Saturday, May 7, 2005

Engineered negligible senescence

Long Live the Mammals

Radical longevity? Life-extension? Immortality?

Call it what you want, it's one step closer to reality today. Aging (real aging, not superficial wrinkles and sagging fat) is likely caused by a number of factors, one of which is oxidation.

You've seen the commercials for various supplements or foods with antioxidants in them to stop free radicals. Well, that's actually real stuff; free radicals are caused by oxidation and go on to damage cells. You see, the energy to run your body comes from mitochondria, remarkable machines that unfortunately wear down due to damage from these free radicals.

Peter S. Rabinovich of the University of Washington genetically modified mice to overproduce an antioxidant called catalase. In some of the mice, the catalase was also diverted to the mitochondria, rather than it's normal location. Remarkably, these mice lived 20% longer than unmodified mice with no detected side effects. They didn't only live longer, the normal "age-related" diseases such as cataracts and heart disease didn't appear until later in life as well. As with other longevity research, there doesn't appear to be any reason the same effect couldn't be achieved in humans, either through genetic modification or, more likely in the short term, drugs. In other words, this single factor could raise life expectancy from 80 years to 95 years.

As someone who believes that there is no existence beyond that which we are all living now, I support any research that might one day prolong our time here. The trick is to make sure it's safe and available to all who want it. The idea that because death is natural it is desirable is simply alien me. Except in cases of extreme pain, for which I strongly support voluntary euthanasia, I think existence for me would always be preferable to nonexistence. Immortality is impossible, of course. There will always be accidents, murder, and suicide. But I firmly believe that disease and aging are not inevitable, and it is not inconceivable that people living today--perhaps only children now--could live well beyond their projected 80 years, beyond their "natural" 120 years, and maybe to see the dawn of the next millennium, if they're careful.

Or maybe it won't happen. Maybe there will be incremental advances but no big breakthroughs. Maybe interest will wane and research will not be pursued for decades. Maybe longevity will be seen as a threat to God's plan and banned. Maybe it will work, but only the rich will use it and rule the rest of us as a privileged class of immortal warlords. Who knows? Nobody will if we don't continue to push the boundaries of the possible.

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