Living longer

It’s been said that young people dream of being rich, and rich people dream of being young. It is perhaps not surprising then that the latest news from Jeff Bezos is that he is putting squillions of dollars into a company trying to develop editing of the human genome.  He expects that it will enable us to achieve immortality. It is not though to provide immortality just for embryos yet to be formed. It is anticipated that a living person’s entire body will be able to be reprogrammed. I suppose that it’s marginally less obvious as an example of middle-aged angst than launching a phallic symbol into space.

The money is going to Altos Labs, a young start-up trying to reverse ageing by reprogramming human cells. The technology has been shown to rejuvenate cells in a lab, and it is thought that it might eventually help revitalize entire bodies. The Company was formed after a series of short-term grants had been awarded to longevity researchers by Yuri Milner, another middle-aged billionaire. When it became evident that a dedicated, well-funded start-up could pursue research more efficiently, Altos was born, in the spring of 2021. And the company hasn't stopped growing since, poaching a who's who of the world's top longevity scientists.

One of them is Shinya Yamanaka, who shared a 2012 Nobel Prize for the discovery of reprogramming. Yamanaka’s breakthrough discovery was that with the addition of just four proteins, now known as Yamanaka factors, cells can be instructed to revert to a primitive state with the properties of embryonic stem cells. By 2016, in the lab of another of those recruited, Izpisúa Belmonte, these factors had been applied to entire living mice, achieving signs of age reversal and leading him to term reprogramming a potential “elixir of life.”

The results of such mouse experiments, while tantalizing, were also frightening. Depending on how much reprogramming occurred, some mice developed ugly embryonic tumours called teratomas, even as others showed signs their tissues had become younger. Despite Altos' distinguished personnel and adequate resources, many funded start-ups are already developing reprogramming technology, including Life Biosciences, Turn Biotechnologies, AgeX Therapeutics, and Shift Bioscience. None, however, have thus far produced treatments that have advanced to human clinical trials.

Indeed, the track record of billionaire-funded companies wanting to sell us longevity isn't particularly stellar. Bezos and Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal) previously backed Unity Biotechnology. It focused on senolytic drugs. These would rid the body of what are known as “senescent cells” – old cells that refuse to die but which secrete damaging chemicals. Last year though it failed its first major study, cancelled its main anti-ageing program, laid off 30% of its staff, and shifted its focus to ophthalmology and neurology. Meanwhile Calico Labs, the longevity science subsidiary of Alphabet (formerly known as Google) made headlines in 2013 when, it too, hired elite scientists and lavished on them enormous research budgets. So far, Calico has produced no major breakthroughs and two of its top scientists have jumped ship.

For now most of the work is limited to laboratory animals. As Felipe Sierra, the former director of ageing biology at the National Institute on Ageing in the US, said last year: “None of this is ready for primetime. The bottom line is I don’t try any of these things. Why don’t I? Because I’m not a mouse.”

But let us suppose that success finally comes. What then? I assume that we will be able to order the elixir of life on Amazon, with free next-day delivery if you have Amazon Prime. I doubt though that it will be a one-off treatment. How then will payment after the first dose be priced? Shall we have to set up a direct debit valid for the rest of our extremely long lives? What happens if we fall down on the payments and Amazon cuts off our supply of elixir?  If we are already well past the three score and ten, then that would be a death sentence. So then the state would have to take over the supply and funding of the elixir.

And with nobody dying, but children still being born, it will put us in breach of our global warming targets by increasing the world population. Perhaps part of the price for the elixir will need to be devoted to tree-planting as a carbon offset. That’s a lot of trees!

Of course, one of the things over the millennia which has made religion so successful is that it too offered eternal life. You had to make an investment of time, behaviour and money (the more the better) in order to attain it, but you could reasonably expect a return on what you had put in.

There was though an obvious defect in all of this: it was not possible to see eternal life in action. No-one had even come back to describe it to us from first-hand experience. Instead pictures were painted on canvas and in words describing, in highly poetic form, the joy of that life everlasting.  We would mix with cherubim and seraphim and spend our days (and nights) praising God: obviously, being omniscient and omnipotent, he needs endless reassurance from the beings he created that he did the right thing and that he is an all round good guy/gal. The problem of pain and suffering was what actually persuaded me that belief in God was not a very sensible thing to engage in, but fairly high on the list of the other persuasive factors was the unimaginable dullness of eternal life as described by our artists and priests.

And I’m afraid that the prospect of boredom applies equally to eternal life run by Amazon here on an earth. Living even for another few hundred years is not something which tempts me very much. There are only so many times we can go around the world and still find it interesting. Learning Japanese or Mandarin Chinese are not tasks which I think would make my life worthwhile, and there must be a limit to the number of other ‘challenges’ I would like to take on. I already find that novels do not entertain me as much as they used to. I doubt either that going to the theatre, visiting art galleries or listening to classical music would really provide me with the motivation to live for the next few centuries.
Having already probably written about 800 essays of varying quality, where am I going to find the material for the next few centuries?

But then there are the economic consequences of living to a very advanced age. Realistically, most of us, if not Jeff Bezos, would have to go back to work. How else are we going to fund our lives? We’re already having economic difficulties as a result of the extension of our life span by better health care from the biblical three score years and ten to our mid eighties. Saving for a pension which will be paid for ever is not an option. And the state – i.e. the tax paid by the workforce under the existing retirement age – is hardly going to be able to pay an increasing number of ‘pensioners’ to live centuries of life in idleness. And, if we don’t die, the tax take would not even be topped up by inheritance tax. There would never be a redistribution of wealth unless an actual wealth tax was introduced. And that’s not popular amongst the wealthy who are currently in charge.

And then there are the social consequences. What would happen to our lives as couples? Could Heather put up with me for centuries to come? Another social factor would be the intergenerational divide. I remember many years ago reading a short story by a science fiction writer which highlighted just this difficulty in a new Bezos style society. Already communication between the generations can be something of problem. So then imagine an age difference measured, not in decades, but in centuries. What would we have in common? And just think, you might actually have to listen to someone telling you his life story...surely enough to take away your will to live!

13 September 2021

Paul Buckingham

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