The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Ozzy King

In Jean-Luc Go­dard’s cel­e­brated film Breath­less, a writer and in­tel­lec­tual wit­tily avows, dur­ing an in­ter­view, that his great­est am­bi­tion is “to be­come im­mor­tal and then die”. As para­dox­i­cal as this as­ser­tion seems, it be­trays a pro­found re­al­ity – the not un­com­mon sen­ti­ment by which we sym­pa­thize with the in­evitabil­ity of death, yet yearn for a coun­ter­feit im­mor­tal­ity through our ac­com­plish­ments and the mem­o­ries of our loved ones. Even the leg­endary Gil­gamesh, in the end, re­lin­quishes his quest for im­mor­tal­ity and finds con­so­la­tion in the con­vic­tion that his path to im­mor­tal­ity lies in the erec­tion of mon­u­men­tal works. Nev­er­the­less, the ex­is­ten­tial yearn­ing for im­mor­tal­ity is not dead – only sti­fled by the hege­monic re­al­ity of im­memo­rial and un­remit­ting death and the pre­vail­ing ethic that the de­sire for im­mor­tal­ity, not ob­tained through com­mu­nion with the gods, rep­re­sents the high­est hubris. Against this at­ti­tude, film­maker Woody Allen fa­mously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve im­mor­tal­ity through my work; I want to achieve im­mor­tal­ity through not dy­ing. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my coun­try­men; I want to live on in my apart­ment”.

If any­one feels like Woody, he will be elated to dis­cover that the 21st cen­tury is most ac­com­mo­dat­ing as world-renowned sci­en­tists like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil are con­vinced that rad­i­cal life-ex­tend­ing tech­nol­ogy is achiev­able within our life­time. In fact, there is world­wide ide­ol­ogy known as life ex­ten­sion­ism ded­i­cated to achiev­ing that very mis­sion. The ar­ti­cle bor­rows its ti­tle from a book by Kurzweil which ex­presses the belief that if present day mid­dle aged per­sons can live to ap­prox­i­mately 120 years, they stand a rea­son­able chance of an in­def­i­nite life­span via the ad­vent and de­vel­op­ment of rad­i­cal life ex­tend­ing tech­nol­ogy. Bri­tish life ex­ten­sion­ist Aubrey de Grey ex­presses a sim­i­lar con­vic­tion that the first per­son to live to 1000 years is al­most def­i­nitely alive to­day.

What ex­actly is life ex­ten­sion? Life ex­ten­sion, more for­mally known as bio­med­i­cal geron­tol­ogy, is a bur­geon­ing sci­en­tific field ded­i­cated to de­lay­ing or re­vers­ing the ef­fects of ag­ing with the in­tent of in­creas­ing both the av­er­age and max­i­mum hu­man life span (which is hy­poth­e­sized to be ap­prox­i­mately 125 years, with the old­est per­son on his­tor­i­cal record, Jeanne Cal­ment, hav­ing at­tained 122 years 164 days). It may be al­ter­na­tively de­fined as the science ded­i­cated to an in­def­i­nite pro­trac­tion of the hu­man healthspan (the pe­riod of one’s life dur­ing which one is gen­er­ally healthy and free from life threat­en­ing dis­ease), with the aug­men­ta­tion of life­span only an in­ci­den­tal fea­ture of a pro­tracted healthspan. As such life ex­ten­sion is merely a con­tin­u­a­tion of healthcare and pre­sum­ably its in­evitable cul­mi­na­tion.

What is ag­ing? Ma­soro, in the Hand­book of Ag­ing, de­fines ag­ing as “de­te­ri­o­ra­tive changes with time dur­ing post-mat­u­ra­tional life that un­der­lie an in­creas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity to chal­lenges, thereby de­creas­ing the abil­ity of the or­gan­ism to sur­vive”. Aubrey de Grey fur­ther em­pha­sizes that ag­ing “is not an ex­ten­sion of de­vel­op­ment but a de­cay”.

The idea of rad­i­cal life ex­ten­sion is not with­out its con­tro­ver­sies and is of­ten re­ceived with ap­pro­pri­ate skep­ti­cism. Its im­pos­si­bil­ity is of­ten pro­nounced on the premise that ag­ing is a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­non. Not only does this con­clu­sion not fol­low from the premise but more im­por­tantly, the premise it­self is flawed. Is ag­ing uni­ver­sal? The an­swer is an em­phatic no! There are a num­ber of or­gan­isms that do not dis­play “an in­creas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity to chal­lenges” with chrono­log­i­cal age. These or­gan­isms are said to be neg­li­gi­bly senes­cent and in­clude the jel­ly­fish Tur­ri­top­sis dohrnii, tardi­grades, bac­te­ria (at the colony level), hy­dra, lob­sters and pla­narian flat­worms. The strat­egy by which Tur­ri­top­sis achieves its neg­li­gi­ble senes­cence – trans-dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion – is par­tic­u­lar im­pres­sive. Trans-dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion fa­cil­i­tates re­ju­ve­na­tive re­ver­sion of the T. dohrnii adult to a sex­u­ally im­ma­ture polyp stage if con­fronted by en­vi­ron­men­tal stress, phys­i­cal stress, sick­ness or ag­ing and has gained it the ti­tle of ‘im­mor­tal jel­ly­fish’ (as in the ab­sence of pre­da­tion and dis­ease the process of trans-dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion may pro­ceed in­def­i­nitely). Another fre­quent premise for the as­ser­tion of the im­pos­si­bil­ity of life ex­ten­sion is the belief that the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics man­dates the in­evitabil­ity and ir­re­versibil­ity of ag­ing. The law ef­fec­tively states that all closed sys­tems de­cay ir­re­versibly to equi­lib­rium (which in bi­o­log­i­cal terms trans­lates to the in­evitabil­ity of ag­ing). How­ever, the er­ror in such rea­son­ing is that a bi­o­log­i­cal sys­tem is ev­i­dently not a closed sys­tem and con­se­quently suf­fers no such lim­i­ta­tion.

Many over­lap­ping the­o­ries of ag­ing have been ten­dered. These in­clude the telom­erase the­ory, the free rad­i­cal the­ory, the DNA dam­age the­ory, the an­tag­o­nis­tic pleiotropy hy­poth­e­sis and the Dis­pos­able Soma The­ory. The mul­ti­ple the­o­ries have in turn birthed a va­ri­ety of ex­ist­ing and prospec­tive strate­gies for ame­lio­rat­ing the ag­ing prob­lem and at­tain­ing in­def­i­nite life ex­ten­sion. These strate­gies in­clude stem cell ther­apy, tis­sue re­gen­er­a­tion, or­gan trans­plant, pros­thetic or­gans, cloning, an­tiox­i­dants, caloric re­stric­tion and caloric re­stric­tion mimet­ics, telom­erase ther­apy, ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, SENS, molec­u­lar re­pair nan­otech­nol­ogy, cry­on­ics, mind up­load­ing, and re­ver­sal of in­for­ma­tion en­tropy (at the level of the in­di­vid­ual and that of so­ci­ety). To date, the most ef­fec­tive strate­gies (based on tests on mice, yeast and ne­ma­todes) have proven to be caloric re­stric­tion and ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion. For ex­am­ple, caloric re­stric­tion and ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion has been dis­cov­ered to in­crease life­span of mice by as much 40 per­cent and 150 per­cent, re­spec­tively. Also, ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion in ne­ma­tode worms and a com­bi­na­tion of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and caloric re­stric­tion in yeast have in­creased the life­spans of these or­gan­isms ten-fold. The long term ef­fect of a caloric re­stric­tion study on rh­e­sus mon­keys re­mains in­con­clu­sive.

(Check out next Satur­day’s STAR News­pa­per for part two.)

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