For as long as humans have been alive, they’ve been concerned with finding ways to live longer. These days, with the right combination of genes and luck, and in the places where life expectancy is highest, men and women can expect to live into their eighties. But now, a high-profile group of futurists and entrepreneurs is exploring the possibility of extending human life on a scale that is hard to fathom. They discuss life spans as long as 1,000 years as though it’s a given that the idea isn’t a matter of if, but rather when.
One of the new leaders of the movement is Joon Yun, a hedge fund manager who has created a $1 million prize called the Palo Alto prize to initiate the development of breakthroughs in the science of human longevity. Instead of accepting that humans all have to die by the age of 120, he wants people to consider the possibility of maintaining the wellness of our 20s far past our 120s. In other words, he believes we can be as healthy in old age as we are in youth. Yun believes that improving homeostatic capacity is the first key to unlocking that longevity.
Homeostatic capacity is the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is like a control system for the human body and as you age, this control system naturally erodes. It’s like an old engine that gradually loses strength, until one day, it stops working. Some examples of homeostasis are the bodies ability to maintain a steady temperature, the constant regulation of blood glucose, and the kidneys ability to expel excess water as urine. As these processes progressively deteriorate, your body becomes more unregulated, more unstable and more dangerous. It’s like gradually removing workers from the operating room of the nuclear plant until no one is left to run the plant. Eventually there will be a catastrophe. Keeping those workers around is Yun’s goal. Yun says “the statistical mortality rate per year for someone who is 20 years old is 0.001 percent, so if you could maintain the homeostatic capacity of that age throughout your life, your average lifespan will be 1000 years.”
Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and author of The Singularity is Near and How to Create a Mind refers to the goal of increasing homeostatic capacity as Bridge One. “Bridge one, which we are on now, is to use today’s knowledge to slow down disease and aging processes so that we can get to bridge two in good shape,” Kurzweil told me. Bridge Two, he says, is where exponential progress in longevity science will take place. “Bridge two is the emerging ability for us to reprogram the information processes underlying biology, and that will provide far more powerful means to stop and even reverse disease and aging processes.”
Kurzweil says scientists have the opportunity to work on the fundamental structure of the body in the same way that an engineer can develop software. Armed with genetic code, scientists may have the ability to reprogram humans. “We can turn genes off with RNA interference. We can add new genes with new forms of gene therapy. We can reprogram stem cells to rejuvenate organs and even grow new organs,” he said. “Simple organs such as tracheas and wind pipes have been successfully printed out with three-dimensional printers (using biodegradable scaffolding), populated with stem cells, grown out in the lab, and then surgically installed in humans. This has been done with more complex organs in animals such as new lungs in pigs, which are biologically similar to humans in terms of their respiratory system. You can now rejuvenate a damaged heart from a heart attack... with reprogrammed stem cells.”
Aubrey De Grey of the pioneering SENS research foundation, a non profit partially funded by Peter Thiel, shares Kurzweil’s optimism about longevity. “I’ve taken plenty of heat for suggesting that someone is alive on earth now who will live to 1,000 and it’s extraordinary to me that it’s such an incendiary claim. People have a bizarre attitude towards aging. They think that it’s some kind of separate thing that isn’t a medical problem and isn’t open to medical intervention.”
However, many scientists do not agree with de Grey and are quite vocal about it. Dr. Richard Miller, who has a PhD in Human Genetics from Yale has been critical of de Grey’s work for quite sometime. Miller, along with many colleagues published a scathing review of de Grey. In it they say that “the idea that a research programme organized around the SENS agenda will not only retard ageing, but also reverse it—creating young people from old ones—and do so within our lifetime, is so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all within the informed scientific community.” When asked if there have been any breakthroughs from SENS in the last 10 years that might sway him or his colleagues, Miller had this to say. “De Grey does not do any research, so far as I know. He comes to meetings a lot, but I have never seen him present any data or research findings. He does not have a lab; he theorizes.
What de Grey does is not science - it's advertising. Asking if the SENS theories have been "proven" in the last 10 years is like asking if there's new proof for the Nike Theory of Athletic Excellence, "Just Do It."
However, de Grey says he is already doing lab work that targets lifelong accumulating damage. This damage is initially harmless when you’re young but grows until your body succumbs to it. For example, de Grey says that people will get heart disease unless work is done to fix it but there are better ways to beat heart disease than surgery. He believes the idea of surgery altogether is primitive. “The technology that needs to be implemented to defeat heart disease is an enzyme or enzymes that can be introduced into human cells and allow them to clean up the garbage of the arteries themselves.” De Grey says he has already created a proof of concept of this technology at his lab, albeit only in cell culture so far.
Apart from the lab work that needs to go into fulfilling these goals, there is the problem of societal acceptance. “The major obstacle is public popular misunderstanding of the nature of the crusade and the importance of it.” says De Grey.
In this respect, de Grey faces an enormous uphill battle from the scientific community. Dr. Miller tell me, “If you were to poll the authors of the most recent 100 papers on aging in Aging Cell, or Journals of Gerontology, or Cell or Nature or Science, and ask them whether it will, in the next 100 years, be possible to turn old people young again, producing the kind of immortal person depicted in de Grey's writing, I think you'd get nearly 100% consensus that de Grey's claims are not based on evidence, or on reasonable extension of the evidence.”
The other major problem is the same one that arises in any great endeavour, cash. “We could be going three times faster if we had the funding that we needed, and that means that an awful lot of lives are being lost.” says de Grey. “The amount of money that is needed to solve these problems is absolutely trivial. The budget that SENS currently has is around $5m per year and I reckon that we would very realistically be in a position where the money wasn’t limiting if we had only one more zero on that..”
Yun and Kurzweil say that these breakthroughs are happening now and will continue to accelerate for two reasons. The first reason, according to Kurzweil is “because biotechnologies are doubling in capability each year. They are now a thousand times more powerful than they were when the genome project was completed in 2003 and will be another thousand times more powerful in a decade, a million times more powerful in twenty years.”
The second, Yun says, is due to the global explosion of communication technology, computing power, and the Internet. “It didn’t even exist until two decades ago, and it is now liberating scientific information at a heretofore unforeseen pace.”
Although the idea of living well past 120 is simply a foregone conclusion in some circles, in other scientific circles, it’s just a pipe dreams. Labs like SENS and grants like the Palo Alto prize are spearheading the efforts but only time will tell if their work leads to a dramatic evolution in human longevity. Kurzweil, De Grey and Yun believe that the next 10 years will produce achievements which were heretofore believed to be impossible. They all hope that as labs like De Grey’s begin to showcase serious breakthroughs, then more VC capital will flow to these efforts. It only makes sense that VC’s would flock to invest because in a cure for aging because everyone would want it and would quite likely pay virtually anything.