continued to investigate. Over the next few decades, many further genes were discovered to play a role in ageing, and silencing them had similarly amazing effects on lifespan. Moreover, these genes were found in many different animals, from fruit flies to mice, raising the tantalising possibility that they might be found in humans as well.

But of course, we cannot silence genes in humans like we do in the laboratory. Instead, consumers want something like the Brown-Séquard Elixir: an anti-ageing pill. Some companies have been trying profit from these desires by unscrupulously proffering quick fixes for ageing. For example, in 2016, a US company called Ambrosia started charging patients £6,500 for blood infusions, with the chief executive officer Jesse Karmazin promising that the technique “[came] pretty close” to immortality.

In early 2019, it was closed down by the FDA on the basis that it was "charging thousands of dollars for infusions that are unproven and not guided by evidence from adequate and well-controlled trials.”

 

If we're going to find real anti-ageing therapies, it's clear that the results are not going to be dramatic immediately. David Gems is a professor of the biology of ageing at University College London, and he believes we’re not far off from developing anti-ageing therapies which help to extend our lifespan simply by ensuring we don’t succumb to the diseases of ageing. "Some people think of the goal of anti-ageing therapies as life extension, but that’s an odd way of looking at it. Their main action is to prevent disease. If you're successfully treated for cancer, that extends your life, but people don’t talk about the purpose of cancer treatment as life extension. It’s pretty likely that better anti-ageing treatments are coming quite soon, which target larger numbers of diseases of ageing, and these will improve late-life health and probably extend life expectancy by a few years. But I think we’re a long way from treatments so powerful that they increase lifespan substantially—like by more than about five years.”

Laura Deming agrees. She’s one of the youngest fund managers in the world, a partner in US-based The Longevity Fund which invests in companies looking to slow ageing. She explained that the investors see ageing as a common underlying mechanism that increases the risk of many diseases. As such, her fund is investing in companies that aim to tackle the root causes of age-related diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Investors believe in her ethos: The Longevity Fund currently has £30m under management. Another American company which aims to investigate ageing is Calico, which is backed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. In short, people are taking the possibility of creating ageing cures seriously.

 

Potential cures on the horizon open us up to considering new questions that humanity has never had to face before. How long is long enough to live a good life? Deming has already considered this. She wants to give everyone in the world the choice to live healthily as long as they would like to. “Why is 80 years the correct number?” she asks. “It’s arbitrary. We want to give people the choice.”

Although immortality isn't a new longing for humanity, for the first time it seems like the science might be catching up with our desires.


 

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