Science or Fiction in 50: Immortality
Will we prevent our bodies from aging?
Immortality goes back much further than most other conjectures of science fiction writers. There are many instances of immortality in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. However, the only consistent trend we have is one of a mystical sort. A picture that ages instead of a man, immortality through reincarnation, and magical volcanos. One outlier that provides a glimpse of science at the time: different evolutionary paths that lead to species with longer lifespans.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
Valdar the Oft-Born: A Saga of Seven Ages by George Griffith (1895)
Surprisingly, in the late 1800s and into the 1900s a branch of science most closely resembling the microbiome grew in popularity. This “autointoxication” craze (later discredited by the scientific community but perhaps being reversed now) led to several works giving credit to chemical formulas that, when consumed, granted the person eternal life. Another notable source of immortality during this time is… blood. The rise of the vampire who sustains youth through the drinking of the blood of the young.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Věc Makropulos by Karel Čapek (1922)
Conquest of Life by Earl Andrew Binder and Otto Binder (1937)
Into the second half of the 1900s we see the hand of genetics and biological agents nurture our science fiction imaginations. Selective breeding with Heinlein, blood transfusion by Osamu Tezuka, bacterial infection in I Am Legend, and the catch-all mutation provided by Marvel.
Methuselah's Children by Robert A. Heinlein (1941)
Phoenix by Osamu Tezuka (1954)
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Wolverine by Marvel (1974)
How will we combat aging? Our science fiction writers have given us two possible paths:
Evolution and Mutation – absolutely a possibility, however without a nudge by humans you might have to wait a few hundred thousand years. And anything that won’t benefit us immediately is unlikely to gain much support from investors.
Epigenetics – whether by consuming a particular chemical compound or modifying our genetics, this one has real legs today.
Overall, most of our authors through the ages don’t bother to explain immortality. A recent book worth reading on the subject, Lifespan, by David Sinclair, explains this blind spot. People don’t treat aging as a disease. It is simply something that happens, like gravity. I strongly encourage you to read Lifespan and books that treat aging as a disease. Unlike our previous investigations, we don’t have so clear a product path that can obviously lead to immortality. Lacking this, I recommend we apply a framework I call OFA: Observable, Fundable, Accessible (OFA). Let’s take a time machine back to before the invention of the electric lightbulb and apply our framework.
- Observable: Have we seen an example of this in the real world? For instance, we saw lightning in the sky and static sparks off our hair and clothes; proof that electricity was real, even if we didn’t know how it was made or controlled yet.
- Fundable: Are investors putting money into the industry or a related industry? Is there a huge prize for taking the risk? We saw investments into the electrified telegraph that paid out well. Electric lighting, an even bigger market, would find deep pockets thanks to that proof point and the size of the market if they won.
- Accessible: How cheap are the materials to research and build the product? Edison’s team experimented with 3000 substances for the light bulb over two years. That’s incredible and shows accessibility to resources. Compare that to the Manhattan Project. While they ultimately succeeded, nuclear materials were by no means accessible to the entrepreneur at that time. Fast forward thirty years later and even small countries could replicate fission, thanks to the accessibility of materials and knowledgeable people.
How does immortality fair under our OFA framework?
- Observable: We have concrete examples of organisms like trees living thousands of years. Check.
- Fundable: Investment into biotech is significant and growing. Many traditional tech investors are branching out into health technology looking for products that might not have to go through the clinical trial nightmare. Check.
- Accessible: The human body is incredibly complex, and our understanding of it is still very weak. We are trapped in a trial and error world. Within human bodies, that pushes the costs and accessibility of testing into a limited number of companies and academic institutions. No check just yet, but we might be close. More to follow.
Returning to the book Lifespan, we see two very real paths towards extending aging.
The first path involves the consumption of key molecules that our body needs to rebuild broken systems within our body. A startup example of this, Elysium Health, provides supplements like NAD+ that have shown to feed the machinery in our body that combats aging. However, the long lifespan of a human combined with the complexity of our chemistry complicates our studies and therefore “certainty” of success. It may also take significant time to find all of the chemicals we lack to repair each part of our body. This approach may slowly and steadily extend our healthy life 5 years here, ten years there, it lacks the flair of a true promise to conquering aging forever.
The second path involves genetically engineering / replacing our mRNA and proteins (like Sirtuins) such that our own bodies will provide all of the work we need to repair themselves. The research around mice repairing damage within their bodies, effectively reversing their age, foreshadows great discoveries ahead of us.
The counterforce of change? Our human body is crazy complex, and our threshold for mistakes by science, low. Companies like Atomwise, which raised $123M, are using convolutional neural networks to simulate billions of combinations of molecules that will bond with receptor sites on our body without causing unwanted side effects, potentially reducing the time to find safe candidates from millennia to months. If we can, through simulation, reduce the time it takes to narrow in on some promising paths, we will likely see significant investment into these paths.
The observability of this epigenetic engineering in mice today, the likely investment after one iconic example of reversed aging, and the greatly reduced cost to engineer biologicals in laboratories (or outsource to labs overseas), gives us a very good chance to conquer aging within fifty years. That does not mean you can’t die in a car accident or from an infection, so you might want to find a job where you can never leave your house because, you know, our experience isolated at home during the time of COVID was so fun.
Verdict: Yes, but don’t get into an accident.