GQ (Australia) - - FEATURES -

INa crowded room in Cal­i­for­nia, a man in a T-shirt and sneak­ers is addressing hun­dreds of the tech world’s bright young things. With pierc­ing blue eyes, chest­nut pony­tail and a beard that al­most reaches his waist, Aubrey de Grey looks as if he’s walked from the pages of a steam-punk comic book. From afar, the sce­nario play­ing out presents just like any other beige, techy key­note speech or mo­bile phone launch. Ex­cept the ‘prod­uct’ being dis­cussed is the ‘cure’ for death – and de Grey is de­mand­ing that peo­ple get an­gry, ar­gu­ing that age­ing “shouldn’t be tol­er­ated in a civilised so­ci­ety”. His words may sound like those of a sci-fi crank, but here, to­day, they’re ac­tu­ally part of a mo­men­tous push to­wards im­mor­tal­ity – as led by in­cred­i­ble ad­vance­ments in sci­ence and tech – which is a move­ment that’s gain­ing main­stream mo­men­tum. Or­a­cle co-founder Larry El­li­son has la­belled mor­tal­ity “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble”; Mark and Priscilla Zucker­berg have set up a $4m an­nual prize for any scientist who can ex­tend hu­man life; and three years ago, Google co-creator Larry Page started Cal­ico, a biotech com­pany to com­bat age­ing. Ladies and gentle­men, wel­come to the brave new world of bil­lion­aires who want us to live for­ever. It’s per­haps not that sur­pris­ing. Death re­mains life’s truly fi­nal fron­tier. Since an­cient Egypt, many have pur­sued the magical elixir of youth and a way to guard against mor­tal­ity. But this is dif­fer­ent. This is very real. This is the pur­suit of gen­uine re­gen­er­a­tion at a cel­lu­lar level. Re­searchers have al­ready made progress in ex­tend­ing life­spans in an­i­mals, and have started tri­alling longevity ‘treat­ments’ on hu­mans. In the Amer­i­can state of Ari­zona, the cryonics com­pany Al­cor has shown it can chill dogs to 4ºc for four hours be­fore bring­ing them back from an un­con­scious, sus­pended state with­out dam­age. Tech­ni­cally, cryo­gen­ics is the sci­en­tific study of pro­duc­ing ex­tremely low tem­per­a­tures, and cryonics is the act of freez­ing some­one’s body with the aim of bring­ing them back to life later on. Al­cor al­ready has 150 hu­man bod­ies stored in the deep freeze, with nearly 1000 more signed up, in­clud­ing Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, for when death raps on the front door. There are also treat­ments in the works to stop you get­ting there in the first place. In 2014, a study of 180,000 peo­ple showed that di­a­bet­ics tak­ing a drug called Met­formin lived, on av­er­age, 15 per cent longer than the healthy pop­u­la­tion. A spe­cific anti-age­ing trial for Met­formin is now in the works. The anti-in­flam­ma­tory im­muno-sup­pres­sant drug Ra­pamycin also ex­tended the life­spans of mice by up to 14 per cent in a 2009 study. While ex­ist­ing med­i­ca­tions are show­ing prom­ise, in July 2016, a dif­fer­ent com­pound, nicoti­namide mononu­cleotide (NMN), was also given to 10 healthy Ja­panese peo­ple in the first hu­man anti-age­ing trial. An­i­mal stud­ies on at least three other com­pounds, all with the po­ten­tial to ex­tend life­spans, are sched­uled for the com­ing year. “The first per­son to live to 1000 is al­ready alive to­day,” says de Grey in deep, trea­cly Bri­tish tones at­tached to the fast-talk­ing de­fen­sive­ness of some­one who’s used to being told his ideas are crazy. “In fact, I think it’s highly likely that a lot of peo­ple who are alive to­day will live to 1000. I’ve been putting this for­ward for years, but peo­ple are fi­nally start­ing to lis­ten – it’s now risen to a main­stream level.” De Grey is the chief sci­en­tific of­fi­cer and co-founder of the not-for-profit Strate­gies for En­gi­neered Neg­li­gi­ble Se­nes­cence Re­search Foun­da­tion (SENS), which fo­cuses on pi­o­neer­ing tech­nol­ogy that re­dresses and re­verses the cel­lu­lar dam­age that in­evitably comes with age­ing, which, over time, builds up to make us sick. That’s what se­nes­cence is, in a nut­shell – the process of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion with age. And that’s what de Grey is fight­ing against. He gave the talk – a TED piece – back in 2005. Then, lit­tle over a decade ago, his re­search was con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial – im­moral even – but now, he’s a warmly re­ceived guest who reg­u­larly speaks on the re­gen­er­a­tive medicine cir­cuit. Cen­tral to de Grey’s work is the sim­ple ethos that the dis­eases of old age don’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist; rather than being sep­a­rate con­di­tions with unique causes and treat­ments, he be­lieves that ev­ery­thing from Alzheimer’s to can­cer is just a symp­tom of cel­lu­lar age­ing. So, stop the age­ing, and you stop the ma­jor­ity of dis­eases – some­thing he’s con­fi­dent scientists can do via a com­bi­na­tion of stem cell trans­plants, ge­netic edit­ing and med­i­ca­tion. SENS is cur­rently in the process of test­ing a va­ri­ety of com­pounds against the bi­o­log­i­cal age­ing re­sponse. It’s not all about in­creased life­span, how­ever – one of SENS’S most suc­cess­ful spin-off projects is a tech­nique that ad­dresses age-dam­age in the retina, pre­vent­ing mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion, the lead­ing cause of age-re­lated vi­sion loss. “I have to be re­ally fas­tid­i­ous in em­pha­sis­ing that I’m not pas­sion­ate about ex­tend­ing life,” says de Grey, “I’m pas­sion­ate about ex­tend­ing health... I’ve been called things like the ‘prophet of im­mor­tal­ity’, but liv­ing longer is just a side ef­fect of the work we do.” It might be a side ef­fect, but it’s one that’s highly de­sir­able. In Scotts­dale, just east of cen­tral Phoenix, Ari­zona, where Al­cor is based, CEO and pres­i­dent Max More deals with hun­dreds of monthly en­quiries about cry­onic freez­ing – from those want­ing to have their body pre­served when they die, to be brought back once tech­nol­ogy is able to heal what killed them in the first place. “We get a lot of in­ter­est these days about how it works, and who can do it – it’s not al­ways se­ri­ous,” ex­plains More. “But there’s def­i­nitely a lot more in­ter­est in life-ex­ten­sion re­search than there was 20 years ago, and there are a lot of be­liev­ers in the tech­nol­ogy out there.” De Grey sits on the board at Al­cor. He be­lieves in the tech­nol­ogy and is an­noyed by the scep­ti­cism that sur­rounds cryonics, even though Al­cor has been around for more than 40 years. The com­pany was founded in 1972, in Cal­i­for­nia, mov­ing to Scotts­dale in 1994, where the ge­o­graph­i­cal con­di­tions are more favourable – un­af­fected by tor­na­does, earth­quakes or floods, it’s one of the most sta­ble cities in the US. It means the 150-odd peo­ple they have in liq­uid ni­tro­gen stor­age tanks (four per tank) can re­main undis­turbed through day and night – at least un­til the time comes to wake them up. While most peo­ple are aware of cryonics, many aren’t as aware of what it in­volves (or that a strong, cen­tral is­sue re­mains: no one’s been brought back yet). The sys­tem works by pump­ing a type of bi­o­log­i­cal anti-freeze into a pa­tient’s body within hours of them being de­clared legally dead, to pre­vent ice crys­tals from form­ing in the tis­sue on being chilled to mi­nus 196ºc. See, it’s not the cold that dam­ages hu­man re­mains – cool­ing peo­ple to the point of hy­pother­mia has long been known to slow down bi­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses and pre­vent de­cay – but the ice that forms, which makes the cell walls break, killing the cell. A sim­i­lar, but less ex­treme, ex­per­i­men­tal tech­nique is al­ready being tri­alled at the

UPMC Pres­by­te­rian Hos­pi­tal in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, with the aim of sav­ing the lives of gun­shot or knife-wound vic­tims. In that case, a cold sa­line so­lu­tion is pumped into a vic­tim’s veins while they’re still alive, cool­ing their bod­ies to 10ºc and keep­ing them sus­pended long enough to make it to the op­er­at­ing ta­ble. Max More feels the work of Al­cor is an ex­ten­sion of this: “Cryonics is crit­i­cal care medicine taken to the next step.” If de Grey is a steam-punk char­ac­ter, More is Homer Simp­son’s one-time su­per-boss, Hank Scorpio – six foot tall, jacked, with straw­berry blond curls. He took over the run­ning of Al­cor from founders Fred and Linda Cham­ber­lain about six years ago. Fred has since passed away (and is cryo-pre­served in one of the tanks), while Linda still works with the or­gan­i­sa­tion as its special projects man­ager, main­tain­ing pa­tient records and help­ing with new mem­ber sign-ups. More is signed up to have only his brain pre­served by Al­cor. It’s an ap­proach around 60 per cent of cus­tomers now choose, based

on the as­sump­tion that by the time tech­nol­ogy can re­turn peo­ple from preser­va­tion, an abil­ity to grow a new body will also be pos­si­ble. Oth­ers want a fully biome­chan­i­cal body. Un­til then, Al­cor’s cus­tomers are framed by faith, and var­i­ous pay­ments – $260,000 for the full ser­vice (paid in a com­bi­na­tion of an­nual mem­ber­ship and in­surance fund pay­outs); $100,000 for a head. Aus­tralian clients – there are sev­eral al­ready on the books – pay an ex­tra $13,000 for being so far re­moved. “We need to get the process started within 20 hours, and get the body or head back to Scotts­dale as soon as pos­si­ble af­ter that,” says More. It’s the stag­ger­ing costs that have many crit­ics claim­ing that cryonics is lit­tle more than a frozen fi­nan­cial scam. More’s heard the claims many times be­fore, and is quick to say, “Look, cryonics is a very hard thing to sell; it’s com­pli­cated, it’s ex­pen­sive to main­tain. We’ve been go­ing 44 years and we only have 1100-odd mem­bers. There are bet­ter ways to make money.” Paypal’s Thiel claims that crit­ics baulk at the tech­nol­ogy be­cause they don’t want to ac­cept death. While he wouldn’t sit for GQ Aus­tralia, he de­fended the tech­nol­ogy to Bri­tain’s The Tele­graph in a wide-rang­ing 2014 in­ter­view. “In telling you that I’ve signed up for [cryonics], there’s al­ways this re­ac­tion that it’s re­ally crazy, it’s dis­turb­ing. But my take on it is it’s only dis­turb­ing be­cause it chal­lenges our com­pla­cency,” said Thiel, who’s also thrown a fur­ther $7.4m at de Grey’s SENS. He’s also said he’s look­ing into trans­fu­sions of young blood (lit­er­ally), for its pur­ported health ben­e­fits. Thiel’s in touch with Cal­i­for­nian start-up Am­brosia – an out­fit sched­uled to soon start a clin­i­cal trial of 600 peo­ple more than 35 years old, each pay­ing more than $10,000 a pop to re­ceive the blood of peo­ple who are 25 years or younger. The trial’s based on a 2014 Stan­ford Univer­sity study that showed the blood of young mice in the brains of old mice could im­prove the lat­ter’s mem­ory and abil­ity to learn, and bi­o­log­i­cally re­ju­ve­nate them – although re­searchers still aren’t quite sure ex­actly what drove this ef­fect. “You can ac­cept [death], you can deny it, or you can fight it. I think our so­ci­ety is dom­i­nated by peo­ple who are into de­nial or ac­cep­tance,” said Thiel in his in­ter­view with The Tele­graph. “And I pre­fer to fight it.” The tech founder’s ap­proach is ex­treme, and the jury still out on how suc­cess­ful such ther­a­pies will be at pro­long­ing life. But what most ra­tio­nal scientists col­lec­tively agree is that we’re edg­ing close to keep­ing peo­ple healthy for longer than ever be­fore. “Age­ing is the sin­gle biggest risk fac­tor for vir­tu­ally ev­ery sig­nif­i­cant hu­man dis­ease,” claims Hu­man Longevity Inc, a com­pany founded by biotech­nol­o­gist Craig Ven­ter, one of the key scientists re­spon­si­ble for the Hu­man Genome Pro­ject, which dis­cov­ered the se­quence of DNA that makes up hu­man be­ings, and which is now at­tempt­ing to syn­the­sise it. “Our goal is to ex­tend and en­hance the healthy high-per­for­mance life­span and change the face of age­ing.” Ven­ter’s new ven­ture, has al­ready raised more than $390m in cap­i­tal. Its aim is to find ev­ery gene re­spon­si­ble for age­ing – the ul­ti­mate hope being to fig­ure out how to turn them off, or slow them down. Just let that linger for a mo­ment – this ul­ti­mately means not only an op­por­tu­nity


to look younger, but an abil­ity to turn back the clock at a cel­lu­lar level. Sev­eral com­pounds have al­ready been shown to off­set age­ing in mice, but one of the biggest break­throughs came in 2013, when Aus­tralian re­searcher David Sin­clair, from the Univer­sity of New South Wales, showed the mech­a­nism through which many of the com­pounds work. Sin­clair ap­pears younger than his 47 years – mak­ing him the ideal poster boy for anti-age­ing re­search. But for decades he’s been fight­ing big pharma com­pa­nies – the ones ped­dling cos­metic re­ju­ve­na­tion creams – who claimed his re­search was lit­tle more than a “phar­ma­co­log­i­cal dead end”. Sin­clair’s team was the first to show that nicoti­namide mononu­cleotide, the first anti-age­ing com­pound to be tested in hu­mans, could re­verse as­pects of molec­u­lar age­ing. He was also be­hind the dis­cov­ery that a com­pound in red wine, resver­a­trol, could ex­tend the life­spans of mice being fed a Western diet. How­ever, in a fol­low-up paper pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence – a magazine founded with money from Thomas Edi­son – Sin­clair and his lab were able to demon­strate for the first time that all of the com­pounds above, as well as life-ex­tend­ing di­a­betes drug Met­formin, work through a sin­gle mech­a­nism – an en­zyme called SIRT1. Re­searchers al­ready knew that it was as­so­ci­ated with longer life, but they had pre­vi­ously thought the only way to stim­u­late SIRT1 was through fast­ing and ex­er­cise – back in the 1930s, re­searchers showed that cut­ting kilo­joules by 30 per cent re­sulted in lab rats liv­ing up to 40 per cent longer, and since then scientists have shown that, in pri­mates and hu­mans, re­duc­ing calo­ries by the same amount seems to im­prove over­all health and mark­ers of age­ing and in­flam­ma­tion. Sur­pris­ingly enough, it’s an idea that hasn’t been highly ap­peal­ing for most peo­ple in­ter­ested in longevity. But Sin­clair’s paper showed that at least 117 dif­fer­ent com­pounds could switch on SIRT1 in the same way, sug­gest­ing that they could cre­ate drugs that would have the same life-ex­tend­ing ben­e­fits as diet and ex­er­cise. “Ul­ti­mately, these drugs would treat one dis­ease, but un­like drugs of to­day, they would pre­vent 20 oth­ers,” said Sin­clair at the time of the paper’s re­lease. “In ef­fect, they would slow age­ing.” Sin­clair doesn’t quite agree with de Grey’s be­lief that a hu­man alive to­day will live to 1000, but he does think many of us alive to­day will reach 150. To date, the old­est per­son on record was French woman Jeanne Cal­ment, who passed away in 1997, aged 122. For all the sci­en­tific progress and break­throughs, many ar­gue that a bet­ter way of sig­nif­i­cantly ex­tend­ing hu­man life is to by­pass the hu­man body al­to­gether and up­load brains straight to com­put­ers. It sounds odd and in­stantly prompts im­agery of well-worn sci-fi tropes. And yet, there are sev­eral com­pa­nies work­ing on just that, with a goal of use­able tech­nol­ogy by 2045. It’s known as tran­shu­man­ism – the idea that, with the help of sci­ence, hu­mans can evolve beyond our cur­rent lim­i­ta­tions. Again, the thought of it is fairly far-fetched, but it’s al­ready hap­pen­ing on a small scale with the likes of bionic ears, in­sulin pumps and ar­ti­fi­cial hearts. Global re­searchers are busily grow­ing or­gans for trans­plant in the lab, while DIY groups – bio­hack­ers – tin­ker with their own hu­man­ity in garages and back­yard stu­dios, in­ject­ing their eyes with night vi­sion ca­pa­bil­i­ties and im­plant­ing in-built LED tech­nol­ogy that acts as a com­pass un­der the skin. It may sound crazy, but think about how quickly hu­man­ity has come to ac­cept pace­mak­ers and pros­thetic limbs. The next leap, some re­searchers be­lieve, is not just to robo­tify our bod­ies, but to free our­selves from them al­to­gether, through a process known as neu­ral up­load­ing. 2045 Ini­tia­tive, a start-up founded by Rus­sian bil­lion­aire Dmitry It­skov, is one such firm work­ing on just this – trans­fer­ring peo­ple’s con­scious­ness to com­put­ers or ro­bot bod­ies, just like in the film Chap­pie. It­skov’s ini­tia­tive has so far de­vel­oped a four-step pro­gram to get there by, as the name sug­gests, the year 2045, start­ing with hu­mans being able to mind-con­trol ro­bots – some­thing we’ve al­ready ac­com­plished. Last year, a paral­ysed woman at DARPA, the US’S De­fense Ad­vanced Re­searcher Projects Agency, was able to fly an F-35 sim­u­la­tor us­ing just her mind. The fi­nal goal for It­skov is to up­load hu­man con­scious­ness into a body of light, like a holo­gram, free­ing us from our cor­po­real con­fines. “We in­tend to de­velop tech­nolo­gies to trans­fer the hu­man per­son­al­ity to an ar­ti­fi­cial body, an avatar,” It­skov tells GQ. “We want to re­place the bi­o­log­i­cal brain with an ar­ti­fi­cial sys­tem that’s more durable and ex­tend­able.” The prob­lem here is that there’s no solid ev­i­dence we can up­load a hu­man brain to a com­puter, or that we’ll ever be able to do so. Still, re­search teams around the world are cre­at­ing al­go­rithms and soft­ware that model the hu­man brain – even if we’re a long way off the level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion needed to con­tain an en­tire hu­man life on­line. “Thought up­load­ing, his­tor­i­cally, has been viewed firmly in the realm of sci­ence fic­tion,” says de Grey, “but many of us have come to recog­nise that it’s prob­a­bly an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion – we can’t say it’s def­i­nitely im­pos­si­ble.” But with­out any guar­an­tee any of these tech­nolo­gies will work, should we re­ally be pour­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into them? Have we essen­tially cre­ated an­other form of re­li­gion – one that of­fers eter­nal life through sci­ence, rather than prayer? The ques­tion of money high­lights one of the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of the re­search into longevity – the gap­ing in­equal­ity this type of tech­nol­ogy will cre­ate be­tween rich and poor. It’s still very early days, but for now, at least, most se­ri­ous longevity tri­als are being pri­vately funded by start-ups and some of the wealth­i­est peo­ple in the world – those who’ve the means to buy the blood of the young or place a size­able wa­ger on neu­ral up­load­ing. It’s a con­cern­ing prospect, but both More and de Grey in­sist in­equal­ity al­ready ex­ists – the wealthy al­ready able to af­ford bet­ter di­ets, reg­u­lar ex­er­cise, su­pe­rior can­cer treat­ments and beyond. Ar­gu­ing that pric­ing will even­tu­ally de­crease – as it al­ways does with new tech­nol­ogy – de Grey says he finds the ar­gu­ment around fi­nance, “ex­traor­di­nar­ily tire­some... No one says, ‘Oh dear, we shouldn’t cure Alzheimer’s be­cause not everyone could af­ford the cure’.” Larry Temkin, a philoso­pher from New Jersey’s Rut­gers Univer­sity, who’s ex­ten­sively pub­lished on the eth­i­cal dilem­mas that come from liv­ing longer, is more con­cerned about the pos­si­ble so­ci­etal knock-on ef­fects. Liv­ing to 150, or 200, or 1000, sounds great (or per­haps scary) now, but what hap­pens when the planet in­evitably runs out of re­sources? Will we stop re­pro­duc­ing? Will the Earth be­come pop­u­lated by just one long-last­ing gen­er­a­tion of hu­mans, and when we die off, we be­come ex­tinct? And who cre­ates the art, the mu­sic, the po­etry of the young if we all live for­ever? “Look, I’m not say­ing our lives will be­come bor­ing, but most of the ex­cite­ment comes from do­ing things for the first time – the first kiss, first child, first time see­ing a world-class art mu­seum,” says Temkin. “When you’ve seen all the mu­se­ums and heard all the new mu­sic, where would that in­cred­i­ble sense of won­der and awe come from? “What do we live for if we live for­ever?” Maybe one of us read­ing this will find out soon enough.




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