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The Science of Immortality

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© Claus Lunau / Science Photo Library / Corbis

© Claus Lunau / Science Photo Library / Corbis

Imagine you’ve just gotten into a car crash. Your airbag opens, your body crumples and dies while at that very moment your brain is simultaneously auto-uploaded to a computer at a hospital. A few minutes later, you wake up in another body, your brain downloaded into a new carrier. Is technological immortality the future of humanity?

Some big thinkers are starting to believe so.


BUILDING SUPERMAN

The science of immortality is two-fold: biological and technological.

On the biological side, doctors and researchers are attempting to slow or stop aging as well as eliminate the diseases that come along with the process through altering chemicals or cells in the human body.

At the Grossman Wellness Center in Colorado, Dr. Terry Grossman is trying to cure the diseases of aging to help people “live long enough to live forever.” His facility uses stem cell therapy to treat patients, taking cells from the patients themselves and re-injecting them into the body to repair and reproduce tissue.

“We’re well on the way to regenerating organs,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be very long before we can create human replacement parts. We’ll be able to treat people who have failing organs by replacing those organs with brand new stem cell created tissues, and then patients will be able to live healthier longer to take advantage of what advances are coming in the decades ahead.”

Dr. Grossman talks about the first thing anyone can do to live longer and healthier:

The team at SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation is also spearheading research to cure diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. Its goal is to convince the medical community at large to treat the underlying causes of diseases rather than managing the problem once it occurs.

“Age is a risk factor for these diseases like crossing the street is a risk factor for being hit by a bus,” says CEO Mike Kope. “It’s not like you went out one day and you were infected with Alzheimer’s. These things are occurring within you just as a matter of being alive and accumulating damage inside your body.”

Dr. Bill Andrews, a cancer specialist, thinks the cure lies in telomeres, the biological caps on human chromosomes that he believes are the cause of basically every disease known to man. He relates them to the ends of shoelaces; when the plastic caps on the end of a shoelace shorten, the lace begins to fray. That’s what happens with telomeres—they’re like the caps, and they get shorter as we age, which leads to illness.

He’s discovered a way to fix the problem. Andrews has harnessed the power of an enzyme called human telomerase. In petri dish trials with human cells, injecting telomerase into the cells caused them not only to stop aging, but made aging reverse. The only hurdle now is finding a chemical that will empower telomerase to reach all the cells in a human body through an injection or a pill. That may be available sooner than you imagine.

“We think we’re only about one year away from having a chemical that will be potent enough to cause telomeres to get longer,” Andrews says. “My prediction is that we are going to actually see people get younger and healthier in every way imaginable. I want to see Betty White walk out on stage and look 24 again.”

Most recently, Google has stepped into anti-aging research with its Calico project. The team is trying to build an electronic brain replica to see how each part works, the theory being that once it is understood exactly how the brain functions in every aspect, we will be able to upload and download consciousness as needed, which is scientific gold for those involved in a project called 2045.


INTRODUCING MR. ROBOTO

The 2045 Initiative focuses on the idea of mind uploading – transferring what’s in the brain to a different kind of carrier independent of the body.

It’s broken down into four steps: Avatar A, widespread use of an avatar controlled by a brain-computer; Avatar B, a life support system for the brain linked to a robotic body; Avatar C, the ability to transfer brain information to an artificial carrier; and Avatar D, virtual reality bodies instead of human bodies. The team has set a goal to reach Avatar D by (you guessed it) 2045.

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Photo via 2045

“The idea is that virtual reality will be indistinguishable from what we regard as reality today,” Grossman says. “If you were in a virtual reality body or realm, whatever experiences you would have, like skydiving, eating ice cream, having sex, would be indistinguishable from the real experience. As long as we have an ability to upload consciousness, memories, brainpower into some sort of digital backup, we have essentially made ourselves immortal. And it will be available just in a matter of decades.”

Outside of brain uploading, engineers are trying to harness the nanotech revolution as a way to merge both the technological and biological efforts toward immortality and longevity. Plans are already in place for nanotechnology devices, nanobots, designed to live in human bloodstreams and accomplish different functions depending on need.

For example, if someone were to have a heart attack, instead of doing CPR (a treatment Grossman refers to as primitive), an injection of nanobots will carry oxygen to all the tissues in the body to stop damage from happening before the patient can get to a hospital and then completely replace their heart with a cloned stem cell version.

Doctors also hope to use nanobots during disease outbreaks. The genetic profile of the disease would be programmed into the micro crusaders, which would then troop through the bloodstream obliterating foreign invader cells with teeny lasers. Grossman expects these to be available by 2030.

And of course, if all else fails, we could always fall back on cryogenics. Freezing humans at the point of death was the stuff of science fiction only 30 years ago, but current research brings it closer to reality every day. According to Andrews, we’ve got the freezing part down.

“The clear problem right now is they haven’t figured out how to thaw us out when we’re frozen,” he says.


WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?

So what can we do right now to increase our chances of living forever? If you ask Dr. Walter Bortz, an 85-year-old Stanford professor of medicine, stop going to the doctor immediately, let go of all hope for immortality and believe that you will live to 100 healthy years. Bortz thinks the key to longevity is not medicinal or technological; it’s purely about engagement—staying active and involved in all aspects of life, engaging your body and mind, your sex drive and your civic duty.

“If you go off into a corner and suck your thumb, you’re not going to live very long,” Bortz said. “The immortalists are hoping to solve death, and it’s bogus. There’s never been anything in the universe that has not died. The second law of thermodynamics says everything wears out. There are no exceptions to the law. If there were, people in history people would have lived to be 600. Nobody ever has.”

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Photo via NASA

Grossman takes a different approach. He believes a semblance of immortality will be available within the next 20 years, but we need to be proactive now in order to be sure we are healthy and alive to see those advances. He says therapies are already available to help us along that path. Medications and supplements can be prescribed that help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease while improving the immune system. Even hormone therapy helps; as our bodies age, our hormones dwindle (and so do we), but supplements to restore hormone levels to a more youthful state can allow for a longer life with a younger body.

“By being more aggressive in our application of today’s medicine, it is possible to grow older without aging,” he says. “Aging is optional.”


Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer, author and editor. Twitter: @jenniferbillock.

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