July 6, 2006

Fighting for Immortality

Fighting for Immortality

When Scarequotes suggested last night’s show, he said,

We’re all going to die. Someday. (Barring some incredible advances in medicine that confer virtual immortality on everyone.)

Scarequotes, from Suggest a Show June, 2006

chilton1 responded with an April Fool’s Day spoof from Nature in the early 90s that told of transgenic mouse/tortoises engineered to live forever. Ten years later, it’s come true.

Joao Pedro de Magalhaes is a post doc at Harvard studying genetic life extension in fruit flies and mice. We called him up, visions of Tithonus and Malthus dancing in our heads.

I’ve always been afraid to die. More than the moment of death itself, I’m afraid of the disease and suffering that’s associated with it.

Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, Senescence, in a conversation with Open Source, 7/6/06

When Joao was young, he and his great grandfather both caught pneumonia. With antibiotics and a seven-year-old’s immune system, Joao sprang back. If doctors could engineer drugs to save his life, he wondered, why couldn’t they engineer tools to fight aging and save his great grandfather’s?

Probably the biggest misconception about aging research is that you’re working to extend the life span of old people. They think it’s about having a very old person, a very sick person, and sticking tubes in them and preserving a life of suffering. We’re not trying to extend those years of life when you’re unhealthy, the main goal is to genetically preserve health and avoid or postpone aging altogether.

Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, Senescence, in a conversation with Open Source, 7/6/06

One that didn’t get the genetic fix [semarr / Flickr]

There are a handful of genes in mice. If you either knock them out or increase their productivity, you can delay or accelerate aging. You can actually increase a mouse’s lifespan by 50%. It’s impossible to quantify aging, but in these mice, the whole degeneration is slowed. They have a lower cancer incidence, they’re more active, they don’t lose as much muscle, they don’t develop diabetes (or they develop it at later ages than normal).

At this point, we don’t really know if it works in humans. I don’t think we’re going to see it work in human beings within the near future….Still, I don’t anticipate that I’ll be tired of living any time soon.

Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, Senescence, in a conversation with Open Source, 7/6/06

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  • nother

    Immortality! This is idea is worthy of an hour. Lets imagine this possibility. If 500 hundred years from now science makes this possible, how will our fundamental ideas about life change? Fidelity? Would we really expect to spend eternity with the same person, especially if we stayed reasonably young and vibrant? The fundamentals of human nature would be rocked to the core. I’m sure we would want to avoid population growth and we would enact strict regulation of procreation. Maybe we would lose our desire to procreate alltogether considering that offspring might be considered a yearning for immortality. Would we lose our humility? I would love to contemplate what would stay the same in our nature if we found the fountain of youth. It wouldn’t mean that I could eat pizza everyday would it, I’d probably still have to worry about a healthy body. 🙁

  • I can’t think of anything more enticing than spending eternity with the same person. I got me a winner.

  • chilton1

    When you start funding research into immortality or longevity…it does force certain questions. That is why the Nature spoof was so sinister…the experiments were described. They were done as if these questions had already been discussed and decided upon by scientists or their funders behind closed doors.

    The decision being -to live longer but only until you become a burden. Hence the handy built-in off-switch.

    I have heard some optimistic scientists describe this generation as the last mortal generation (imagine having that as a legacy! – the last to die – I hope they make a bunch of cheesy movies about our immortal children holding our mortal hands during our last gasps…the last last gasps ever…for anyone).

    Fortunately aging is complicated (and we should remember it is there for a good reason –to get us out of the way for future generations to continue to adapt in continuingly changing environments)