A team of scientists at a British university say their latest experiments have revealed “exciting” progress on the road to literally “reverse aging.”
I don’t want to oversell this. The scientists concede that a real life “anti-aging pill” is still far in the future. But, they say they’ve made noteworthy progress, by developing the ability to “revers[e] the aging of human cells,” which in turn, “could provide the basis for future anti-degeneration drugs.”
This kind of research is exactly what Silicon Valley billionaires, including Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have been chasing with dollars–racing to stop the clock, and live longer, before they themselves grow too old to benefit. But now these British researchers might have beaten everyone else to the punch.
Here’s the science, the experiment, and the suddenly relevant questions about what life on earth would look like if at least some of us could live much longer–maybe even indefinitely.
Turning genes on and off
First, the experiment, and what it means. One theory about how aging works is that over time, we develop a growing number cells that don’t function as they are supposed to, and that also inhibit the correction functioning of other cells around them.
Harries and Whiteman suggest that the reason we generate these “senescent cells” is because our bodies lose the “ability to turn genes on and off at the right time and in the right place,” which thus create cells with incorrect characteristics.
That’s a very esoteric description, so Harries and Whiteman include a really basic analogy: a recipe for chocolate cake.
Imagine you’re baking a cake, and that your decision whether to include chocolate is the equivalent of “turning on” a gene during cell creation. Add the chocolate, and you wind up with chocolate cake; if you don’t add it, you wind up with some other flavor.
And if you somehow were to lose the ability to decide whether to include chocolate or not, you’d wind up with some random flavored cakes.
The key: hydrogen sulphide
Okay, so why would our bodies lose the ability to turn genes on and off? Harries and Whiteman suggest that it’s a matter of your body no longer being able to create a series of about 300 proteins called “splicing factors,” which impact that “on/off” decision.
So, the theory goes, if you could restore the ability to create splicing factors, you could potentially correct the “on/off” gene decisions, which would then reduce the number of senescent cells, and thus counteract the aging process.
That’s exactly what Harries and Whiteman say their experiment did–by “treating old cells with a chemical that releases small amounts of hydrogen sulphide.”
Lo and behold, it worked: “We were able to increase levels of some splicing factors, and to rejuvenate old human cells.”
Granted, this is very tricky and in the early stages. Hydrogen sulphide is a naturally occurring substance in the body, but large amounts can be toxic. So the researchers focused on ways to deliver it in very small doses directly where they think it would do the most good.
“We are hopeful that in using molecular tools such as this,” they write, “we will be able to eventually remove senescent cells in living people, which may allow us to target multiple age-related diseases at once. This is some way in the future yet, but it’s an exciting start.”
But will Sergey Brin live forever?
Again, this all amounts to “exciting” progress, but it’s really Step One. There’s a real question whether any of this science, with experiment building upon experiment, will achieve results in time for anyone currently reading this article to benefit from it.
At Google, the head of the company’s anti-aging research writes that he thinks we “probably won’t solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.”
But if we could ever pull this off, can you imagine the way it would change our society? I’m reminded of two quotes:
- “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” –Steve Jobs
- “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”–Susan Ertz
And that goes to why the people pushing for answers here hardest are individual, highly successful entrepreneurs with money to burn and a fear of death. Perhaps that’s the story for all of us, billionaires and mere mortals alike. We’re quite possibly the last generations to live, who believe it’s inevitable that we will one day die.