The Quest for Immortality and the War on Death


LENNY ABRAMOV, A CHARACTER from novelist Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, declares in his diary that he is never going to die. Why? Because he thinks the technology for it is almost here. ‘As the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services division of the Saatling-Wapachung Corporation, I will be the first to partake of it,’ he enters in his diary, hoping that when this planet expires, he will leave for a new Earth.

The new Earth of Abramov is similar to the Elysium of Greek mythology and the heavens mentioned in various epics, including those that celebrate ancient Hindu beliefs. Across ancient civilisations, the quest for immortality and longevity with perfect health finds repeat mentions because mankind, a privileged section of it at least, always craved to live forever. For millennia, the human race has dreamt, worked hard and even fought wars for the mythical elixir that offered it immortality and eternal youth. The Rig Veda, an ancient Indian text of wisdom, talks about amrita consumed in copious quantities by divine beings to stay young. Texts of other civilisations around the world, too, talk about similar drinks, fruits, herbs and medicines to fight ageing and stay virile and healthy—and become immortal. Ambrosia obtained from the horn of Amalthea, a magical goat and foster-mother of Zeus, exquisite Peento peaches of China grown in a specific orchard of an emperor, the fabled golden apples of Greece, and Ninhursag’s milk in Sumeria are just some of them. From Indian gods and Chinese emperors like Qin Shi Huang to the Sumerians, Greeks and the Pharaohs of Egypt, and from the Aztecs and Incas to the Mayans, the idea of immortality had been an obsessive chase to defy nature and refuse to die.

Oriental religions have gone beyond the usual trappings of the idea to attain and embrace the concept of moksha, the ultimate spiritual state of having broken free from the cycle of life and death. But then, immortality and eternal youth belong to the material world; indeed, they even have a ring of hedonism to them.

While biblical references to longevity are aplenty, ancient Indian scriptures talk of men who have loaned youth to near and dear ones; there are also mythical characters across the ancient world who have prayed to the gods to be blessed with an eternal life of beauty and vigour. Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, is said to have lived for 969 years, a mark of great longevity and good health. Puru the king had lent his father Yayati youth after saint Sukra cursed the father with old age and impotence. After centuries of youthful indulgences, Yayati, by now satiated, returned his youth to Puru, his youngest son, and made him his successor, as the legend goes. Puru was destined to become the founder of Kuruvamsham, the dynasty of the Kauravas and Pandavas of the Mahabharata.

THE DESIRE FOR immortality has endured through the ages, and now, the likes of British- origin biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey want to contribute to the elimination of age-related diseases and help people stay healthy as they grow old. This 55-year-old chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation and vice-president of New Technology Discovery at AgeX Therapeutics Inc tells Open that the organisations he works for have already made breakthroughs in technology that can fight ageing and related handicaps.

Says he: “They are not yet in the clinic, but they are only a few years away. The removal and degradation of oxidised cholesterol, which is the main driver of atherosclerosis, is a concept that we have worked on since 2005, and we succeeded in proving the concept in 2012; at this point it is being pursued by a startup company and I think it will be in clinical trials in 2020. The best neurological example is Parkinson’s disease, which is best treated with stem cell therapy, and that’s in clinical trials already.”

Grey, whose appearance—with his long beard and Jesus-like looks—had earned him the tag ‘prophet of immortality’, hates being called so. He contends that the efforts of his and his team engaged in research on regenerative medicine are focused less on immortality and more on waging a war on diseases that lead to body decay and ageing.

He had said in an earlier interview to me that he saw no difference between age-related disorders and malaria or leprosy because, according to him, they are all “diseases” that must be obliterated. Grey has often talked about a “maintenance approach” to extend healthy life by constantly curing the ailments of old age.

Scientists working to combat ageing have often been viewed with suspicion, as though they were some alchemists in pursuit of Lapis Philosophorum, or the Philosopher’s Stone, which, it was believed, could turn any metal into gold. Lately, there has been a change in mindset within the scientific community. Argues Grey, “The best summary I can give is that the breakthroughs that we (and others) have made have now led to the emergence of an actual industry— that is, a rapidly-growing collection of startup companies that are attracting major investment for the work needed to translate this research into clinical interventions.”

He adds, “All medicine is technology, not science, because technology is using what we know to manipulate nature, whereas science is about finding out things that we don’t yet know. The problem in ageing is that it has only recently become possible to design medicines for it, so most of the senior people who know a lot about ageing have been trained as scientists rather than as technologists.”

Regenerative medicine holds a lot of promise in enhancing longevity and helping people stay healthy as long as they are alive. There are those who philosophise such efforts as the first step towards immortality, even as numerous services emerge to help predict gene- linked diseases and offer ways to avert them. For instance, direct-to-consumer genetic testing and genotyping that read your genome help you prepare for likely ailments. Some years ago, Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie set the trend by going for double mastectomy after discovering that she, like her late mother, had faulty gene (BRCA1) that made her highly vulnerable to breast and ovarian cancers.

The emergence of precautionary medicine has stirred up business opportunities as well, even as research funding spikes, thanks to man’s quest for an eternal life. Besides targeting future ailments, old diets and ancient habits are being repackaged for people living the fast life and extensive research bids are being made to isolate genes that give some people a long life. Venture capitalists and the affluent are hopping on to help with new initiatives. Recently, a study on bats by Emma Teeling, ‘Growing old yet staying young: The role of telomeres in bats’ exceptional longevity’, indicated that bats may hold the secret to longevity. According to Interesting Engineering, telomeres are like the plastic tips of shoelaces—they are caps that protect our chromosomes.

We live in an age of stem-cell injections and plans to link the human brain with computer networks. The latter is also on the agenda of the American technology entrepreneur Elon Musk. Through his company Neuralink, he wants to find a way to make people superhuman (or at least those who can pay for it). Which also means, alongside efforts to enhance human life-span, there are endeavours to delink a person’s biological self from his or her ‘soul’ by hooking the individual up with computers equipped with Artificial Intelligence. Pacemakers and such body implants are clearly passé.

Man’s desire to defy nature has been endless, to put it mildly. Right from the Epic of Gilgamesh, said to be the oldest surviving work of literature, which talks about man’s search for immortality, through the Mahabharata and Chinese expeditions ordered by kings to find secrets to live forever, the need to achieve the impossible-so-far shows no signs of dissipation. The uber-rich remain ever keen on whatever modern medicine and technology have to offer. What’s on the menu ranges from new vitamin supplements and pills to cloning and AI. Over the past centuries, anti-ageing techniques based on observational studies had shown only partial success, with people choosing health foods and healthy habits taken from the diets and lifestyles of people in parts of the world with greater longevity. The book Ikigai talks about Japanese ways to live a long and healthy life, especially with inputs from Okinawa, where people seem to live beyond 110 years with ease (and often up to 120). Disappointingly for technocrats, the book proposes these supercentenarians’ lack of consumerism, their natural diets, and their innate sense of purpose and social interconnectedness as the key reasons for their long lives. The book also quotes Dan Buettner and other such high longevity areas from his work, The Blue Zones. Apart from Okinawa, these zones include Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece.

A sort of major breakthrough in anti-ageing studies came about only as late as 2004, reportedly, when Dr David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School ‘discovered a compound that activates an anti-ageing gene in the human body’. Resveratrol, now available in tablets, is high in antioxidant properties. Various path-breaking studies continue to follow, thanks to heavily funded research initiatives. Before him, someone who nearly made a mark in this field was Daniel Rudman, who researched human growth hormones.

THE QUESTION IS: can countries like India, where more people die of starvation than overeating (grand narratives from its ancient past notwithstanding), afford to fund such programmes and keep up with these watershed changes?

Robert A Freitas Jr, a renowned nanotechnology scientist, tells me that current statistics may not hold true in an age of powerful life-extending medical nanorobotic technologies. “Statistical studies show that the birthrate is inversely proportional to wealth. If nanofactory technology extends worldwide, creating widespread material wealth, then birthrates will probably drop to replacement levels and the global population will stabilise. Of course, in the era of mature nanorobotics and nanomedicine, where the only significant causes of death are accidents, suicides, homicides, capital punishment and war, the calculated average healthy human lifespan in the absence of medically preventable deaths is about 1,200 years,” he notes, emphasising that “if lifespans were more than ten times longer than they are today, then maintaining a replacement level of fertility would require a birthrate less than one-tenth of today’s rates in developed countries. Children would therefore become rarer, but would also correspondingly become more treasured and more lavished with material and educational resources, eventually creating a stronger and better-informed adult global citizenry than we have today.”

Freitas and Grey, among others, feel that countries like India and China will have a lot more to contribute to the world once its people are healthier. Of course, public health schemes are in disarray in the two countries. Grey feels that once path-breaking, life-enhancing technologies are developed, Indians will be unequivocally part of the industrialised world. Scientists say that countries like India and China should therefore take advantage of their current second- world status—and associated regulatory flexibility in terms of medical research— to accelerate the development of regenerative healthcare.

Freitas, author of a series of eponymously titled books on Nanomedicine, meanwhile, predicts that by the late 2020s and early 2030s, the earliest molecular machine systems and nanorobots may join the medical armamentarium, finally giving physicians the most potent tools imaginable to conquer human disease, ill health, and ageing. According to him, “Medical nanorobots can provide targeted treatments to individual organs, tissues, cells and even intracellular components, and can intervene in biological processes at the molecular level under direct supervision of the physician.” He adds, “Programmable micron-scale robotic devices will make possible comprehensive cures for human disease, the reversal of physical trauma, and individual cell repair. This leads to the complete control of human ageing via nanomedically engineered negligible senescence (NENS), coupled with nanorobot-mediated rejuvenation that should extend the human healthspan at least tenfold beyond its current maximum length. The nanomedical solution is the final step in the roadmap to the control of human ageing.”

As of now, mankind’s mission to end death, or as John Donne wrote, ‘Death, thou shalt die’, is in full swing thanks to wealthy patrons in the rich world. But as always, these projects continue to yield only partial results, notwithstanding the great hope that Lenny Abramov expresses in his diary.

First published in Open magazine

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