[Paleopsych] New Scientist: Welcome to the immortals' club

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Welcome to the immortals' club
      * 09 April 2005
      * Greg Klerkx

    MY BRUSH with immortality began almost by accident. Late last year,
    rumours began to drift through my email inbox that some of the
    entrepreneurs who had backed the Ansari X prize - which I had been
    writing about for years - were working on a new project. They were
    helping to develop and fund an institute to solve the "problem" of
    death, called the Institute of Biomedical Gerontology.

    At first I didn't really give it much thought. True, I have recently
    turned 40, but generally I feel young and fit enough not to care too
    much about my mortality. And in any case, the fanciful idea you can
    actually extend a life by more than a few years is surely best
    confined to science fiction. It must be bunkum.

    But then, a few months later, another email arrived. A friend wrote to
    tell me about a new book by futurologist Ray Kurzweil, a man I had
    long admired. Back in the 1980s, Kurzweil predicted that the internet,
    then an obscure government communications network, would rise to
    global dominance. He went on to invent the flatbed scanner, among many
    other things, and win the US National Medal of Technology. Impressive
    credentials indeed. But now it looked as if he had gone too far. In
    his new book, he was predicting that the next big thing would be
    nothing less than eternal life. And that's not all: he had a recipe to
    achieve it.

    I couldn't help but be struck by the coincidence, and it wasn't a
    happy one. OK, recent years have been peppered with discoveries that
    have slowly begun to illuminate the mechanisms of ageing, but I know
    that most biologists would laugh at the idea of immortality. "It's not
    science, it's hype," says S. Jay Olshansky, a bio-demographer at the
    School of Public Health of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
    Given current trends, the US Census Bureau estimates that life
    expectancy will on average grow by about six years by 2050. Not to be
    sniffed at, but not exactly forever.

    Even so, I couldn't help being intrigued. Kurzweil and the X prize
    guys together... And so I started to dig. And the more I dug, the more
    interesting it got.

    Kurzweil and the X prizers, it turns out, are not alone. In fact, they
    are part of a movement whose ranks, hitherto populated with fringe
    groups such as the Betterhumans and the Extropians, are swelling with
    mainstream researchers prepared to risk their reputations by claiming
    they could conquer death.

    To date, gerontology has largely been a cautious and conservative
    field dedicated to understanding the biology of ageing. The new
    immortalist movement takes a wholly different perspective. Kurzweil
    and others, such as Marvin Minsky, professor of artificial
    intelligence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of
    the MIT Media Lab, Aubrey de Grey, a self-taught biologist, who works
    as a computer technician in the genetics department at the University
    of Cambridge, and Gregory Stock, director of the programme on
    medicine, technology and society at the University of California, Los
    Angeles, and author of Redesigning Humans: Our inevitable genetic
    future, think of ageing not as an immutable fact of life, but as an
    engineering problem that can be solved.

    And they don't just sit around talking about it. The immortalists are
    organising conferences to spread their ideas. They are attracting
    media coverage, convincing established scientists to endorse their
    claims, and courting rich businesspeople to fund their research. That
    doesn't make them right, of course, but it did make me question my
    scepticism. Could they be onto something? Is it possible to live

    So I rang Kurzweil to find out. And it's true: the 56-year-old is
    staking his reputation on the imminence of immortality, or at least a
    decent approximation of it. I asked him how long he expected to live -
    150 years? 200 years? A thousand years? "Let's just say I'm not
    planning on dying," he says.

    Kurzweil's confidence is based largely on the fact that biotechnology
    has at last yielded to the kind of exponential progress that created
    the information technology revolution. For example, the cost of DNA
    sequencing is halving roughly every year. "It took 15 years to
    sequence HIV," says Kurzweil. "We sequenced SARS in 31 days," Other
    areas of biotechnology are racing ahead at a similar pace, he says.

    Kurzweil believes that if you take today's knowledge and grow it
    exponentially, radical life extension becomes not just possible but
    inevitable. The basic idea is to use whatever is available right now
    to prolong your life, confident that by the time you've exhausted that
    avenue, technology will have moved on and you can do it again with the
    latest new developments in life extension. He calls this strategy "a
    bridge to a bridge". I see it more like ascending an endless property
    ladder without ever having to accept the granny flat.

    Kurzweil and co-author Terry Grossman, a nutritionist and alternative
    medicine specialist, have even mapped out the first three bridges to
    eternal life. Number one is to use knowledge available today to keep
    you in tip-top condition. Kurzweil proudly announces that he takes 250
    different dietary supplements a day, including alpha lipoic acid,
    grapeseed extract, N-acetylcysteine and milk thistle, which are all
    supposed to boost physical health in a variety of ways, and ginkgo
    biloba, acetyl-L-carnitine and vinpocetine to increase "brain health".
    He also has weekly intravenous infusions of phosphatidylcholine 4,
    which he says "rejuvenates all of the body's tissues by restoring
    youthful cell membranes". And he avoids all vices, even coffee.
    Adherence to this rigorous regime keep his body and mind as healthy as
    that of a 40-year-old, says Kurzweil, an age he anticipates will be
    his eternal state as he leaps from one bridge to the next.

    Bridge two involves the realisation of medical techniques already
    under development, such as genetic tests to detect whether you are
    more likely to develop cancer, determine its propensity to spread and
    which therapies it is most likely to respond to.

    Bridge three advances are more far-fetched. Kurzweil imagines a
    personalised army of nanoscale robots that would replace his digestive
    system, extracting the optimum amount of nutrition from the food he
    eats and delivering it directly to every organ and tissue in his body.

    He points to recent advances in nanotechnology, such as the
    3-millimetre-long swimming robot developed by a group headed by Tao
    Mei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing. Mei hopes it will
    soon be shrunk further and could ultimately be used for drug delivery
    or artery-clearing. "We're 20 years away from the golden era of
    nanotechnology," says Kurzweil, adding "I didn't just start making
    predictions yesterday."

    Another man with a plan, not to mention a less-than-catchy
    catchphrase, is Aubrey de Grey. His strategy to "solve" death is
    called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence(SENS). De Grey
    has become the controversial poster child for the new engineers of
    life extension, while his lanky frame and dramatic, chest-length beard
    have earned him less-than-flattering comparisons to Rasputin. In
    person, he is an engaging fast talker who enjoys nothing better than a
    good chat about the meaning of life extension. And despite his image,
    he had no problem attracting some of the world's luminaries in
    reproductive biology, cloning and stem cell research to his inaugural
    anti-ageing conference at the University of Cambridge in September
    2003. The second is scheduled for September this year, again in
    Cambridge, and the line-up of speakers is similarly impressive.

Maverick plan

    De Grey knows he is outside the mainstream but insists he is on the
    right track. "Most of my colleagues in gerontology do appreciate that
    ageing in general is not a good idea, but they're completely convinced
    that nothing can be done about it in the near term," he says. "They're
    wrong. If I make it to 110, I reckon I'll have at least a 50:50 chance
    of making it to 1000 and quite possibly much more."

    De Grey trained as a computer programmer but became interested in the
    science of ageing after meeting his wife, Adelaide, a research
    biologist. De Grey launched himself on a binge of self-teaching,
    devouring the literature on senescence and ageing. He says he was
    driven less by a desire for personal immortality than by sheer
    intellectual curiosity. "Defeating ageing is probably the greatest
    challenge in biology, and I've always been drawn to the biggest
    challenges," he says. His studies led him to formulate SENS, which
    boils down to halting or reversing the damage that leads to ageing. De
    Grey says these fall into seven rather technical categories, all of
    which will be conquered in mice inside 10 years, he predicts.

    His critics point out that he has never conducted an iota of
    laboratory research and that his work - SENS in particular - is
    entirely theoretical. "There's only so much you can know without
    getting into the lab and doing the work," says Olshansky. This doesn't
    bother de Grey. "I'm a theoretical gerontologist," he says. "In
    physics, it's understood that it's necessary to have people who are
    narrowly focused on experimental work, and that it's also necessary to
    have people who are sitting back thinking, reading a bit more widely.
    Most of what I do is identify connections that other people don't

    But theorising isn't enough. De Grey wants change and he wants it now,
    and for that he needs money. Backed by Peter Diamandis, the man who
    masterminded the Ansari X prize for the first private manned flight
    into space, de Grey is now pursuing purses to fund a new centre called
    the Institute of Biomedical Gerontology. It will focus solely on
    making SENS reality. He says he needs at least $100 million. One
    confirmed SENS backer is Gary Hudson, another private space travel

    Most mainstream gerontologists, however, are circumspect. "Research on
    the biology and genetics of ageing is currently at a similar state to
    cancer research 20 years ago," says Howard Jacobs, a geneticist at the
    University of Tampere, Finland. Jacobs works on mutations in
    mitochondrial DNA, which he believes have a major impact on expanding
    healthy human lifespans. Last year his team won the prestigious
    Descartes prize for scientists based in Europe. Nevertheless,
    Kurzweil's pronouncements rankle with Jacobs. "Knowledge does not
    necessarily translate into technology on a foreseeable timescale," he

    Felipe Sierra, a programme director at the US National Institute of
    Aging, agrees. "The main problem with the recipes for radical life
    extension is that they have multiple complex components," he says,
    "and we are still far from fully understanding any of them, let alone
    their interaction."

    Cell senescence is a case in point. Most scientists believe senescence
    arose as a way to suppress tumours. Remove senescence, and you could
    remove a key natural barrier to the development of cancer. The trick
    is to be able to remove only senescent cells, but not senescence
    itself. "We don't currently know how to do this," says Sierra.

    But the immortalists are not entirely without support. One of the few
    biologists to tacitly endorse de Grey's aims is Michael Rose, a
    biogerontologist at the University of California, Irvine. "The concept
    of natural death is bogus," he says. Rose has spent the past 30 years
    studying ageing in fruit flies and believes his work holds the key to
    understanding the cause of cell senescence. But he concedes that
    radical life extension may not happen in his lifetime. Rose declined
    to comment specifically on either de Grey's SENS or Kurzweil's
    "bridge" scheme. "I'm very confident that some time in this century,
    the lives of everyday people will be transformed by the slow,
    methodical work we're doing now," he says. "But Jules Verne science
    doesn't work."

    Olshansky thinks there are deeper, more fundamental problems with de
    Grey's thinking. Treating the human body like a machine is just plain
    wrong, he says. "Let's say you go ahead and make the seven changes
    Aubrey suggests, and hypothetically you live to 200 or 300. He assumes
    the effect will be the same on the mind as on the body." Olshansky
    points out most gerontology experiments are performed on tiny
    creatures, such as roundworms and fruit flies. The psychological
    impact of dramatically altering human life expectancy is completely
    unknown. Most people live their life in an arc that they expect will
    last around 70 to 80 years and that splits up into known and
    manageable phases of life. What would you do if you had 300 years in
    hand? "You can't ask a fruit fly, 'How do you feel about it?'" says

    I can't deny that the possibility my life could be extended by a few
    decades, let alone centuries, is extremely tempting, if only to
    realise my life-long dream of travelling into space. But I won't be
    subjecting myself to intravenous infusions, taking any supplements, or
    giving up on my morning shot of java just yet. Life's too short.

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