Most of us share the belief that we are all doomed to age and die (assuming some other lethal event doesn’t do us in first). But there’s growing evidence that the aging that kills most of us may be curable. And reversible. If this happens, it will change everything.
The desire for immortality has been around for millennia — the Philosopher’s Stone, Faust, endless searches for mythical fountains of youth and snake oil of all varieties. A few years ago, I began researching a book for National Geographic that asked this question: What if real and solid science could, at last, outfox the grim reaper? Had we reached such a point in human history? Given the rapid advances in genomics, genetics and molecular biology, big data, nanotechnology and machine learning, maybe the answer was yes.
After all, during the past 120 years we have nearly doubled the average life span in America from our mid-40s in 1900 to nearly 80 in 2017. But now we are facing a new problem as we march into our extended lives. We may be living longer, but not necessarily better. Could we create a world where life spans not only increased, but health spans did, too?
Truthfully, when I first began to look into the question, there wasn’t much to find. Eight years ago, science mostly considered the elimination of aging as hokum at worst and a dead end at best. Even today the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t consider aging a disease. Maybe we were all doomed to spend the rest of our lives in the assisted living facility after all, shuffling around with our drool cups and checking our name tags to see who we were, and not a thing could be done about it.
Then on Sept. 18, 2013, came news. The announcement of a corporation called Calico Life Sciences, funded largely by Google: “We’re tackling aging, one of life’s great mysteries.” Just as intriguing was the news that Arthur D. Levinson had been asked to lead the company. Levinson was the chairman of Apple, and had run Genentech, the world’s first biotechnology company, since the mid 1990s. When the news of Calico hit the wires, the media snapped to. “Google vs. Death” — that was how Time magazine put it.
A few months later, another company announced it was tackling aging, too: Human Longevity, Inc. At the helm was J. Craig Venter, a scientist who, in the late 1990s, had found a quicker and better way to sequence the human genome than the federal government’s slower effort. With Human Longevity, Inc., Venter said he wanted to focus his genomic expertise on extending a “high-performance” human life span.
With these announcements, I decided to explore the type of thinkers who had thought to undertake a problem this immense (or was crazy a better word). Who were they, how did the companies come together and where would it all lead? I focused on the work of Levinson and Venter, futurist Ray Kurzweil and a scientist named Robert Hariri, one of the world’s leading stem cell experts. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey and his SENS Research Foundation were also in the mix. I decided to pursue their work because, given their scientific pedigree and financing, I felt they had the best shot at success.
I also saw their emergence as a historic turning point. Science may have long considered fountains of youth a crackpot endeavor, but these thinkers weren’t crackpots. In fact, three of them had won the National Medal of Technology or the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honors the United States bestowed. Something big was going on.
Since 2013, Calico, Human Longevity, Inc., Hariri’s company Celularity and a growing number of emerging organizations now have hundreds of scientists tackling the problems of aging and death, and they are rapidly grasping the complex cellular and molecular forces that cause both. Billions of dollars are now being poured into tackling a problem once considered unsolvable.
Can the human race decipher what is arguably the most complex problem it has ever faced? When I began researching my book, I was skeptical. Now I’m not. The first breakthroughs are already in front of us, and I believe a series of profound advancements will follow in the next five to 10 years, each gathering speed and momentum as they build on one another.
Right now, four big developments look the most promising.
- Stem cells. More specifically placental stem cells that can be harvested from placentas. These cells can transform themselves into any kind of cell in the body. They appear to be capable of replenishing parts of the body that are damaged or wearing out. In a recent study at the University of Washington, researchers found that when monkeys with damaged hearts were injected with 750 million human stem cells, their hearts regained up to two-thirds of their normal capacity. In small studies doctors are already repairing knees and shoulders. The hope is that someday they’ll do the same for the brain and other aging organs, significantly extending healthy lives.
- Genomics. Currently scientists understand about 3 percent of what the human genome can tell us about our health and behavior. The reason we don’t know more is because we simply haven’t sequenced enough genomes to reveal what makes the human animal tick. That’s changing as researchers continue gathering genomic information with the crucial medical histories that go with them. When I first began researching the science of aging, fewer than 3,000 human genomes had been thoroughly sequenced. Now tens of thousands have been gathered, and the number is rising every day. The more sequenced genomes we have, the more we can understand what each gene and its many interactions tell us about life, disease and death. This growing database is already revolutionizing medicine.
- Fundamental longevity science. While we’ve long felt that aging is unstoppable, work at Calico shows that aging is set genetically and those genetics can be changed. Shifting just one gene in mice has already revealed that their healthy life spans can be doubled. Calico researchers have also discovered animals, like the naked mole rat, that simply don’t age, and have yet to be diagnosed with cancer. The same is probably true of bowhead whales, one of the largest animals on Earth. They can live 200 years and still be entirely healthy. And just a couple of weeks ago, scientists at UCLA were shocked when they inadvertently discovered in a small trial not directly related to aging that nine white men (ages 51 to 65) took a common growth hormone and two diabetes medications for a year and found they were, biologically speaking, two and a half years younger than when they started the trial. A new, far deeper study is planned.
- Artificial intelligence. Finally, none of these advances would be possible without parallel advances in artificial intelligence. The numbers involved in unmasking the complexities of molecular biology are simply beyond the human mind: trillions of cells, each interacting with billions of genes performing untold numbers of biological interactions at blistering speed. Only artificially intelligent computer algorithms can move quickly enough to resolve questions like those on the fly. Each day the machines are getting smarter and faster.
Impacts on society
The long-term effect of advances like these are something our society should pay serious attention to because this is not science fiction, and we are not talking about living 90 years, or even 100. We are talking about fundamentally eliminating aging, leading to life spans in the hundreds of years.
Some will say we can’t allow this. That we’ll face some “Soylent Green,” dystopian world; the human race stacked in urban silos living hollow-eyed on a planet we’ve burned to a cinder. Or that only the wealthy will benefit: The selfish and well-heeled focused on saving their own upscale skins. Death, they say, is a blessing. It gives life meaning. One New York Times opinion writer has even called the drive for an extended life fundamentally “inhuman.”
All of that, I fear, misses a bigger point. If these advances take place, very few people are going to say no to living longer and better. Think about it. The desire to live is literally built into our DNA. Who doesn’t want to live a long time, vibrant and sharp witted, wiser but no longer older? And who wants to watch their minds unravel in the Reminiscence Unit? The clattering of a life is not pleasant to witness.
As technological advances go, an end run on aging makes the invention of the wheel, steam engine and internet look like a tricycle racing a Tesla. It will capsize the future in ways we can’t even begin to imagine: economics, personal relationships, government, business, entertainment, even religion. So now might be a good time to look at what’s happening before we find ourselves crushed on the windshield of our own technological achievement.
Chip Walter is the author of several books. His latest, “Immortality, Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions and the Quest to Live Forever,” is expected to be released Jan. 7 by National Geographic.