If we can extend the length of human telomeres, can we basically end the era of humans dying?

That’s a trailer for a movie that was accepted into South x Southwest this year called The Immortalists. You can read more about it here, but essentially the film follows two guys — not exactly or really scientists, per se — who want to change the idea around dying (as in, eliminate the fact that a human would ever die). Before we get into this, just realize this: while this sounds like perhaps the most far-fetched idea basically ever, well, I guarantee you no one in the 1950s thought something like Google would exist, or that some day there’d be “smart homes” and “smart phones,” so … technology does often get to a place that at one point seemed absurd.

Some of these ideas go back to the idea of telomeres — those are basically tiny caps at the end of your DNA strands. As they get smaller, to be blunt, you get a little closer to death. As they get bigger, you’ll probably live longer. Read this article about a pioneering scientist in the field of telomeres; he measured his own and as he exercised more and got more sleep, they began to grow again. One of the co-authors of this study in Nature went on to win the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Now, whether or not being able to artificially extend human telomeres could lead to longer lives and even immortality has a long way to go in terms of science; the other idea put forth in the trailer at the top is that eventually medicine will get to a place where microscopic robots can be put into your bloodstream, and they’ll whiz around your body and fix cells that need fixing. This would obviously not prevent you from things like “getting murdered” or “having cell issues that aren’t discovered yet,” but it would be a pretty good scan. Obviously this hasn’t been invented yet and if it was, it’s unclear whether it could make someone live to be 200 or live to be 1,000, but … it’s an interesting idea.

There is a jellyfish believed to be immortal; it achieves said immortality by essentially reverting itself back to a younger form after sexual maturity. Doing that with humans would be the stuff of sci-fi movies, and in fact: 

It’s highly unlikely that a human could live forever. Even though the average human life expectancy has increased dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century, it won’t continue to double and triple until we’re living for hundreds of years. Some scientists believe that there is a hard-coded maximum life expectancy for humans, and it’s probably somewhere around 125 years old. One theory, known as the Hayflick Limit Theory, suggests that the cells in the human body may only divide and copy themselves a fixed number of times, and this limit puts a restriction on how long a person can survive. Once cells cease reproducing, organs and tissues become ineffective and shut down.

Google (surprise) does have a new project connected to immortality, and there’s been other work connected to mice and related back to those telomeres, as detailed here:

Telomerase enhancement: Researchers have produced several demonstrations of extended life and reduced cancer rates in mice, through the use of various gene therapy combinationsinvolving increased telomerase expression and extra copies of cancer suppression genes such as P53. Estep pointed me to several experiments, including Blasco’s telomerase overexpression and TA-65-treated mice, and van Duersen and colleagues’ clearance of senescent cells. But as he reminded me, these experiments were done on Black 6 mice.

This starts to get a little dense right now, so let’s consider the pros and cons: Pros: be around friends and loved ones forever! Cons: would probably be available only to the very rich, thus creating a dystopian future. Pros: never have to worry about what happens after. Cons: entire Earth likely degrades under the weight of billions who will never die. Cons: playing God. I might be out of pros here.

Obviously this is very far off — if ever — but it’s interesting to see that it’s even this close, and the possible repercussions therein.



Ted Bauer