Friday, May 16, 2014

Is (The End of) Death Inevitable?

At a dinner party nearly two years ago, I made a passing comment about the inevitability of death. The host, an Israeli-Danish economics professor, took exception to my statement. He responded that one can only speak with certainty about what has happened, not what usually happens. At first blush, I thought he was either a wacko or was just being ornery. How could anyone assert that death was not a fact of life? How could anyone deny the inevitability of death?

After the dinner, I began to ponder his statement, and over the ensuing months gave it ever greater reflection. After reviewing the burgeoning body of research tackling anti-aging and longevity, I have reached my own conclusion. You may think I am also a bit looney, but please indulge me for a moment.

Car analogies are useful tools for explaining the function and longevity of the human body.  Everyone knows that the better you treat your car, the longer it will last.  However, despite utmost care, if the car is regularly used, at some point, the engine will need to be rebuilt, the tires replaced, the exterior retouched, etc. A car functions based on the quality of its fuel and replacing actual fuel with non-combustible liquids means the car can't function (except for electric cars, a scientific breakthrough in its own right).  Humans similarly need the right care and fuel to function.

However, car buffs will tell you that even though most cars are useable for at most a couple of decades, there are cars out there that are nearly a hundred years old and there are plenty of cars still functioning after many decades.  Yes, they need extra-special maintenance, but their useability is extendable indefinitely with continued care. Cars, like humans, also require the interoperability of multiple parts to be useful. Without a steering wheel, you can't meaningfully use the car even if you have a wonderful engine. Similarly, humans need their hearts, brains, livers, etc. to all function in unison and the failure of one is the failure of all.

Of course, cars analogies are of limited utility because the human body is far more complicated.
Unlike cars, replacing human parts is still a challenge. Yes, we can transplant some parts like hearts and livers, when they are even available, but parts like brains and thyroids still remain beyond our abilities. In fact, the human body is so complicated that many metabolic processes, parts of the microbiome (the bacteria, good and bad, that share our body space), and both human and microbiome genes and their related proteins have yet to be either fully understood or even identified. Even worse, when the body malfunctions like with auto-immune diseases and cancer, we are still mostly defenseless.

Nevertheless, what is unknown is ripe for the finding, analyzing and manipulating.  When smallpox was killing hundreds of millions of people, I am sure many wondered if a solution would ever be found. It was and the disease and the plague it caused are now mostly history. When the HIV virus was first discovered, the prognosis was sure death. Today, many live with the diagnosis due to effective interventions.

That is why I now believe that the difference between life and death is only a matter of undiscovered science. This means that the end of death as humans now understand it (another essay in its own right) will require scientific advances and breakthroughs that are only a matter of time. No one can tell you exactly when these life-altering discoveries will be made, but I suspect it will happen sooner than expected.  Why?  Because of the three "Ps": (Scientific) Progress, People and Purse.

Real progress is being made. Research into understanding what causes death is accelerating.  Universities across the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Israel are actively engaged in finding the root causes of death and related processes that accelerate and impede it.  Research into fruit-flies, worms, rodents and monkeys have already identified a number of gene variants whose presence and/or manipulation has been proven to extend life by as much as five times (in worms). Human gene studies have already identified multiple gene variants associated with super-centenarians, those aged above 110. Scientists recently created the first living semi-synthetic organism made from synthetic base pairs after long believing such a feat was impossible. As our ability to identify genes and proteins grows, so does the possibility for targeted gene therapies to control their actions. The accelerating progress to date offers the great promise of much more to come.

The solution to death will require great effort and that will require people capable of mustering such effort. Last year, Google announced the formation of a new company called CALICO, for California Life Company and hired Arthur Levinson, the former CEO and current Chairman of the pioneering Genentech, arguably one of the most successful and innovative biotechnology companies of all times. He is also Chairman of Apple, another technology bellwether. Levinson has begun assembling a team of leading scientists including recently adding Cynthia Kenyon, the UCSF molecular biologist and biogerontologist who has done the groundbreaking research into worm life extension. Not to be outdone, Craig Venter, the biologist and entrepreneur credited for winning the race to sequence the entire human genome, announced this year the formation of Human Longevity, a company dedicated to life extension. Human Longevity announced that it would first target cancer by collaborating with a UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center to sequence the genomes of between 40,000 to 100,000 cancer patients a year in order to find gene patterns amenable to novel gene therapies.

People like Aubrey de Grey, of the SENS Research Foundation, a non-profit funding work at universities across the world and at its own Research Center in Mountain View, CA,. have been getting much airtime about funding life extension by giving TED talks, writing extensively and circulating widely. Ray Kurzweil, the prolific writer, inventor, scientist, Google director of engineering, and futurist purports that the melding of humans and technology, what he calls the Singularity, will by itself propagate life indefinitely into a new era of Transhumanism, a perspective that argues that humans will enter a new stage of existence by using technology to greatly enhance intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.  Of course, life and death as we know them today would be redefined under this scenario. Think beyond bionics and The Six Million Dollar Man and implanted circuitry and the current TV show Intelligence. Think nano- or even the much smaller femto-technology. Think semi-synthetic humans.

Perhaps the most intriguing persona in the longevity field is entrepreneur Laura Deming.  Admitted into MIT at the age of 14, child prodigy Deming, now 19, dropped out to found Longevity VC, a venture capital firm focused on identifying and funding research into life extension. Deming began researching longevity at the age of 12 in Cynthia Kenyon's UCSF lab.  With an early start into the field, Deming offers real promise. However, even great people usually need resources.

Scientific research is often expensive. To have any real hope for sooner than later anti-aging breakthroughs, purses must open and they have.  On the government front, the National Institute of Aging has been spending wisely. Recently, it announced a ten million dollar grant to University of Rochester, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Harvard to fund such research. Craig Venter is purported to have raised fifty million for his venture, and Ms. Deming is funded to some extent by Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of Paypal and a successful hedge fund manager.  Although Google has not publicly announced its investment in CALICO, it is estimated to be in the tens of millions.  By my estimates that easily places the current investment north of 100 million dollars. That may not be the billions needed, but its a good start.

So given the progress, people, and purse now engaged in the search for immortality, do you think that (the end of) death is inevitable? Maybe the economics professor was on to something...


  1. Assuming humanity doesn't get destroyed by an asteroid or some other disaster, then I have to say it is inevitable. I assume you saw the articles about GDF11 that came out recently.

    1. The GDF11 studies hold great promise in reversing some of the damage associated with aging. It will be very interesting to see how research for using the GDF11 for therapeutic use plays out over the next few years.

      As to asteroids destroying our planet, let's hope it doesn't happen, and if it's inevitable, that we have found a way to relocate to another habitable planet by then.

  2. There would still be death from other causes. If death from aging and disease was eliminated, we would likely eventually die of either accidents or homicides. Safety can be improved, but I don't think that it's possible to eliminate all risk, and even a very small risk of death per exposure, such as during a single car or airplane ride, would become a very significant risk over enough years of exposure (repeated car and airplane rides). Improvements in emergency medicine or medicine in general could lower fatality rates of various types of injuries, but I can think of some types of injuries which will probably always be fatal. However, we might would at least live very long lives compared to current life expectancy.

    1. You are correct. I am focused on death as a result of disease or biologically programmed obsolescence, not when it happens due to an unexpected trauma. However, if the way we avoid death in the future is by incorporating greater elements of synthetic material into our infrastructure as recent scientific studies suggest may be possible, the human body may be far better able to either absorb trauma or recover from it. Perhaps ever-present femto-sized implanted technology can rush to the area of damage and repair it. Clearly, at the moment its science fiction but so were moon-shots and vaccines at one point.