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Reportage

A modern epic

The Gilgamesh quest

I MEET THE immortals on a Wednesday evening in January. We’re upstairs on Russell Street, in a workspace shared by a couple of tech start-ups. Though it’s after 6 pm, most of the workstations are occupied with coders cocooned in Skullcandy headphones. The tap-tapping is a droll background for a discussion of life, the universe and everything. Around a table sit three core members of LongeCity’s Melbourne branch. Originally the Immortality Institute, LongeCity is an international not-for-profit organisation with a rather ambitious mission statement: ‘To unite and organise the forces of life to end involuntary death, end ageing and rejuvenate humanity to a state of perfect health.’[i]

Surprisingly, for an association centred around life-extension, all the attendees have most of theirs still to run: they’re all in their twenties. Unsurprisingly, they are childhood fans of science fiction. They are also all atheists, and they are all male. The founder of the group, ‘Harry’, is not your typical health nut: ‘The hyper-optimistic end goal is that I live long enough to be effectively immortal in a society of superhumans living in gradients of pure bliss.’ His voice is soft and unhurried, as if he has all the time in the world. And perhaps he does. He spends the next twenty minutes describing his longevity regimen. His diet is an obsessively researched smorgasbord of fish and fish oil, coconut (for the medium-chain triglycerides), olive oil (for the polyphenols), fibre, nuts, cocoa (for cardiovascular health) and protein (of plant rather than animal origin). All mealtimes are calculated to keep his circadian rhythm stable. Exercise takes place in front of infrared bulbs to generate a healthful heat-stress response. He also ingests a range of supplements and off-script pharmaceuticals for their life-extension properties. His is a life optimised. Harry is aiming for a hundred and twenty on the low end, but has one eye on forever. He hopes that biologists will eventually be able to hack the human body and end ageing altogether.

Another member, ‘Dave’, is instead chasing digital immortality. For several years he’s been collating content for his ‘mind file’, by which he means ‘anything which could be used for emulating or understanding’ him. He records every text message, blog post or email he composes. In the event of his death, his email account will automatically distribute a series of emails to his friends and family, directing them to digital repositories. The hope is that his family can someday feed the information into an avatar, and essentially reincarnate him. Or, if he lives long enough, perhaps he will be able to upload his mind to a machine directly, expanding his consciousness to mingle and coalesce with others in one supreme entity some dub ‘the singularity’. ‘If I can get to a trillion, trillion, trillion [years of age] then sure, sign me up!’

What if technology doesn’t progress fast enough in their lifetimes to save them? A third member, ‘Chris’, is looking for insurance. He’s on the waiting list for membership with Southern Cryonics, who will preserve his body at almost two-hundred degrees below zero after he dies, until such time as science cures death. The others all chime in on this too. It seems a common plan B.

Meet the modern prolongevists. Their goal is not to be healthy and happy for longer (at least, not only that). It is to last long enough to board the lifeboat of immortality – to live long enough to live forever. Though the goals of biological immortality, mind-uploading and cryopreservation may seem audacious (if not delusional), scientists are taking steps towards all three. This is today’s chapter in an ancient epic stretching back thousands of years.

 

THE OLDEST SURVIVING great work of literature tells the story of a Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, whose historical equivalent may have ruled the city of Uruk some time between 2800 and 2500 BC. A hero of superhuman strength, Gilgamesh becomes instilled with existential dread after witnessing the death of his friend, and travels the earth in search of a cure for mortality. Twice, the cure slips through his fingers and he learns the futility of fighting the common fate of man.

History can be seen as a tireless succession of Gilgamesh quests. In Egypt, there are man-made mountains holding gauze-wrapped bodies and organs in jars. In China, there is tomb of eight thousand warriors kitted out to conquer death. In towns across the Western world there are fields lined with rows of stones and beneath each a believer lies in wait. Some psychologists argue that all of human civilisation – all of art and religion, science and war – is a defence mechanism against the awareness of our mortality.

Two millennia ago, Taoist monks drank flakes of gold in water, and ate magical foods to drug the evil Three Worms of ageing. A thousand years ago, alchemists toiling for the Philosopher’s Stone consumed elixirs of mercury salts and arsenic. A century ago, the French physician Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard injected himself with extracts from the testicles of guinea pigs and dogs. ‘Gentlemen,’ he announced to his students in 1889 when he was seventy-three, ‘last night I was able to pay a visit to Madame Brown-Séquard’ – and opportunists sprang up across Europe, the US and Australia, selling derivative brews. Later, people paid to have dog’s balls sewed to their scrota; to absorb the ‘life-giving’ radioactivity of radium; to partake of the invigorating aroma of virgins. And everyone continued to die.

Yet (and here the first ray of hope breaks through) in spite of this failed proto-science of life extension, people were living for longer and longer.

 

AUSTRALIANS TODAY CAN expect more than thirty extra years of life compared to those born near the end of the nineteenth century. The story is similar across the entire developed world. We’re healthier, better fed and living in more hygienic conditions. We have widespread access to antibiotics and other modern medicines. All of these factors led to a huge decline in infant mortality rates in the early twentieth century, and huge strides against ageing diseases such as cancer in the late twentieth century. According to a remarkably stable trend, every new day adds about six hours to our life expectancy. With several spectacular advances since the new millennium, this trend could be about to accelerate.

In 2006, a Japanese team led by Shinya Yamanaka found how to reprogram mature cells – already specialised into a particular type, such as blood or skin – to become stem cells capable of turning into any other cell type in the body. These uber-versatile cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), are accelerating research in regenerative medicine. The goal is to use the patient’s own cells to repair ailing tissues.

At the Advanced Biofabrication Centre at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, we’re working to use these reprogrammed cells to build artificial human body parts. Central to our research is 3D-printing technology: robotic tools that can deposit material, layer by layer, to create real 3D structures. In medicine, 3D printing can create custom prosthetics, such as titanium hip replacements, that perfectly reproduce the patient’s anatomy. To create biological 3D structures, however, we load human stem cells into special robotically controlled machines and print them out in a living ink. Printing into predefined shapes, such as a muscle fibre or a human ear, can be relatively straightforward. The challenge is then to develop what is printed into functional tissue, a process that requires weeks of culture inside custom-designed tissue ‘bioreactors’. So far, we’re targeting relatively simply tissues, such as cartilage, which means only worrying about one cell type. This technology is in its infancy, though it’s not unforeseeable that, one day, we might be able to print, or otherwise grow, replacement organs in the lab, starting out with just a sample of blood. Could this mean that the Fountain of Youth will one day spring from a few red drops dripping from your arm, and into a syringe?

Tilo Kunath, a researcher in regenerative medicine at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on iPSCs, is not so sure. Though he is excited about how regenerative medicine will prolong human health span – that is, the length of time a person is healthy and active – it won’t extend our lives that much. So while we might see more ninety-year-olds playing ping-pong, we won’t see any 190-year-olds. The problem of ageing, he tells me in a Skype call, is that it’s just too multi-faceted. Its primary symptom is an increased risk of death, from all causes. Cure somebody’s kidney disease, and perhaps they’ll live a few extra years before they get cancer. ‘It’s Whack-a-mole’ he says: relentlessly attacking symptoms as they crop up until the point of exhaustion. That’s why, instead of trying to tackle each disease individually, our only hope of biological immortality may be to intervene in the ageing process itself.

 

ONE PROBLEM IS that we still don’t fully understand what ageing is. To the Taoists, ageing was loss of the ‘vital breath’ or ch’i, something others later dubbed it the ‘vital power’, the ‘internal principle’, the ‘life force’ – the thing that distinguishes living things from inanimate ones. In his book What is Life?, the physicist Erwin Schrodinger perhaps came closest to a scientific definition of this ‘life force’. He called it ‘negative entropy’, by which he meant life’s ability to create and maintain order. Nowhere else in the universe, except in a living system, is information or structure stored, fixed and replaced. Life, in short, tidies up.

To maintain order, every cell in our body runs on an infrastructure and bureaucracy the equal of any human city. No system is perfect, however. Now and again, unfixable changes occur, and the cell runs itself down. Ageing, in a large part, is the accumulated impact of wear and tear, piled-up garbage and a million molecular mistakes.

The British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey – wizard-bearded prophet of immortality, famed for his prediction that the first human to live to one thousand may have already been born – sees ageing as simply a problem of maintenance. Just as an industrious mechanic can keep a vintage Model T Ford running almost indefinitely, he suggests we can do the same for the body. De Grey identifies seven causes of ageing (the ‘seven deadly things’, in his parlance), and describes his ideas about how to patch them up. These ideas form the core of his magnum opus: the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).

One of de Grey’s deadly things, for example, is the fact that human cells, after a given number of cell divisions, tend to go into retirement. The retired, or so-called ‘senescent’ cells, continue to make a nuisance of themselves. They cause inflammation and make their neighbours more likely to turn cancerous. Regularly ridding the body of these hangers-on could effectively stop this aspect of ageing. De Grey’s SENS foundation recently funded the start-up Oisin Biotechnologies, which aims to use gene therapy to do just that.

De Grey imagines that SENS-type actions might give us twenty-four hours of added life per day – eighteen on top of the current trend. At that point, each day would be a step away from death, rather than towards it. This is what he calls ‘escape velocity’, a stop to the aging process. With enough funding, we could get there by some time in the 2040s, de Grey says. I ask him in an email what are my own chances. ‘I think most Westerners of your age will make it,’ he replies, though it will depend on how fast the SENS Institute can develop and roll out the medicines.’

However, de Grey’s confident assertions have attracted the ire of his fellows. In 2005, twenty-eight leading gerontologists summed up their assessment of de Grey’s plan with a quote from HL Mencken: ‘For every complex problem, there is a simple solution, and it is wrong.’

‘If Aubrey de Grey says there’s a girl born five years ago that’s going to live to a thousand, that’s total nonsense,’ says Tilo Kunath. The problem is, ageing may not be as simple as de Grey makes it out to be. Lifespan is too ‘hard-wired’ into the genetic code. That’s why bowhead whales can reach a double century, while very few of us, their mammal cousins, ever make it to half that age.

Couldn’t we tweak our genetic code to live longer? Perhaps. Groundbreaking work by Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California, San Francisco, in the 1990s showed that just one or two edits to the genome of roundworms was enough to significantly increase their lifespan. Worms that normally lived only about two weeks stayed healthy for three or four. (The record is currently a seven-and-a-half-fold increase in average lifespan.) Genetic switcheroo works for mammals too. In December 2016, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California engineered mice to turn back the genetic clock within their cells when they ate certain trigger foods. The engineered mice lived 30 per cent longer than controls.

The challenge is in translating this work to a human treatment. Any genetic tinkering, even if brought about by drugs, is dangerous because genes generally perform multiple functions. Side effects could be dramatic. For example, the Salk researchers admitted the anti-ageing effect of their gene treatment might lead to an increased risk of cancer – we just don’t yet know.

Despite all the incredible advances in stem-cell technology, bio-printing and genetics, mainstream research in this field is focused on extending health span, rather than life span. The latest data, crunched by statisticians at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and published in October 2016, suggests that humans hit a barrier at around age one hundred and fifteen.[ii] The results ‘strongly suggest that the maximum lifespan of humans is fixed and subject to natural constraints’, the authors wrote. You can drink all the longevity tea in ancient China, but the human body is just not capable of surviving much longer than this.

 

TRANSHUMANISM IS THE idea that we can transcend our biological limits, by merging with machines. The idea was popularised by the renowned ‘technoprophet’ Ray Kurzweil (now a director of engineering at Google), who came to public attention in the 1990s with a string of astute predictions about technology. In his 1990 book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press), Kurzweil predicted that a computer would beat the world’s best chess player by the year 2000. It happened in 1997. He also saw the explosive growth of the internet coming, along with the advent of wearable technology, drone warfare and the automated translation of language. Kurzweil’s most famous prediction is what he calls ‘the singularity’ – the emergence of an artificial super-intelligence, triggering runaway technological growth – which he foresees happening somewhere around 2045.

In some sense, the merger of humans and machines has already begun. Bionic implants, such as the cochlear implant, use electrical impulses orchestrated by computer chips to communicate with the brain – and so restore lost senses. At St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne, my colleagues are developing other ways to tap in to neuronal activity – and so giving people natural control of a robotic hand. These cases involve sending simple signals between a piece of hardware and the brain. To truly merge minds and machines, though, we need some way to send thoughts and memories.

In 2011, scientists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles took the first step towards this when they implanted rats with a computer chip that worked as a kind of external hard drive for the brain. First the rats learned a particular skill, pulling a sequence of levers to gain a reward. The silicon implant listened in as that new memory was encoded in the brain’s hippocampus region, and recorded the pattern of electrical signals it detected. Next the rats were induced to forget the skill, by giving them a drug that impaired the hippocampus. The silicon implant then took over, firing a bunch of electrical signals to mimic the pattern it had recorded during training. Amazingly, the rats remembered the skill – the electrical signals from the chip were essentially replaying the memory, in a crude version of that scene in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves learns (downloads) kung-fu.

Again, the potential roadblock: the brain may be more different from a computer than people such as Kurzweil appreciate. As Nicolas Rougier, a computer scientist at Inria (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation), argues, the brain itself needs the complex sensory input of the body in order to properly function. Separate the brain from that input and things start to go awry pretty quickly. Hence, sensory deprivation is used as a form of torture. Even if artificial intelligence is achieved, that does not mean our brains will be able to integrate with it.

Whatever happens at the singularity, if it occurs, Kurzweil, sixty-eight, wants to be around to see it. His Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (Rodale Books, 2004), is a guidebook for extending life in the hope of seeing the longevity revolution. In it he details his dietary practices, and outlines some of the two hundred supplements he takes daily.

Failing that, he has a plan B.

 

THE CENTRAL IDEA of cryonics is to preserve the body after death in the hope that, one day, future civilisations will have the ability (and the desire) to reanimate the dead. Both Kurzweil and de Grey, along with about fifteen hundred others (including Britney Spears), are signed up to be cryopreserved by Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

Offhand, the idea seems crackpot. Even in daily experience, you know that freezing changes stuff: you can tell a strawberry that’s been frozen. Taste, and especially texture, change unmistakably. The problem is that when the strawberry cells freeze, they fill with ice crystals. The ice rips them apart, essentially turning them to mush. That’s why Alcor don’t freeze you; they turn you to glass.

After you die, your body is drained of blood and replaced with a special cryogenic mixture of anti-freeze and preservatives. When cooled, the liquid turns to a glassy state, but without forming dangerous crystals. You are placed in a giant thermos flask of liquid nitrogen and cooled to -196 degrees Celsius, cold enough to effectively stop biological time. There you can stay without change, for a year or a century, until science discovers the cure for whatever caused your demise.

‘People don’t understand cryonics,’ says Alcor president Max More in a YouTube tour of his facility. ‘They think it’s this strange thing we do to dead people, rather than understanding it really is an extension of emergency medicine.’

The idea may not be as crackpot as it sounds. Similar cryopreservation techniques are already being used to preserve human embryos used in fertility treatments. ‘There are people walking around today who have been cryopreserved,’ More continues. ‘They were just embryos at the time.’

One proof of concept, of sorts, was reported by cryogenics expert Greg Fahy of 21st Century Medicine (a privately funded cryonics research lab) in 2009. Fahy’s team removed a rabbit kidney, vitrified it, and reimplanted in back in the rabbit as its only working kidney. Amazingly the rabbit survived, if only for nine days. More recently, a new technique developed by Fahy enabled the ‘perfect’ preservation of a rabbit brain though vitrification, and storage at -196 degrees. After rewarming, advanced 3D imaging revealed the rabbits ‘connectome’ – that is, the connections between neurons – were undisturbed. Unfortunately, the chemicals used for the new technique are toxic, but the work does raise the hope of some future method that may achieve the same degree of preservation, with more friendly substances.

That said, preserving structure does not necessarily preserve function. Our thoughts and memories are not just coded in the physical connections between neurons, but also in the strength of those connections – coded somehow in the folding of proteins. That’s why the most remarkable cryonics work to date may be that performed at Alcor in 2015, where scientists managed to glassify a tiny worm, for two weeks, then return it to life with its memory intact. Now, while the worm has only 302 neurons, you have more than 100 billion, and while the worm has five thousand neuron-to-neuron connections you have at least 100 trillion. So there’s some way to go, but there’s certainly hope.

In Australia, a new not-for-profit, Southern Cryonics, is planning to open the first cryonics facility in the southern hemisphere. ‘Eventually, medicine will be able to keep people healthy indefinitely,’ Southern Cryonics spokesperson and secretary Matt Fisher tells me in a phone call. ‘I want to see the other side of that transition. I want to live in a world where everyone can be healthy for as long as they want. And I want everyone I know and care about to have that opportunity as well.’

To get Southern Cryonics off the ground, ten founding members have each put in $50,000, entitling them to a cryonic preservation for themselves or a person of their choice. Given the company is not-for-profit, Fisher has no financial incentive to campaign for it. He simply believes in it: ‘I’d really like to see [cryonic preservation] become the most common choice for internment across Australia.’ Fisher admits there is no proof yet that cryopreservation works. The question is not about what is possible today, he says. It’s about what may be possible in the future.

 

A NATURAL QUESTION all this raises is what immortality, if it is achieved, will do to the world in terms of demographics, economics and environment. Freeman Dyson, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century, argues that science itself would suffer; the older generation would never be supplanted by the new ideas of youth. As the physicist Max Planck is often paraphrased as saying: science progresses one funeral at a time. Politics too. Cure ageing now and we might be burdened forever by the governance of the same old white men. When viewed from the level of society or ecology, death is a renewal. The evangelicals of immortality label this, along with all opposition to their ideas, ‘deathist’ thinking. I probe the LongeCity members for their thoughts on the societal impact, but they wave away the question with an apathetic nonchalance: ‘We’ll work it out later.’

Towards the end of the LongeCity meeting, I ask about the more extreme measures people take to extend their lives. For people playing the long game, planning for a thousand-year life span, one would expect a high level of risk aversion. That does not seem to be the case. Rather, it is commonplace in the LongeCity community for members to take untested substances, on the basis of longevity benefits shown in a single rat study, or even an experiment in a petri dish.

The interventions rise and fall in a cycle of fashions. Testosterone, touted in the 1980s, has since been found to increase risks of heart attack and stroke. Human growth hormone, popular a decade ago, actually accelerates ageing in the long term. Telomerase, taken in the mistaken belief it can rejuvenate our cells, is associated with cancer. Resveratrol, a molecule present on the skin of grapes (and in small amounts in red wine), was the new wonder molecule of the 2000s after it was found to extend the lives of mice; GlaxoSmithKline spent $720 million buying the Harvard spin-off that was commercialising it. By 2010, GSK suspended their human clinical trials amid safety concerns. People in the life-extension community still take the drug. Considering the death-inducing side effects of previous longevity interventions, ingesting these substances off script seems reckless, to say the least. It’s the level of desperation you’d expect from terminal patients. Then again, to extreme longevists, we are all terminal cases. The fear of death does strange things to a mind.

 

Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

[i] LongeCity Australia & New Zealand. LongeCity Australia & New Zealand group description on Facebook. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/LongeCityANZ/

[ii] Xiao Dong et al. ‘Evidence for a limit to human lifespan’, Nature, 538 (2013), 257–259. Available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v538/n7624/full/nature19793.html


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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