Let’s try a thought experiment.
If given the opportunity, would you like to add an extra 50 or 100 healthy years to your life?
I don’t mean living like an 80-year-old for an extra 50 years. I mean living with the body and brain of a 20-something.
I would imagine most people would go for it. I certainly would.
But what if those extra years came at a cost.
What if that miracle life-extending treatment was so expensive that in order to afford it you had to take out a special type of loan. A “life loan”.
The conditions would be that you could get the miracle treatment and live for another 50 years. But that you had to give a cut of everything you earned in the future to the loan’s provider.
That loan provider would essentially own your life.
The reason I ask is because I saw a comment recently that painted a similar picture.
The comment was on a story about an anti-ageing breakthrough from a few weeks ago.
The breakthrough is a significant one, so I’ll outline it here.
Nobel Prize-winning technology unlocks anti-aging enzyme
Last October, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to the pioneers of a new microscopy technique.
As Nature reported:
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded for work that helps researchers see what biomolecules look like.
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded the prize on 4 October for their work in developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique that fires beams of electrons at proteins that have been frozen in solution, to deduce the biomolecules’ structure.
For decades, biologists have used X-ray crystallography — blasting X-rays at crystallized proteins — to image biomolecular structures. But labs are now racing to adopt the cryo-EM method, because it can take pictures of proteins that can’t easily be formed into large crystals. The tool has “moved biochemistry into a new era”, says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize.
This new technique hasn’t been given as much press coverage, but it is actually a very big deal.
As Nature says, it has “moved biochemistry into a new era”.
And it was by using this new technique that scientists have managed to map the structure of telomerase. This is a key component in ageing and cancer.
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.
So, where does telomerase come into this?
From the breakthrough study’s abstract (published in Nature):
The enzyme telomerase adds telomeric repeats to chromosome ends to balance the loss of telomeres during genome replication. Telomerase regulation has been implicated in cancer, other human diseases, and ageing, but progress towards clinical manipulation of telomerase has been hampered by the lack of structural data. Here we present the cryo-electron microscopy structure of the substrate-bound human telomerase holoenzyme at subnanometre resolution, […]
Now that the structure of telomerase has been discovered we can use the magic of machine leaning – which I wrote about on Friday – to research and develop it.
This is a very real breakthrough in the science of anti-ageing and cancer. The current theory goes that if you inhibit telomerase, you can treat cancer, and if you activate it, you could reverse ageing.
Would you take out a loan against your life?
So now, back to the original question from that online discussion. The commenter’s logic went as follows:
If this, and other research like it, can one day be used to reverse ageing – I think that is an inevitability, given an infinite span of time – then this treatment would be extremely expensive. At least at first.
That would mean only the super-rich could afford it. The super-rich, or big corporations.
After all, it would be a great business model. Pay to extend someone’s life then have them spend a big proportion of that “new” life paying you back – with interest.
We could end up with a whole new business sector springing up overnight. Companies in the business of life loans.
Of course, these companies’ marketing departments would put a positive spin on the “service” they were providing. But they would essentially be in the business of slavery.
Would you go in for a life-extending loan? Would you gladly become a true “wage slave” to extend your life? I bet many would.
Why invest in property or the stockmarket when you can invest directly in yourself?
Why take out a 30-year mortgage when you can take out a 30-year life loan? Which would provide you the opportunity to make more money in the long-run? Which would provide you with more happiness in the end?
For the entire course of human history we have regarded time as the only resource that we can never replenish. So what happens when we can?
All of this may sound farfetched right now. But with the advances happening in ageing research, I really don’t believe it’s a matter of if we can extend our lives, but when.
Once the tech giants turn their giant AI brains towards medicine, the breakthroughs could come thick and fast.
And let’s not forget, it’s not just telomere discoveries that are pushing the boundaries of anti-ageing. There are a number of different avenues being explored, from “young blood” to 3D printing new bodies, to uploading your consciousness (I’ve written about those here).
The science of anti-ageing is only just getting started. I think in the near future these “life loans” could be a real possibility.
Do you agree, would you take one, or is this all too fanciful for you? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology