Life of man, living forever

If there was a red button on the table in front of you now that would stop the clock on your body’s ageing for the next 20 years, would you push it?

How about 50 years – 50 years without ageing whatsoever? Or what about forever?

Offering you an infinite lifespan of good health is beyond the power of our humble e-letter. And perhaps it’s a daft question. Who wouldn’t want to stop their body ageing, to freeze time and expand their lifespan? Maybe you consider yourself too old to want to stop the clock on your ageing. In which case, think about how you would have answered that question 30 years ago.

I think most people would push the button. But will the button ever exist

We may be getting there.

Nobel Prize winner figures out how to stop your body “eating itself”

Earlier this month the Nobel Prize committee awarded the 2016 prize for physiology or medicine to the Japanese professor Yoshinori Ohsumi. Ohsumi’s work centred around the process of autophagy – the means by which a cell’s unnecessary components are destroyed and recycled (when parts of the cell that aren’t needed are “eaten” and reused by autophagosomes).

Research suggests it’s vital to everything from dealing with starvation and infection, to the process of cell death itself.

As the Nobel committee put it in its announcement (added emphasis mine):

“We now know that autophagy controls important physiological functions where cellular components need to be degraded and recycled.

“Autophagy can rapidly provide fuel for energy and building blocks for renewal of cellular components, and is therefore essential for the cellular response to starvation and other types of stress. After infection, autophagy can eliminate invading intracellular bacteria and viruses.

“Autophagy contributes to embryo development and cell differentiation. Cells also use autophagy to eliminate damaged proteins and organelles, a quality-control mechanism that is critical for counteracting the negative consequences of ageing.”

The awarding of the prize is recognition of another step towards understanding how and why our bodies age. The step after understanding is action: figuring out how to use that knowledge to reverse or freeze the ageing process. It won’t happen overnight. But as Bill Gates said, we often overestimate the amount of change we’ll see in the next two years, while dramatically underestimating the change over ten.

The idea of dramatically increasing the average human’s lifespan, perhaps even figuring out the secret to immortality itself, doesn’t seem quite so far fetched today as it once did.

The best way to get there, though, is to try and eliminate the diseases and ailments that kill people at a young age. Knowing you’ll get 80 or 90-odd good, disease-free years on this planet would be enough for most people today.

The road to dramatic life extension starts with working out how to keep more people alive and well for longer. Autophagy research could play a key role there: Oshumi’s work is particularly applicable to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s not alone. Gene editing, immunotherapy, nanotechnology and personalised medicine will all play their part in fighting disease and extending the human lifespan.

But in time ageing itself will come to be treated as another disease to be understood, taken on and overcome. In fact you could argue that immortality is the logical final outcome to capitalism.

Inherent to the idea of capitalism is that human innovation and ingenuity can overcome any limit. The ceaseless growth of capital requires us to constantly push the limits of possibility and find new markets, new ideas, and new ways of creating wealth and adding value.

That means the very idea of capitalism requires constant, ever-growing innovation and expansion. It requires ambition and human ingenuity to constantly push at the frontier of the possible. Often that’s literally the opening up of a new market – a new nation added to the global economy, a new source of labour, a new product.

What is death but another limit to be overcome?

This may sound far fetched, but there’s a very real – and commercial – effort under way by a series of companies whose goal is nothing less than radical life extension. With that in mind, I wanted to share an interview with a man who is actually trying to make this happen.

His name is Ira Pastor. He’s CEO of Bioquark. His insights on the issue are fascinating. You can read Exponential Investor editor Andrew Lockley’s interview with him here.

And if you’ve missed any of my special issues this week, it’s not too late to read them.

We’ve looked at “the wrath of man” – how humanity is fighting back against diseases that have killed millions using new high-tech weapons.

We’ve studied “neoevolution” – how we’re able to guide evolution and create an “intelligent designer” of the universe (not a god, but a man).

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