Features & Columns

The Methuselah Manifesto

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur and futurist is at the center of a movement to extent human life—indefinitely
DR. ETERNITY: Ray Kurzweil, who launched Singularity University in Mountain View earlier this month, believes that millions now living will never die.

IF you're under age 30, it is likely that you will be able to live as long as you want. That is, barring accidents and wars, you have centuries of healthy life ahead of you. So the participants in the Longevity Summit that convened in Manhattan Beach last week contend.

Over the weekend, Maximum Life Foundation president David Kekich gathered a group of scientists, entrepreneurs and visionaries to meet for three days with the goal of developing a scientific and business strategy to make extreme human life extension a real possibility within a couple of decades. Kekich dubbed the effort the Manhattan Beach Project.

Tech entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who launched the Google-backed Singularity University at the NASA Ames Research Facility in Mountain View three weeks ago, opened the conference with a virtual presentation on exponential technology trends that he believes are making a leap in longevity possible.

"We are very close to the tipping point in human longevity," Kurzweil said. "We are about 15 years away from adding more than one year of longevity per year to remaining life expectancy."

This has been labeled by summiteer and life-extension guru Aubrey de Grey as "longevity escape velocity." Achieving escape velocity, according to Kekich, would mean that "your projected day of reckoning moves further away from you rather than closing in on you."

"Health and medicine will be a million times more powerful in 20 years," Kurzweil said, predicting that the complexity of biology will yield to the exponential powers of applied information technology and take off. He cited Moore's Law, which in 1965 predicted the doubling of microchip functionality and halving of its costs every two years—and which has proven correct.

The decrease in cost and increase in speed of sequencing whole human genomes is outpacing even Moore's Law. In 2000, the first genome was sequenced after 14 years of concerted effort and at a cost of $3 billion. Now various startups offer the potential to sequence an individual's DNA for less than $100 in under an hour.

By 2029, Kurzweil says, people will be beginning their intimate merger with information technologies, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies.

"Something I am personally interested in is not just designer babies," he said, "but designer baby boomers."

Anti-aging research is a rich and varied territory right now. Researchers are finally beginning to get a handle on the actual causes of aging. With this increased scientific understanding, some researchers now believe they are on the way to figuring out how to stop it, and—eventually—how to reverse it.

Michael Rose, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine, has been breeding long-lived fruit flies for decades. Rose's work is built on the premise that natural selection only works to keep organisms healthy and alive until they have reproduced. After reproduction, the human body no longer works to prevent the accumulation of damage that leads to aging and death, because your genes have moved on to your children.

Rose has produced fruit flies that live four times longer than normal—the human equivalent of being healthy at age 300. The Methuselah flies are more fecund and better at handling environmental stresses than are normal flies.

Insights garnered from the genomics of long-lived flies are being used by Genescient LLC to develop anti-aging supplements for people. The company plans to release its first product in 2010.

"In my world, biological immortality is possible," Rose says.

William Andrews, head of Sierra Sciences (motto: "Cure Aging or Die Trying"), says his company's project is to identify compounds that lengthen "telomeres"—sequences of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes to keep them from unraveling. Andrews argues that telomeres control aging in cells and thus control aging in us. And a new study this month reports that centenarians have longer telomeres than the rest of us.

According to Andrews, when an adult's telomeres get down to a certain size, they die of old age. By looking at telomere length in a blood sample, Andrews says, "I can tell how old you are and how long you have before you die." (For the curious, Spectracell offers a commercial telomere length test.)

The only cells in our bodies that do not suffer telomere shortening are reproductive cells, thanks to the enzyme telomerase. The goal of Sierra Sciences is to develop compounds that will reactivate telomerase in somatic cells. After screening more than 160,000 compounds, Sierra has come up with 33 that activate telomerase and lengthen telomeres.

"This would be the biggest thing to hit the planet, if we can turn these into drugs," Andrews says.

Biological Machines

Why do some people live to be more than 100 years old? That's the question that Stephen Coles, head of the Supercentenarian Research Foundation (SRF) is trying to answer. Supercentenarians are people who are over 110 years old. In the world there are 76 currently validated supercentenarians, 72 are female and 4 are male. The genetic underpinnings of their longer lives are still murky. However, Coles has performed a number of autopsies and he has found that most died of senile cardiac amyloidosis, the accumulation of amyloid fibers in their heart muscles.

Anti-aging research is not for the faint-hearted. Biologist Michael West was one of the founders of the Menlo Park biotech stem cell company Geron. He later founded Advanced Cell Technology which worked on therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning, a.k.a somatic cell nuclear transfer, involves inserting nuclei from specific patients into human eggs to produce stem cells that are immunologically matched to those patients. The goal would be to transform these stem cells into other cells—nerve, muscle, immune system cells—which could be used to repair damaged or old tissues and organs.

That's the theory, but no one has been able to perfect the practice; no stem cell lines have been derived from cloned human embryos so far. West now heads up BioTime, which is increasingly focused on using induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells). IPS cells are created by dosing normal adult cells, say skin cells, taken from a patient with various embryonic factors that cause it to revert to an earlier stage of development. IPS cells can be transformed into other types of cells which can be used to repair damage or rejuvenate tissues and organs. For example, new hemangioblasts, the precursor cells of blood, could be used to reconstitute and rejuvenate the human immune system.

Theoretical biogerontologist, Aubrey de Grey, the founder of the SENS Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation, is the energizer bunny of anti-aging scientific research and advocacy. SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, which De Grey defines as "an integrated set of medical techniques designed to restore youthful molecular and cellular structure to aged tissues and organs."

De Grey says one proposed anti-aging solution is to install mitochondrial genes in the nuclei of cells. One theory of aging is that the cellular powerhouses, the mitochondria, produce highly reactive molecules called free radicals as a side effect of generating energy to run cells. These free radicals over time cause mutations in mitochondrial genes that become ever more damaged, producing even more free radicals in a downward death spiral. If these mitochondrial genes could be moved to the more protected nucleus, this free radical death spiral could be greatly attenuated. Engineering this migration from mitochondria to nucleus has been successful for one gene so far.

De Grey says that defeating the aging process would also require eliminating the damaging crosslinked proteins and sugars that clog cells and damage the extracellular matrix. The SENS Foundation is funding research to find enzymes in bacteria that degrade these organic complexes with the goal of turning them into drugs.

One major barrier to cracking the problem of aging is a shortage of researchers. Computer scientist Peter Voss, the founder of Adaptive Artificial Intelligence, aims to solve that shortage by creating the equivalent of thousands of virtual researchers and research assistants.

"Imagine hundreds of thousands of Ph.D.-level machines chipping away at the aging problem," Voss muses. Two years ago, at the Singularity Summit at Stanford University, Voss said: "In my opinion AIs will be developed almost certainly in less than 10 years and quite likely in less than five years." At the Longevity Summit last week, Voss predicted that his artificially intelligent researchers would be ready in six years.

In his presentation Kurzweil had envisioned constant nanotech monitoring of individual brain cells. Such nanotech devices would "ultimately capture our mind files and back them up," he said.

"A thousand years from now, people will think it pretty daunting the people today went through life without backing up their mind files every day."