Silicon Valley looking to extend life
So it was that Eos, goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Tithonus, a handsome young prince of Troy and, beguiling him with her beauty, brought him to her palace on Mount Olympus.
They lived happily for many years but, being mortal, age eventually overtook Tithonus. In her despair, Eos beseeched Zeus to grant her love immortality. Moved to pity, he granted her request but even the king of Olympus could not bestow eternal youth on a human for that would make him as one of the gods.
As one age passed into the next, Tithonus, withered and shrunken, cried incessantly for release from his torment but Zeus could not undo a wish once granted. It was Eos who eventually provided her poor lover a measure of relief by transforming him into a cicada. Now each summer he emerges from the ground with a fresh body to sing in eternal praise of his beauteous goddess. Or is it rather a lament over his crusted, hollow shell of a body?
Many of the myths and stories we have long told ourselves are cautionary tales against the dangers of hubris, our overconfident pride and arrogance before the gods. Divinity will mete out retribution to those who forget their place in the natural scheme of things. Chief among these absolutes of the human condition is our mortality; we all must die and woe betide any who would seek to have it otherwise.
But consider this statement from the website of the California Life Co. (Calico), a biotechnology firm established in 2013:
“Calico is a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives. Executing on this mission will require an unprecedented level of interdisciplinary effort and a long-term focus for which funding is already in place.”
The company is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., whose most famous other subsidiary goes by the name of Google. By 2016, Larry Page, Alphabet’s CEO (and co-founder of Google) had committed the company to contributing $240 million to Calico, with an additional $490 million should it be needed.
Calico is by no means the only Silicon Valley outfit investing big dollars in the life extension sciences field. SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation, founded in 2009, and Human Longevity Inc., founded in 2014, are two of its better-funded competitors but there are others.
What’s going on here? Let’s start with some data. Since 1900, the average human life span has increased by 30 years. But with this, so have the rates of age-related health issues such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia. In the U.S., up to age 44 the leading causes of death are accidents and violence. From there to age 65, it’s cancer and heart disease after that.
Medical advances are making significant inroads on each of these diseases and they may be conquered within your children’s lifetime. What then? Well, epidemiologists suggest a cure for cancer would only add 3.3 years to the average lifespan while the prevention of heart disease would tack on another four years. The elimination of all disease likely would only extend life into the mid-90s.
To go further, the aging process itself must be slowed. Even in the absence of disease, our bodies senesce as our organs, tissues, cells and macromolecules accumulate damage at an ever-increasing rate. Eric Verdin of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging has observed that “if you just kept aging at the rate you age between 20-30, you’d live to a thousand. But at 30, everything starts to change. … Thereafter your risk of mortality doubles every seven years.”
Most longevity scientists are “health spanners,” seeking a healthier life with a compressed morbidity (i.e., a quick and painless death). But “immortalists” like SENS Research founder Aubrey de Grey and futurist Ray Kurzwell believe science can carry us much further. If aging is encoded in the DNA of our genes, they argue, there should be no technological reason why we couldn’t identify and address those parts of our genomes that are responsible for senescence.
Like so much else in modern biology, medical research is increasingly becoming an information science. To find the genetic correlates of aging will entail the compilation and analysis of an almost unthinkable mass of biotechnical data. Who has the big-data skillset and financial resources to back such an undertaking?
But what about the economics, ethics and religious implications of an immortality united with youthful vigor? Should aging be viewed as a medical disease to be treated as any other … or are we just asking for it with such hubristic thinking?
Ken Baker is a scientist and a retired biology professor. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.