Date:20 May 2014
I’ve often heard older people say something on the lines of “I’ve had a good innings, so if I pop off tomorrow, I’ll have no complaints”. With all due respect, what a load of rubbish. We all want to live forever, or at least until we’ve had enough.
Ignoring the fact that you won’t have anyone to complain to (that is, you’ll be dead), I believe our every instinct tells us to hold on grimly to life – that is, assuming we have the option – until we absolutely have no choice but to let go. Personally, I have every intention of living until the Sun expands into a corpulent fireball and consumes this planet, partly to annoy my wife and children but also to continue my exploration of the many mysteries of our Universe.
Aubrey de Grey appears to be on the same page, although his approach is decidedly more scientific than mine, which relies largely on bloody-mindedness and defiance of logic. De Grey challenges the assumption that ageing is inevitable, arguing instead that it’s a disease – and one that can be cured if it’s approached as “an engineering problem”. His plan calls for identifying all the components that cause human tissue to age, then designing remedies for each of them, thereby forestalling disease and eventually pushing back death. Check out his TEDx talk (and marvel at the beard).
You might also like to explore the work of the Methuselah Foundation, started by Dave Gobel in 2003 “to shed light on the processes of ageing and find ways to extend healthy life”. So far, the organisation has raised over R40 million in funding for regenerative medicine research. Its Web site elaborates: “For us, tackling ageing is really about changing assumptions regarding what is and isn’t possible for human life, health and happiness. We believe that ageing as we currently know it is not inevitable.” Here’s the clincher: “By 2030, 90-year-olds can be as healthy as 50-year-olds are today.” Ergo, we may just have a chance to live forever (although, to be honest, I cannot imagine our frail organisms surviving centuries or aeons of abuse without some kind of machine intervention, a la Ray Kurzweil.
Where is all this leading? To an interesting (and curiously reassuring) piece by Cameron Scott, writing in the Singularity Hub. As Scott says, the idea that blood is the basic stuff of life dates back to well before the scientific method. “Yet, in a pair of new studies, researchers have found that blood – and specifically a growth factor in it known as GDF-11 – spurs the brains, muscles, skeletons and hearts of older mice to look and perform like those of younger mice.”
That’s great news for mice in pursuit of immortality, you may say, but why should you be excited? Here’s why: mice are mammals, and any scientific breakthroughs in their little world could conceivably hold promise for humans, too. Scott cites a recent study by Harvard University scientists (published in Nature Medicine) that focuses on muscular-skeletal effects. The researchers found that injections of GDF-11, abundant in the blood of younger mice but scarce in that of older mice, improved both muscle tone and physical fitness.
Writes Scott: “A Stanford/UCSF study published alongside the Harvard work focused on ageing brains. It documented cognitive improvements and increased neuron formation in older mice supplied with blood from younger ones. In related published work, lead UCSF researcher Saul Villeda also found that injecting older mice with GDF-11 spurs stem cell activity in the brain. Both studies build on the work of Stanford researcher Thomas Rando, who first saw the opportunity to test scientific advances against the age-old view of blood as vigour.
“The growth factor appears to trigger the activity of stem cell supplies, explaining its widespread effects. Older animals continue to have stocks of stem cells stashed away, but they don’t employ them as readily, leading to more unrepaired tissue damage. The Harvard study also found that the mice treated with the growth factor saw repair of some of the DNA damage associated with ageing.”
According to Scott, the findings have generated hope that GDF-11, which is also found in human blood, will delay or even reverse some of the effects of old age. “Unless subsequent research turns up negative effects of long-term supplementation, the researchers expect to conduct human clinical trials of the growth factor within five years.”
— By the way, you need to know that Keith Richards does not regularly replace his entire blood supply with a fresh batch of red stuff in order to prolong his delightfully dissolute life. It’s one of the more enduring rock ‘n roll myths, and I’ll miss it.