The litany of myths, legends and Hollywood movies involving arcane elixirs or mysterious fountains of immortality are a testament to mankind’s perpetual fascination with prolonged life. However, over the weekend, Jim Mellon – the British entrepreneur and investor – revealed that he is sanguine about the emergence of a fast-growing “longevity” sector.
In 1900, the world average life expectancy was 31, and has since more than doubled to around 72. However, these figures should not be overstated; in 1900, no more than in 2017, 31 was no considered “old”. Instead, dramatic reductions in infant mortality and immunisation against particularly devastating diseases have meant that, on average, people live longer. It is fallacious to argue that the maximum attainable age has significantly increased, let alone doubled. Advances in medicine have, quite simply, reduced one’s chances of dying before reaching old age.
Nevertheless, as a consequence of being able to effectively treat illnesses that cause premature death, humanity is left largely to tackle diseases that disproportionately afflict the elderly: cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. Though an outright cure has not yet been developed, great strides have even been made in HIV/AIDS treatment, meaning it is no longer the death sentence of years gone by.
Merely eradicating all fatal diseases would, however, leave humans living prolonged lives in frail, withering bodies – hardly the stuff of myth and legend. Accordingly, the would-be “longevity” sector aims not to eradicate the aforementioned diseases, but instead implement changes to the human body at the cellular level.
Paving the Way
As usual, it is Silicon Valley that is paving the way in cellular longevity research. Among the various scientists and venture capitalists seeking to advance the maximum human lifespan is 22-year-old Laura Deming, who believes the longevity could be a “two-hundred-billion-dollar-plus” market.
Born in New Zealand, Deming joined Professor Cynthia Kenyon’s lab at the University of California, San Francisco aged just 12, where she assisted in successfully extending the lifespan of a worm by a factor of ten. In 2011, Deming accepted the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship – and dropped out of MIT – in order to devote her polymathic abilities towards setting up her own immortality-focused venture capital fund, which she aptly named The Longevity Fund.
Today, Deming and others are fervent in the belief that human “biological immortality” is around the proverbial corner. As distinct from the traditional concept of immortality – infinite life – biological immortality is when the chances of an organism dying do not increase with its age. Indeed, some organisms such as the hydra are widely believed to be biologically immortal because they do not senesce – their cells do not stop dividing as they age.
It is not only Silicon Valley that is chasing immortality – but researchers in Oxford are also working on revealing the atomic structure of individual cells so that the causes of cellular senescence can be accurately pinpointed.
Laymen will, naturally, seek to discredit the possibility of human immortality ever transcending fiction and becoming a reality. However, as there always is in science, an enormous gulf exists between what the layman is even vaguely aware of, and what is being developed and discovered in various laboratories around the world.
Perhaps – along with the Internet of things, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, widespread use of renewable power, and the seemingly endless list of other rapidly-advancing technologies – human longevity will also play a part in defining tomorrow’s world.