Everything dies. Right?
Immortality, once scoffed at as unscientific, is the subject of last week’s Nobel Prize in Medicine, won by Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak. While not quite the immortality of comic-book legend, the three researchers were awarded the prize because of their investigation into cell division. Specifically it was their research on the ability of a cell to reproduce without damage by producing an enzyme called telomerase that prevents the sheering off of telomeres. Telomeres, to us mere mortals, are the mechanisms within our DNA that get shorter with every reproduction eventually shortening so far as to prevent any further division within the cells (an event called senescence due to a loss of critical genetic material). Senescence can be slowed, as many fans of Walt Disney know well, through keeping cell lines in cold storage that drastically slows cell division (for a truly bizarre case involving cryogenics check out this weird story involving Ted William’s head).
Paradoxically, it is cancer that was among the first to discover the secret of immortality, as it is a disease that is lethal in part because of a loss of control over cellular proliferation. But it might not be surprising to learn that there are other organisms on earth that have avoided the fate of cell death by demonstrating what is known as”negligible senescence.” Simply put, these are creatures that do not demonstrate a measurable functional decline with age (meaning that their deaths are related to environmental factors and not innate limitations of cell divisions). This list includes the Rougheye Rockfish, Painted Turtle, American Lobster, Red Sea Urchin, and the Bristle Cone Pine. While not exactly a picture of charismatic mega-fauna, these creatures hold clues that may one day show us the way to slow our own aging.
Aubrey de Grey, founder of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), believes that humans can engineer their way out of unnecessary death. By studying the systems our bodies use to repair themselves as well as those employed by organisms who demonstrate negligible senescence, de Grey has pioneered a movement that is slowly, but surely, gaining traction amongst the medical community.
Humanity is just now beginning to deal with a generation of aging people who are benefiting from untold medical advances that will extend life spans far past anything previously seen. So how do we deal with the ramifications of this aging population? Currently, China is facing one of the most cataclysmic shifts in demography due to their One Child Policy. Where families once had hordes of children to care for the elderly, today one or two children are all that is left to take care of a wealth of older, frailer, but surviving, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc…
Centennial birthdays will no doubt become common place in the next few decades, but if we don’t start asking tough questions about the impacts and morality of extending our life spans sometime soon, we may all unwittingly become nurses for a generation of centenarians.