If the sensational but well-researched book La Muerte De La Muerte, authored by two genetic engineers is to be believed, within 27 years, death would be an option and ageing reversible. SHALINI SAKSENA tells you more
The whole history of Science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired
— Stephen Hawking
Many would remember The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a 2008 American fantasy romantic drama film directed by David Fincher. The film stars Brad Pitt as a man who ages in reverse. Is this even possible in real life? Apparently, many things that man thought was impossible are happening.
When the Wright Brothers first flew their airplane in 1901, did they even realise that almost six decades later, man will land on Moon? But man did and achieved much more. How many people realised, back in the 1940s, that it will be possible to send written texts in New York to be received within a few seconds in Tokyo back in the 18th century?
Hence, drinking tea with people from other planets and exchanging ideas, time travel, teleporting sitting in Delhi to New York may sound impossible today. But all this and much more will be possible in the near future, including a cure for cancer and death becoming an option.
Yes, you read that right. By 2045, humanity will have an option to die or not. So asserted two genetic engineers during the presentation of their new book La Muerte De La Muerte (The Death of Death) — in Barcelona.
José Luis Cordeiro, born in Venezuela to Spanish parents, and Cambridge mathematician David Wood, founders of the operating system Symbian, say in their book that death will be optional and it will be possible in the next 27 years — by 2045!
Humans by then will only die in accidents and never of natural causes or illness and that old age should be classified as an ‘illness’ so that a public-funded research can be done to find the cure with Wood saying that he doesn’t consider death an illness.
“I consider death to be a dreadful obstruction on the path to greater human flourishing. Without life, there are no other human rights. The framers of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights were absolutely right to insist (Article 3) that everyone has the right to life. Note that this declaration is universal. It does not say: Only the white people have the right to life. It does not say: Only males have the right to life. It does not say: Only straight people have the right to life and very importantly, it does not say: Only young people have the right to life or say: Only people under the age of 80 have the right to life,” Wood explains who prefers to say that aging should be recognised as the common cause for a large number of illness.
“It’s a bit like bad hygiene. By fixing hygiene and by promoting an understanding of the roles of germs, vaccinations, and antibiotics large numbers of different infectious diseases could be impacted in parallel. In the same way, by fixing aging and by promoting an understanding of the roles of cellular damage and extracellular damage in the development of chronic diseases, we can make a huge impact on the prevalence of these diseases,” Wood tells you.
For those wanting to understand what the authors mean that death will be an option; it means that it will become a free choice of all people whether to keep living in a youthful state (healthy body, healthy mind, and healthy spirit), or to accept decay and death.
This decision will no longer be forced on all of us by the present operation of our biology and nanotechnology will play a key role among other new genetic manipulation techniques that will include stem cell therapies, genetic editing, nanosurgery, 3-D bioprinting, and AI to analyse more wisely the huge sets of biological data that the humanity has been accumulating.
How will this happen? It will involve turning bad genes into healthy ones, eliminating dead cells from the body, repairing damaged cells, treatments with stem cells and printing vital organs in 3-D.
Aging, one is told, is the result of DNA tails, known as telomeres, in chromosomes of which every cell except red blood and sex cells has 23 pairs becoming shorter, and reversing ageing involves lengthening the telomeres that get damaged and shortened with the passage of time, a process that speeds up in the event of toxins entering the body — smoking, alcohol and air pollution are among elements that reduce the length of telomeres and therefore accelerating ageing.
The co-authors believe that there will be a cure for cancer as well. Believe it or not, it was discovered way back in 1951 that cancer cells are immortal. A case in example is Henrietta Lacks — an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalised cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research today.
But Wood is quick to point out that while a cure for cancer will be possible, it won’t be so in the next 10 years. “I’m not sure a cure will be in place in the next 10 years. I believe there’s around a 50 per cent chance comprehensive cures to all chronic diseases (including cancer) will be available by 2040. The timescales are uncertain because that’s the nature of research. We don’t yet know what we don’t know. However, it is worth noting that many wonderful breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer have been made recently, including cancer immunotherapy. More generally, the approach of the anti-aging research community is to turn upside down the traditional approach to researching diseases, namely the ‘disease first’ approach. The anti-aging community champions instead of the ‘aging first’ approach, seeing aging as the primary cause of chronic diseases. By taking this novel approach, we expect many important new insights as to the pathways of diseases,” Wood says and opines that major international corporations like Google will enter the field of medicine because they have begun to realise that finding a cure for aging is a possibility.
Wood, who has also written The Abolition of Aging, tells you that research on methods to undo and even reverse aspects of aging are regularly reported in conferences like Undoing Aging (held in Berlin in March 2018) and RAADfest (to be held in San Diego, California, in September 2018).
“This research is wide-ranging and deserves to be known much more widely. It includes research into stem cell therapies, genetic changes that extend healthy lifespans in animals, natural damage repair mechanisms that can be triggered in new situations, and the rapid re-application of drugs originally developed to address one condition, in broader anti-aging treatments,” Wood says and tells you that their present book is based on the premise that to achieve the abolition of aging and in the process to make death an option, there is a need for positive action from several people.
“Researchers are needed, to continue identifying and developing the most promising anti-aging interventions. People who can provide funds in support of such work are welcome too. There’s a huge role for activists, to counter existing pro-death aspects of culture and philosophy, and to spread the news of the remarkable progress that is at hand,” Wood says.
Interestingly, the co-authors say that immortality will not necessarily mean the planet becomes overcrowded. There is still plenty of room for more people on Earth. The fact that people do not have as many children today as in the past and that it will be possible to live in space in the near future will mean that there will be space for more.
“We can make far better use of the earth as a whole. For example, far too much land in some countries is presently devoted to large areas for cattle which we grow to turn into meat that we eat. Improvements in lab-grown meat (using synthetic biology) can soon lead to a massive reduction in that kind of agriculture. We can also use improved construction methods to build large skyscrapers that are environmentally healthy and beautiful and inspiring to live in. Finally, in the longer term, we can anticipate space stations,” Wood says who with Cordeiro has been working with Elizabeth Parrish, their first human patient, who after seeing symptoms of aging and wanted something to be done to prevent it.
Parrish, of BioViva Science, has taken a couple of potentially revolutionary genetic therapies, including one to lengthen her telomeres (which are like ‘caps’ at the end of chromosomes, and whose shortening during cell division is often thought to be linked to diseases of aging).
Of course, to begin with, the cost of anti-aging will be expensive but in a competitive market, the price will gradually fall because it’ll be something that benefits everyone.
“All of us who care about democracy should take steps to ensure that the costs quickly decline. In other words, the pattern of costs should be the same as with many other technology areas, including computers, smartphones, drones, and 3D printers. Nevertheless, costs of healthcare in some parts of the world have, so far, not always followed the same pattern. This is due to lots of dysfunction in the healthcare market system, for example, in the US. The steps to be sure of fixing these problems are too lengthy to squeeze into a short answer. In my previous book, The Abolition of Aging, I devoted part of a chapter to discussing this topic. But I wasn’t satisfied with the result, so I have subsequently written an entire book on that subject, namely Transcending Politics,” Wood says who compares anti-aging to a smartphone is because of the remarkable progress that took place with smartphones, in which devices steadily became more powerful, more widespread, and more affordable.
There is a reason why Wood has compared anti-aging to the latest smartphone. “From my career in the mobile computing and smartphone industry (1988-2013) I saw these changes at first hand. I saw the large effort that was involved to bring about these advances, the cooperation of numerous researchers and corporations. I believe it will be the same with anti-aging: profound cooperation will result in progress that is, at first, relatively slow, before becoming astonishingly fast. And then anti-aging treatments will be more powerful, more widespread, and more affordable,” Wood tells you and says that there is a lot of research happening to find a cure for several deadly diseases and that aging can be cured.
According to him, a lot of evidence has been collected that shows that aging is plastic. Changes in genetics can have surprising changes in lengths of lifespans.
What’s more, there’s evidence that some animals don’t actually age — that is, with passing years, their mortality (their likelihood to die in the next 12 months) doesn’t increase. This includes some birds, such as the albatross, and the naked mole rat. Finally, just because something has been ‘part and parcel of human life’ does not mean we should accept it! Think of slavery, discrimination on account of gender, race, or caste, and numerous diseases like smallpox which, thankfully, are now consigned to history.
However, there is no one genetic mutation that will be needed to reverse aging. There is no single ‘magic bullet’ therapy for anti-aging.
“Aging is complex and is likely to require a number of interventions. Research into the genetics of healthy centenarians undertaken by Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, USA, deserves more attention,” Wood opines and believes that death should be an option for several reasons.
First, just because something has been the norm in the past, does not mean we should accept it and applaud it. The average life expectancy in the past was around 30 years of life. Huge numbers of children died before the age of five. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do better!
Second, in the past, the world was full of slavery and caste discrimination. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do better.
Third, in the past, smallpox was present all over the world, killing huge numbers of people. Some may say that is natural. But humans can do better.
“In the past, more than 90 per cent of the population lived in abject poverty and was illiterate. Some may say that is natural. Even the Bible has a verse in which Jesus of Nazareth says: ‘The poor you will always have with you’. I say: Humans can do better! With the advances in science, people will soon be able to choose: Do they want to keep living? Or do they prefer to die? If some people prefer to choose death, that will be their right. But if these people want to impose their viewpoints on the entire population on the planet, insisting that everyone should die, I will fight them vigorously,” Wood says vehemently and gives an example.
If people look at someone struggling with a disability and refuse to help them, saying: ‘I believe in karma. This person must have committed a bad crime in a previous life. Who am I to intervene’, we nowadays consider such an attitude to be despicable. “Yet we still far too often tolerate doing nothing to help people struggling with the onset of aging and death. I see that failure as equally despicable.
Any philosophy that justifies non-intervention is wicked,”Wood says.
Writer: Shalini Saksena
Courtesy: The Pioneer