Mumbai: Love it, envy it, or hate it but immortality as a concept is no stranger to human beings. Called it nectar in English, or amrita in Sanskrit, even a sip of this elusive elixir is supposed to make humans immortal. Of course, at least for now, this privilege is restricted to comic books, mythology and sci-fi movies.
Yet, a simple web search for ‘immortality’ or ‘defying age’ will yield thousands of links that suggest different remedies to achieve the same.
Many of these solutions border on quackery and even the occult—right from herbs, potions, antioxidants, anti-ageing creams and low-calorie diets to the more serious research that includes stem cells, young human blood , altering the behaviour of some diseased genes to prolong life, and even cryogenically preserving bodies or just brains till more evolved humans find a way to revive these parts in another era.
Evaluating so-called scientific claims in this space is no mean task. For one, researchers could come up with compelling logic as opposed to strong evidence. On the other hand, the trials could have been done on animals which mean that they will not necessarily work on humans.
What happens, though, if a company bypasses regulators to perform such an experiment on a human without a pre-clinical trial—all in the name of scientific advancement?
Consider the case of Elizabeth Parrish, chief executive of a Seattle-based biotech company BioViva USA Inc. The company, which is working to develop treatments to slow the ageing process, is once again making news —more for the controversy surrounding the claims she’s making in treating her disease in the absence of scrutiny from US regulators.
Last September, telomere data taken from the then 44-year-old Parrish’s white blood cells by SpectraCell Laboratories, Inc. specialised clinical testing laboratory in Houston, Texas, revealed that her telomeres were unusually short for her age—leaving her vulnerable to age-associated diseases earlier in life.
Our DNA is ‘written’ onto chromosomes. The ends of each chromosome are known as telomeres—they act like plastic that binds the ends of shoelaces, preventing the chromosomes from fraying. They also make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter.
Hence their length can be used as a proxy to measure ageing. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide—this shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death.
Parrish made herself the guinea pig, or the so-called ‘patient zero’, when she decided to receive two of her own company’s experimental gene therapies—one to protect against loss of muscle mass with age, another to battle stem cell depletion responsible for diverse age-related diseases and infirmities.
This April, she announced that she had become the first human being to be successfully rejuvenated by gene therapy, after her own company’s “experimental therapies reversed 20 years of normal telomere shortening”.
Gene therapy has been used to lengthen telomeres before in cultured cells and in mice, but never in a human patient. Since BioViva had not done the necessary pre-clinical work to progress to human studies, the US Food and Drug Administration did not authorise Parrish’s experiment, which explains her trip to an unnamed clinic in Colombia, according to a report in The Guardian .
Bioviva, in its April press release, claimed that “If early data is accurate, it is already the world’s first successful example of telomere lengthening via gene therapy in a human individual”.
BioViva’s advisory board includes George Church, a professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of PersonalGenomes.org, who reportedly criticised Parrish’s decision to bypass US regulators . Interestingly, the advisory board includes Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer and co-founder of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), who is a biomedical gerontologist who has a BA in Computer Science and Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Cambridge.
More than a decade back, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review had in an article that was sub-titled: ‘Aubrey de Grey thinks he knows how to defeat aging. He’s brilliant, but is he nuts?’, pointed out the skepticism over De Grey’s formulating “...the theoretical means by which human beings might live thousands of years—indefinitely, in fact”. De Grey had then said that it may be possible for his objective to be achieved within 25 years (15 years from now—by 2030). Many working biogerontologists had, then, said that De Grey’s theories were a waste of time .
De Grey, in all fairness, is also considered a genius by some scientists including the late Marvin Minsky—a cognitive scientist in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), and co-founder of MIT’s AI laboratory. Ray Kurzweil, futurist and Google Inc.’s director of engineering and co-author of the book, ‘Live Long Enough to Live Forever’, eats a “certain diet”, exercises, and take about 150 pills a day to defy ageing. He believes that in the next 15-20 years, biotechnology will allow humans to reprogram our genes to resist both ageing and disease. Moreover, by 2050, we may all be kept healthy and young by billions of nanorobots inside of our bodies.
These claims and predictions may not be entirely without substance. Perhaps, we are getting to the Holy Grail of ageing gradually.
On 26 May, 2015, Jun-Ichi Hayashi, a professor from the University of Tsukuba in Japan, announced that ageing could be reversed, at least in human cell lines, giving the theory of ageing a new lease of life .
Moreover, the new Timeship Building currently under construction in Texas is being touted as the “Mecca of Cryogenics” and is expected to someday house 50,000 frozen humans waiting to be brought back from the dead or their frigid state of suspended animation.
That said, ageing is a complex process and begins even before we are born, according to an international team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge. Experts from the University of Exeter’s Medical School, who examined expression of genes (process by which the information contained within a gene becomes a useful product) in blood samples from 15,000 people across the world, found 1,450 genes that are linked to ageing, and also uncovered a link between these genes and factors such as diet, smoking and exercise, according to a 23 October release. The research is published in the online edition of scientific journal, Nature Communications.
Meanwhile, big technology companies and some of their founders, too, are investing in anti-ageing research.
In September, 2014, AbbVie Inc., and California Life Sciences LLC announced a research and development (R&D) collaboration intended to help the two companies discover, develop and bring to market new therapies for patients with age-related diseases, including for neurodegeneration and cancer. Calico is the Google-backed life sciences company led by Arthur D. Levinson—former chairman and CEO of Genentech, and Hal V Barron, MD—former executive vice president and chief medical officer of Genentech.
Besides, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who has a genetic mutation that sharply raises his risk for Parkinson’s, has donated nearly $125 million to the Michael J Fox Foundation and $7 million to the Parkinson’s Institute.
Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., donated $100 million to establish the Allen Institute for Cell Science, which models the complex mechanisms of living cells. Predictive models of the cell could accelerate the development of treatments for age-related diseases, and, conceivably, for aging itself.
PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel has invested several million dollars into longevity research in companies like SENS. J. Craig Venter, a billionaire scientist, has launched Human Longevity Inc. Closer home, S. “Kris” Gopalakrishnan, one of the founders of software services exporter Infosys Ltd, has been investing in brain computing research at various institutes.
Nevertheless, even if researchers do eventually find a solution to stop, or reverse the ageing process, the question that will have to be answered is: How is society going to cope with it? What does society do with humans who will never die? What will be the government’s birth policy? When will people retire from the jobs—that is if the bots and robots don’t snatch the jobs from us by then?
These questions, of course, are subjects for another day.