Elixir of Life?

New Experiments Attempt to Reverse Old Age

The great insult to human pride is that we have to grow old and die. You can be the wise, you can be powerful, you can be beautiful, you can wealthy—but in the end, you will meet the same fate as everyone else:

As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)

People have always struggled against that fate, but no one has broken free from it. The Genesis account tells a story of how when mankind sinned and became corrupt, God cut us off from the Tree of Life, saying, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Readers of Genesis have noticed that what exactly is at stake here is left ominously unstated. What would happen if man did eat from the Tree of Life, if a sinful creature, knowing the difference between good and evil, were to live forever? It’s a mystery.

But we might find out, one day. Although we may never be told what would have happened to Adam and Eve if they had continued to live, we might see some of those same consequences in future generations—if current research continues to bear fruit.

The Impossible Made Possible

In 2012, the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka co-won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed to revert back to immature, unspecialized cells. They become pluripotent stem cells, like those found in embryos, which then have the ability to differentiate into any type of tissue: nerves, muscles, skin, internal organs. Yamanaka discovered a set of four genes, now named “Yamanaka factors,” that would trigger this transformation when inserted into the genome.

Soon afterward, Spanish biochemist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and his team began treating mice with the Yamanaka factors in an attempt to reverse the effects of aging. In a 2016 study, Izpisua Belmonte used the factors on mice with progeria, a genetic disorder also found in humans that causes accelerated aging, in hopes of rejuvenating their dying cells and tissues. And it worked. Under the treatment, the decrepit mice became youthful again.

Science reporter Erika Hayasaki described her awe at touring Izpisua Belmonte’s lab and seeing sick and aged mice made young and healthy. “Izpisua Belmonte, a shrewd and soft-spoken scientist, has access to an inconceivable power,” she gushed. “These mice, it seems, have sipped from a fountain of youth. Izpisua Belmonte can rejuvenate aging, dying animals. He can rewind time.”

However, the problem with this elixir of life was that it also caused cancer. The mice got younger, but then died after just a few days – an “overdose of youth,” as Hayasaki aptly called it.

In fact, cancer has been the plague of anti-aging research for a long time. The basic problem is that if a cell no longer has a limited number of times it can replicate, as most human cells do, it can multiply without constraint. That’s what makes cancer possible in the first place. Take away the planned obsolescence of our cells, and you take away the main barrier to cancerous growth.

But Izpisua Belmonte’s team found a solution to this problem. They found that if the Yamanaka factors were applied repeatedly in brief intervals, the cells would only be partially reprogrammed. Under this treatment, many of the effects of aging were still reversed in the progeriatric mice (though apparently less dramatically than with continuous induction), but the treatment did not cause cancer.

In 2022, Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues published a new paper. In this study, the treatment was used to reverse natural aging, rather than progeria. The Yamanaka factors were applied repeatedly at brief intervals over long period of time. Once again, the treatment was effective. Many of the signs of aging were reduced in the mice, without any sign of cancer. The researchers also tested the treatment on in vitro human cells, with similar results.

This is a holy grail in anti-aging research: the ability to turn an old creature young again—without killing it in the process. The next step will be to experiment on primates, with the aim of eventually moving on to developing treatments for people. Izpisua Belmonte recently told Spanish media that he is confident these treatments will be available to treat aging within the next twenty years.

The Jellyfish Scenario

Needless to say, there has been a lot of hype around this research—and a lot of investment. Over the last few years, numerous anti-aging companies hoping to use similar treatments have cropped up—Calico (created by Google), GenuCure, Age X, Turn Biotechnologies, to name a few. Most recently, Altos Labs formed, reportedly with funding from Jeff Bezos, and brought onboard Izpisua Belmonte himself. Vast amounts of resources, and some of the best minds in the scientific world, are being poured into this problem.

The researchers involved are usually quick to point out that cellular reprogramming can’t make you live forever. Nothing developed so far can stave off all symptoms of aging indefinitely. They are talking about staving off the effects of aging for a few decades, not achieving unending youth.

Yet it’s worth asking, what if it goes further? What would be the end result if we kept pushing back the effects of old age until we didn’t need to grow old at all? It may seem far-fetched, but it isn’t theoretically impossible. There is a jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii, that can change its age apparently at will; at any point, it can turn back into a baby jellyfish. This jellyfish, it seems, never has to die of old age, though of course it can be killed. It is not known whether there is any theoretical limit to its lifespan.

Suppose we humans could make ourselves like this jellyfish—with the right modifications, the right interventions. Of course, we will never be able to grasp the mechanics of life well enough to do such a thing from scratch. But if the potential already lies in our genetic code, we might be able to coax our cells into doing what we cannot ourselves understand.

It wouldn’t be simple. That day will probably not come before all of us are dead. But there doesn’t seem to be a reason it couldn’t come eventually. God has not promised to prevent such a thing; we would still be mortal in the ultimate sense, just as all Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish will certainly die one day.

What would that kind of progress do to humanity?

Immortal Gods, or Undying Monsters?

The human capacity for arrogance and cruelty is bottomless, but the final limit to our hubris is death. No matter how seemingly unbreakable the power of any tyrant, death has always removed him in the end. Old age eventually came for Augustus, Diocletian, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and many other would-be god-kings. But if there is an elixir of life that keeps the user young forever, there could be a ruler who held onto power for a thousand years or more. And who knows what he could become? Look at the example of King David, who, having attained power, succumbed to corruption in a few short decades. And in the natural course of things, the person who rises to power is likely to be closer to a power-hungry villain in the first place than a “man after God’s own heart.”

Setting aside the probable abuse of this science by the wicked and power-hungry, the end of aging would not be the blessing for ordinary people that some think it would be. The trouble is, death is in us—it is in our souls, not merely out there in the physical universe. That’s why things “get old” to us, even if they’re actually still exactly the same as they were when we first found them. Mortal life can be endured only because there is an end in mind. Life has a story arc—a beginning, a middle, an end. So, as many wise people in the past, both in the Christian tradition and outside of it, have realized, eternal life for sinful man would in the end be nothing more than eternal damnation. The result would be despair, and with it all manner of ever more extreme and desperate attempts to find lasting satisfaction.

If the future holds a race of man that goes on living and living with no limit, it will fall into desperate evil beyond what we can dream of developing within the confines of our mercifully short lives. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, that which tries to set itself up as divine becomes demonic instead. Man will not succeed in becoming a god. But he will try, and he might succeed in becoming a demon.

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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