Originally published on 1 February 2018.
If you could choose to live forever, would you?
It would be a big decision. I mean, forever is a long time.
So how about if you had the option to just double your life. What if you could choose to live to 200, would you take it then?
It may sound like fantasy, but by the time you finish reading today’s piece, you’ll see that fantasy may be a lot closer to reality than it first appears.
You’ll also see that there is a lot of money flowing into this space, from some very heavy hitters.
$1 million if you can slow down ageing
Around two weeks ago Gizmodo reported:
Silicon Valley Is Ready to Spend Millions More on Its Anti-Ageing Obsession
This month, the famed Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator put out a call for companies working to “help people live healthier for longer.” If you’re a scientist or entrepreneur who wants to increase human longevity and “healthspan,” Y Combinator will give you up to $1 million (£719,000) to do it.
“Think of this as treating diseases that get worse with age,” Y Combinator president Sam Altman told Gizmodo. “I think this helps people a lot, obviously, and will lead to very valuable companies.”
Articles like the above pop up all the time. They are interesting, but rarely do they provide details about how these anti-ageing treatments will work.
So today we’re going to look at the three most likely routes to immortality. Or at least, back to youth.
There may be more to vampire mythology than meets the eye
Although they may seem modern, vampire tales have been around for thousands of years.
Vampires had a resurgence in the 1800s, with books like The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Then another one just a few years ago – Twilight, Blade, True Blood, etc.
But vampires are nothing new. Stories about them have pretty much always been around.
To quote Wikipedia:
Legends of vampires have existed for millennia; cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demonic entities and blood-drinking spirits which are considered precursors to modern vampires.
That’s great. But what does it have to do with ageing?
Everything, it turns out. There may be more truth to the vampire legends than we previously thought.
“Whatever is in young blood is causing changes that appear to make the ageing process reverse”
In May last year New Scientist reported the findings of a study giving young people’s blood to the ill and elderly.
Older people who received transfusions of young blood plasma have shown improvements in biomarkers related to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, New Scientist has learned.
“I don’t want to say the word panacea, but here’s something about teenagers,” Jesse Karmazin, founder of startup Ambrosia, told New Scientist. “Whatever is in young blood is causing changes that appear to make the ageing process reverse.”
Instead of halting the ageing process, Karmazin says he thinks plasma transfusions actually reverse it. But if this is true, the effects don’t last forever. “Some people have felt great since they had the treatment 9 months ago,” he says. “Others have felt the effects wore off after a few months.”
This study supports previous ones done into transfusions of “young bloods”. In 2016, Alkahest discovered that blood plasma from young people could rejuvenate old mice. It improved their memory, cognition, and physical activity.
And there have been numerous others supporting the young blood theory. As time goes on, we can expect more and more treatments to come out that treat old age with young blood.
It seems there really is something to the vampire folklore. As weird as it sounds, human blood may prove to be a true fountain of youth.
But if you don’t fancy going full vampire, there is still hope. In the last few years scientists think they may have identified the actual process that makes us age.
The key to long life is long telomeres
The Telomere Effect is a 2017 book, co-authored by Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn. She won her Nobel Prize in 2009 for her discovery of telomeres and their role in the ageing process.
Here’s the blurb from the back, which sums up the ideas pretty well:
The Telomere Effect reveals the ground-breaking science at the heart of ageing – and what you can do to help reverse it.
While many factors contribute to ageing and illness, Elizabeth and Elissa’s award-winning research has revealed that the length of our telomeres – the part of our chromosomes which determine how fast our cells age and die – can have a direct effect on how quickly or slowly we age.
There’s a good explanation of the role telomeres play in ageing on the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center website:
Inside the nucleus of a cell, our genes are arranged along twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer.
Telomeres have been compared with the plastic tips on shoelaces, because they keep chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would destroy or scramble an organism’s genetic information.
Yet, each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or “senescent” or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death. So telomeres also have been compared with a bomb fuse.
In her book, Blackburn argues that we can alter the rate our telomeres shorten with lifestyle changes, such as more exercise and eating better. You know, the usual.
But if all that sounds too difficult, I have good news. There are now companies offering gene therapy treatments that (allegedly) lengthen your telomeres.
A Seattle-based company called BioViva hit headlines in 2016 when its CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, underwent its experimental treatment to lengthen her telomeres.
That’s true belief in your own product, right there.
According to BioViva, its gene therapy – performed in Colombia because it would be illegal in the US – lengthened Parrish’s telomeres by 9%.
As covered in The Guardian:
BioViva claims that six months after treatment the telomeres in Parrish’s white blood cells had lengthened by 9%.
It was an announcement met by a mixture of derision and incredulity by many scientists, who cited the lack of proper scientific procedure. “We used third-party testing for everything,” asserts Parrish. “We used a standard telomere testing system that doctors sell and patients can buy over the internet. By that test, it said my telomeres in my [white blood cells] extended by the equivalent of 20 years.”
I guess time will tell if she was very smart of very foolish.
The thing with vampire treatments and gene therapy though is, you wouldn’t really be immortal. Even if your body was young again, you could still be killed in an accident.
The only real way to survive death is to transcend your body altogether. And Elon Musk is just the man to help.
For the ultimate in immortality, upload your brain
This is a sci-fi staple. It’s in my old favourite, The 6th Day, it’s in The Matrix, and it’s in a number of other books and films too that I won’t list for spoilers.
The idea of uploading your brain to a computer isn’t all that new. But if you want true immortality, it’s the only way to go.
If we could download and upload our consciousness at will, we could, in theory, live forever.
Just as in The 6th Day, we could have clones grown and waiting in stasis for when we decide to upload our brains to them.
Many “transhumanists” believe we will eventually leave our bodies behind altogether and simply upload our consciousness to the web.
It sounds like it may be a long way off, or even plain ridiculous. But there are some very smart and very rich people working on that idea right now.
Elon Musk is currently developing his Neuralink. This is a brain-computer interface, which Musk hopes will help us merge our brains with artificial intelligence (AI).
He believes that: “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”
The idea that all sufficiently advanced life ends up transcending biology is also a good solution to the Femri paradox.
The next question would be, if you upload your consciousness to a network and leave your body behind, are you still human?
And it leads us on to the bigger question of what makes us human in the first place. I think that’s a bit too big in scope for today’s issue, so we’ll just leave it there.
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Editor, Exponential Investor
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology