SO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER
CRYONICS, MIND UPLOADING, ANTI-AGEING ELIXIRS – THE LIFE-EXTENSION TOOLS YOU ONCE READ ABOUT ARE NOW REAL . GQ EXPLORES THE PEOPLE, TECH AND SCIENCE BEHIND THE RISE OF RESEARCH INTO IMMORTALITY, AND THE FIRM BELIEF WE’LL SOON BE LIVING LONGER THAN EVER.
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
HAVE WE ESSENTIALLY CREATED ANOTHER FORM OF RELIGION – ONE THAT OFFERS ETERNAL LIFE THROUGH SCIENCE, RATHER THAN PRAYER?
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.
ABOVE: LIQUID NITROGEN INSIDE A BIGFOOT. RIGHT: ALCOR’S BIGFOOT DEWAR VESSEL FOR STORING CRYO-PRESERVED BODIES;
ABOVE, FROM TOP: THE OPERATING THEATRE AT ALCOR LARRY ELLISON, CO-FOUNDER OF ORACLE CORP; AUBREY DE GREY, CHIEF SCIENTIFIC OFFICER AT SENS.
BIOHACKERS SHOW OFF THEIR NEWEST SUB-DERMAL IMPLANTS – A RING OF MAGNET-ACTIVATED, LIGHT-EMITTING DIODES.