Earlier this year the scientific community got mildly excited by the news that a species had been discovered which could effectively ‘live forever’.
Their cries of joy would probably have been louder had the animal in question not been a rather unappealing parasitic flatworm, but nevertheless the point was made: here was a creature which might just hold the secret to eternal life.
Scientists discovered that you could slice this particular breed of invertebrate into 20 pieces and watch in awe as each bit slowly regenerated a new head and tail and started doing its own thing. Furthermore, they said, this highly adaptable creature showed none of the traditional signs of ageing.
For those of a certain, dreamy, disposition, this was manna from heaven: if humans could do the same, they might ask, could we one day chop off a finger and just wait for a fresh body to start sprouting from the end? A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that this simple slimy creature might hold the genetic code that could lead to biochemistry’s holy grail.
When modern technology can theoretically keep your shiny new car running for hundreds of years, is it so far-fetched to apply the same reasoning to the human body? With the right tools and a few leaps in knowledge, isn’t eternal life, sooner or later, simply inevitable?
One man believes it is literally just around the corner.
The trick, in the short term, is to stay alive long enough for medicine to make a milestone breakthrough that will add a few decades to your life. Dr Aubrey de Grey, a renowned Cambridge scientist, reckons that there is a 50/50 chance of an age-boosting leap in scientific thinking due within the next 20-25 years.
Once the resultant death-delaying treatment is on offer and assuming we don’t die in an accident, we should all then still be alive when further, incremental, anti-ageing treatments are developed.
It’s a fairly simple concept and one that continues to grab headlines as small successes and discoveries – like the flatworm – are chalked up. We’ve only to look at how fast computers have developed over the past 30 years to appreciate how giant leaps in science are possible in short amounts of time.
De Grey himself likens modern medical science to aviation in the early 1900s, when man went from flying a short distance in a rickety home-made plane to crossing the Atlantic in a matter of decades.
“I believe that the first person to live to 1,000 years old is already alive today,” is de Grey’s much-heard mantra, and while it might sound ludicrous, it doesn’t if you accept that by adding 30 years to your life because of treatments that are developed soon, you’ll then be around to benefit from any future leaps in technology. With a good wind behind you, you could theoretically live forever.
“We’ll be able to fix the things that 200-year-olds die of before we have any 200-year-olds,” de Grey says. “And the same for three- and 400-year-olds and so on.”
Could it be peddling snake oil?
There are, of course, those who think that the bushy-bearded de Grey, who is the Chief Science Officer of a biotech non-profit organisation called The SENS Foundation, is a crackpot.
At a debate organised by Oxford University’s Science Society in April, Professor Colin Blakemore, an acclaimed neurobiologist, said that de Grey was peddling “snake oil”. “His mission is unrealistic,” he added, pointing out that there was an “important dividing line between confidence and delusion.”
Blakemore represents, in many ways, the side of the pragmatist: he thinks that de Grey’s fanciful ideas are good for grabbing headlines but not much else, and points out that a single – medically straightforward – disease such as Huntington’s Disease continues to fox the experts.
“These modern searches for The Philosopher’s Stone are hardly more successful than the multitude of efforts in the past,” he says, reminding us that 2,000 years ago the Chinese were eating jade and drinking gold in an attempt to live longer. He also makes the argument that the planet wouldn’t sustain the huge increase in population that would be an inevitable consequence of tumbling death rates.
De Grey, of course, has thought all this through. “Maybe we will have massive environmental problems, but we know nothing of what the birth rate is going to be 100 years from now,” he counters. “We know nothing about the technologies that may reduce our carbon footprint and increase the capacity of the planet.”
He also argues that to abandon anti-ageing research now runs the risk of future generations looking back on us with horror. “I do not want to be blamed by our descendents,” he says. “We have a clear and present moral obligation to develop these principles.”
These principles – defeating the ageing process, in other words – are centred around making a series of seven breakthroughs which help beat molecular and cellular damage within the body. And right at the heart of Dr Grey’s team’s research is what is known as regenerative medicine: the ability to make old cells, tissue and organs like new again.
As much as this sounds like science fiction, advances in medical science have already been adding almost seven hours to our life expectancy every day since 1840. Indeed, an article in medical journal The Lancet in 2009 noted that: “If the pace of increase in life expectancy in developed countries over the past two centuries continues through the 21st century, most babies born since 2000 will celebrate their 100th birthdays.”
For proof of shifting life expectancy rates, look no further than the daily duties of The Queen of England, who sends out a telegram to any of her subjects who make it to their 100th birthday. In 1952, there were less than 300 to dispatch. In this, her Diamond Jubilee year, there will be more than 4,000.
Progress will be at an exponential rate
There are even those amongst us who believe that conventional medicine may have little part to play in the eradication of deadly diseases, people like futurologist Ray Kurzweil who says that in around 20 years we will be able to have nanobots, bloodcell-sized devices, injected into our bodies to keep us healthy from the inside.
He argues that medicine has now become an information technology, and that as a result, progress within the industry will happen at an exponential rate. “Keep in mind that these technologies will be one billion times more capable in 25 years than they are now,” he says. “We will be able to destroy disease at the level of one cell before it even starts threatening your life.”
In tandem with Dr de Grey’s work and that of innumerable other degenerative disease specialists around the world, huge strides are being made in other fields, all of which will affect our lifespan.
Take general wear and tear, for example – haggard hips and worn-out legs? No problem – just grow new ones in the lab. “Some animals can regenerate body parts naturally,” says de Grey, “like salamanders. Over the past 10 years there have been leaps and bounds made in our understanding of the genetic and molecular basis for how that happens. We’re getting pretty close to being able to gain the regenerative capacity that some animals have and indeed, be able to re-grow limbs.”
With disease conquered and ailing parts regrown, the greatest threat to your life will be accidents – but the chances of having one will be diminished thanks to everything from crash-avoidance systems inbuilt into cars, to flexible, super-thin ‘armour’ being sprayed onto clothes (a British company called d3o might hold the key to that). Furthermore, just because you are old, there’ll be no need to look it, as cosmetic surgery will become more affordable, more commonplace and – crucially – more convincing.
“No one will ask you whether you’ve had aesthetic surgery, they will ask you why you didn’t,” predicts professor Sander Gilman, an American cultural and literary historian and expert on plastic surgery. He says that people will say: ‘Why didn’t you take advantage?” And “Why are you walking around bald?”
The question then, surely, is how do you stay alive long enough to benefit from this march of scientific progress that will enable you to live forever?
“If you’re pretty average in terms of health,” says Dr de Grey, “and will get to the age of 70 without any trouble, then there’s nothing much you can do to appreciably extend your life much further yet. But pay attention to your own body. Wear a seatbelt. If you’re like me, don’t accept seminar invitations to dangerous countries.”
He’s right, of course: with a prize so great, you’ll be kicking yourself – in the afterlife – if your own recklessness sees you die the day before the medical treatments hit the market.
Or maybe you won’t. Mary Midgely, a nonagenarian philosopher told New Scientist magazine in June: “There are too many people already, and even at the pace our lifespan has been increasing, we are beginning to run into trouble.” She points out how people have expressed indignation at their retirement age being pushed back, and further worries that immortalism might only be for the privileged, further adding to the world’s inequality.
Perhaps she’s right. Would eternal life really be all it’s cracked up to be – or should we play the game to mother nature’s rule book and quietly slip off when we’re supposed to? When a woman in her 90s is telling us that when it’s time to go, it’s time to go, maybe she’s onto something.