The Immortality Puzzle

By Stephen Smit | @StephenSmit92

Ever dreamt of living forever? Well, you’re not alone.
It’s been one of the big dreams of humanity since… well forever.  There’s something enticing about denying biological inevitability, casting off the shackles of death.

Over centuries, a long line of kings, explorers, alchemists, and hawkers have searched for different ways to defeat death. But, what do all of these people have in common? None of them managed to find a way.

Fast-forward to the present, and ground-breaking research and experimentation could have the answer. Scientists from various fields around the world are putting together more pieces of the life extension puzzle, all aiming to solve it first. They estimate, within the next 30 years, that life extension will be a reality.

The knowledge to develop anti-aging treatments already exists. There are seven biochemical processes that cause accumulative damage to the body as we age.

So, in theory, if these processes can be halted, they could even be reversed.

Of course, the next logical step is to create a simple and accessible way of treating aging.

Enter Australia’s own life extension guru, renowned Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, David Sinclair.

Professor Sinclair has been working on medicine that switches our existing ‘longevity genes’ on. “We have seven of these longevity genes in our bodies, we call these the ‘sirtuins’.”  

“What we’ve learned, is that they seem to protect our body against diseases of aging,” he explains. Professor Sinclair conducted an experiment in which he placed extra copies of these genes into to yeast cells, lab worms, and fruit flies, and found that they lived longer and healthier lives.

“So what we need to do is figure out ways to tweak these genes to make them more active, and we might be able to delay all the diseases that we get as we age, and possibly even reverse aging entirely.”

He has already identified two promising molecules that activate these genes. In lab experiments, mice that were the human equivalent of 60 were fed these molecules for a week. Researchers saw a noticeable improvement in their metabolism, equivalent to mice that were the human equivalent of 20 years old.

While we may be able to turn back our body clock, keeping our brain healthy at extreme old age poses a difficult obstacle. Brain cells don’t replicate in the same way as the cells in our body do, so keeping the brain functioning into extreme old age is going to be problematic. Once brain cells replicate, past experience is lost. In essence, we would lose our memories, and ourselves.

Professor Sinclair claims that, “what we need are medicines that will keep all of our body parts working at the same time. If we just fix a certain part of our body, the problem is that some other part will break down.”

The endgame is to create a more potent version of these molecules, and to use them to create a pill that activates these longevity genes, thus keeping our minds and bodies equally sound. “I’m hopeful, one day in the not too distant future, there will be medicines to keep to us healthier and functioning at old age”.

Though, there is one animal which could unlock the secret of cellular rejuvenation – the immortal jellyfish, found in Japanese and Mediterranean waters. This jellyfish has two distinct life stages; the larval ‘polyp’ stage, and the adult ‘medusa’ stage.

While other species of jellyfish die once they’ve reproduced, the immortal jellyfish has the ability to age in reverse – back to its larval form – when under environmental or physical stress. This process is known as ‘transdifferentiation’, where old cells transform into young cells. The goal for researchers is to discover how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, and to apply this ‘immortal’ genome to humans.

Biological immortality won’t only be achieved by how we alter our body’s cellular structure, but also by what have inside our bodies. The robots of the future won’t just work in factories; they’ll also work in humans.

We’ll have microscopic nanobots working in our bodies indefinitely, repairing damaged cells and organs, effectively eliminating diseases.

Yet for all the advancements in technology, health, and anti-aging, humans will still be susceptible to death. For example, there would still be the same chance of us dying in a plane crash, or in a natural disaster.  

How will the immortality puzzle be solved? Each field of research is individually promising, but it’s likely it will be a combination of all these components working together that will achieve true immortality.

Right now, though, we can’t escape death. So why ignore it? Even as a geneticist, Professor Sinclair struggles with the very notion he is trying to cure. “Our instincts tell us to bury thoughts about our mortality, because otherwise we could not function. What I’m not good at is ignoring that fact,” he says.
How does Professor Sinclair deal with his fear of mortality? His philosophy is simple; every day is precious.

He has a simple focus – to make the most of his time, and to try and make the world a better place. In the Sinclair household, the theme is ‘carpe diem’.

“No one is allowed to waste a moment.”

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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