Reflections on Immortality

Anyone for the Retardation of Aging? Or Better Yet, How About Total  Rejuvenation?
Anyone for the Retardation of Aging by 30% to 40%?
    In the March issue of Ubiquity, I mentioned research results aimed at extending the human lifespan by 30% to 40%. (In discussing lifespans, it's important to distinguish between average lifespan and maximum lifespan. Average lifespan can be extended through better nutrition and health care, but there is an underlying rate of aging that remains unchanged.) As the March issue described it,
    "In 1935, Clive McKay, running laboratory longevity studies on white rats, discovered that their lifespans could be sizably extended by keeping them on healthy, but calorically restricted diets, primarily by delaying the onset of maturation. This phenomenon, known as the "McKay Effect", also appears with other animal species, though not as dramatically. Apparently, animal metabolisms are designed to shift to a lower metabolic rate in the face of caloric restriction. Now, researchers at MIT may possibly have come upon a yeast gene/enzyme ( that may slow metabolism by turning off sections of the genome, and that might be responsible for the "McKay Effect". Whether or not this mechanism operates in humans as it does in yeast is yet to be determined. The action of this gene is triggered by elevated levels of the chemical messenger, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), which might possibly be taken as a supplement if the experimental evidence warranted it."
    Now, in May, "Dr. Leonard Guarente of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has announced that his lab has identified a gene, SIR2, which regulates the life span of yeast. The gene is responsible for the production of a protein, Sir2, and the higher the level of this protein, the longer the life span of yeast cells. "Our findings thus provide a model for aging that is universal and explains how calorie restriction extends life span," says Dr. Guarente.'We believe that these studies could lead to the development of a drug that intervenes to strengthen the Sir2-silencing process and provides the benefits of calorie restriction without the extreme difficulty of the regimen itself.'"
How About Total  Rejuvenation?
    A similar breakthrough may  have just occurred with respect to the reversal and avoidance of aging—to becoming and remaining forever young—not just aging slower. (It's worth noting in this regard that, unlike normal cells, cancer cells in vitro are immortal.)
    Have you ever wondered why babies are born young? The sex cells from adult parents are partially aged. In extreme cases, the mother might be in her 50's and the father might be in his 70's, and yet, the baby is born brand, spanking new. Somehow, all the genetic damage in the germ cells is completely repaired in the oocyte, pemitting new life to be born anew. If offspring only inherited 0.1% of the aging defects of the parents, infants would be born old after 1,000 generations.
    The recent cloning of six calves from an ancient cow has highlighted this realization. The maternal cow was on her last legs, and yet, the cloned calves are as young as any other calves.
    The six cloned cows are shown in the photograph below. Thus far, they have refused to comment  regarding the controversy swirling around their youthful existence, except as noted below the photograph.


    A related research result concerns the bacterium deinococcus radiodurans. Deinococcus radiodurans can live at radiation levels that are 30,000 times greater than those that are lethal for humans. Deinococcus’ chromosomes can be chopped to pieces, and yet, within a few hours, they will completely reconstitute themselves. What is particularly significant about this is that even double breaks—breaks in both strands of the double helix at the same codon—are completely repaired.
    These recent (May) research results haven’t been lost on the biomedical community. The results must be generating a great deal of interest and excitement among longevity researchers, and among pharmaceutical companies that stand to profit enormously from anti-senesence treatments. I find this news stunning. Of course, the  news is early and tentative. But there's a Wall Street adage that says, "Buy on the rumor; sell on the news." If you wait until everyone can see promise in a new approach, you're already too late to get in on the ground floor.  Among the benefits that can accrue to the early adopter of a new idea are career and investment opportunities.
    Total elimination of aging wouldn't by any means guarantee immortality. Accidents, suicides, infectious diseases, cancer, and other lethalities would continue to take their customary toll. I once read in a book on "prolongevity" that the projected lifespan for an ageless individual would be about 400 years.
    Perhaps the imperative that would first generate a call for action would be a revision in retirement systems for those who opted for youth extension. Otherwise, in a hundred years, we would have 10% of our population working and 90% of them retired (a condition that might be realizable, given sufficiently intelligent-and-accepting robots). However, part-time work, engaged in activities we enjoy, with ample vacation, might render work a welcome blessing. And for people whose children are grown and gone, there aren't the earning power requirements that characterize our child-rearing years. A pre-condition to longevity treatments might be a major deferral of Social Security and other retirement benefits. Social Security might become more a source of disability insurance than of retirement benefits.
    Another urgent issue would be the need for birth restraint. A pre-condition to eligibility for anti-senescence treatments could logically be to contract with signatories for a lifetime limit of one child per person or two per couple. (This is a policy that would seem to make sense today, without regard to quasi-immortality.) The problem would come in enforcing it. However, devising equitable and palatable discouragements to over-reproduction would seem to be a job for statesmen, and for public participation. One possibility might involve voluntary concurrence, with fines or similar deterrents for violators. (It might really fall into the category of someone who pushes in front of someone else in line, or who steals someone else's lunch.)
    Without a ticking biological clock, one could imagine that having one's children might be deferred for many years. Children might be reared one at a time, with many family members sharing in the rearing.
    Many people resist change. Aging frames our lives. It ensures that evil tyrants won't be around forever. It recycles money, passing it to succeeding generations through inheritance. It recycles opportunity, felling older forest giants and allowing new trees saplings day in the sun. There are people who are so unhappy with their lives that they end them prematurely  Children might not feel comfortable with parents who were their own ages.
    Aging also cuts down our best and brightest just as they've gotten "too soon too old and too late too schmart". The costs of supporting the elderly, in failing health, is enormous. It's a cruel to live under a suspended sentence of death. Humans are the only animals who know they are going to die. Given extremely long lives, as scifi author Ben Bova put it in a recent article in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, "The Stars Are Ours".
    There will be those who will be violently opposed to seeing extended youth proffered to the masses. I believe that those people should be allowed to age and die. No one should insist on keeping them alive when they would rather be dead. On the other hand, nobody had better try to block those of us who aren't ready to die from living longer, if that becomes possible.
    One idea that has been proposed is that longevity treatments will be prohibitively expensive for the masses, and that only the elite—the very rich and the very talented—will or should be granted life extension. There is a certain appeal to this reluctance to make the world safe for the Home and Garden channel, or for endless rounds of fishing and golf. However, I don't think that longevity "pills" or injections will be inherently expensive. Given competition, I think that such treatments can soon become as cheap as any other mass-produced agents. If pharmaceutical companies had to choose between marketing for 100,000 people who could pay $1,000,000 a year and 1,000,000,000 people who could pay $25 a month, they would make more money by marketing to the masses than they would to the ultra-elite. And even if they chose to gouge the public, I don't think the world-at-large would stand for immortality for the elite and death for the rest of us. Also, aside from money as a certification of eligibility, how would we choose who were to live and who were condemned to die? Would we select the brightest (highest potential), or the most productive(highest output)? Would we include athletes? Singers? Politicians? Marketing experts? Venture capitalists? Outstanding real estate agents? Beautiful women? Handsome men? Living saints? And can you imagine the heartache when one spouse was chosen to live while the other spouse had to die? Or how parents would feel about watching their children die? Or daughters watching their parents unnecessarily die? Or their siblings? Also, selecting only the best, even if we could decide how to do it, would be a form of eugenics, of selective euthanasia, and of the creation of a Master Race. I think that if pseudo-immortality comes, it will come for everyone. And for those who are crippled with various disabilities, I think that medical science could offer hope for eventual relief from their afflictions.
    Change is a law of life. Nothing abides forever. I think we're better served by preparing for the future than by trying to prevent it. I'd rather land on my feet than on my back. I am very excited about the prospects for enhanced longevity, even, perhaps, within my lifetime.
    At an intuitive level, these recent longevity insights remind me of the splitting of the uranium atom by Hahn and Strassman in 1939. In the 1930’s, it was realized that the sun and the stars were powered by "atomic" (nuclear) power, and a lot of interest developed in harnessing "the power of the atom". However, it was thought, that, perhaps, atomic power could only be generated under the conditions that prevailed at the center of the sun, and if so, atomic power would be forever out of human reach. Then in 1939, Hahn and Strassman split the uranium 235 atom, showing that this uranium isotope could release enormous energy under ordinary room room-temperature conditions. The race was on. Nazi Germany mounted a program to develop an atomic bomb. Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt recommending that he U. S. do the same. The Hahn and Strassman experiment was a breakthrough that opened the door to the practical use of nuclear energy.
    I have the feeling that we have reached a comparable threshold in longevity research—the Hahn-and-Strassman event for longevity research.
    The following quotation is taken from the November, 1999, issue of Time Magazine, speculating on developments within the 21st century.
    "For millions of people alive today, though, the ability to monitor their health more closely and start treatments at the earliest stages of disease means that many may live long enough to enjoy the blessings of the 22nd century."