Is it possible to cure aging?
Chip Walter says yes. The author spent years researching and writing his new book — “Immortality, Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever” — which explores the efforts being taken to cure aging and hence dramatically prolong life.
This is not a work of fiction.
Walter, a science journalist, filmmaker, skeptic and former CNN bureau chief interviewed many authorities, including Craig Venter, the scientist who accelerated the completion of the first human genome and Robert Hariri, one of the world’s leading stem cell experts.
The book, published by National Geographic, is available in bookstores and online. As part of his tour to promote the book, Walter will appear at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland on Thursday, Jan. 16 to discuss the death of growing old. The event, which is part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Series, is free with registration.
The topic is fascinating with so many implications. NEXTpittsburgh caught up with Walter to ask him some burning questions of our own.
Define immortality. Is it infinite or are we talking hundreds of years?
None of us is going to live forever. Sooner or later we’ll be hit by a bus or lightning, or maybe an angry spouse who just can’t stomach celebrating their 400th anniversary! We used the title Immortality, Inc. in the book to differentiate it from simply living a couple of extra years or even a couple of extra decades. So, this book doesn’t pretend to have revealed science that will guarantee infinite life, but it does explore scientific advances on the horizon that will very likely diminish and then eliminate aging. And since aging and age-related diseases are the number one reason why we die (one million people a week die of age-related disease), curing aging would radically lengthen healthy life spans into the hundreds of years, crazy as that may sound.
Do we have to cure cancer and conditions like depression first?
The opposite, I think.
If scientists solve aging, then it would also vastly reduce the number of people who die from cancer and many other diseases. The reason most people get cancer is because they are aging. If science can solve the underlying, biological causes of aging, these killer diseases would largely disappear. We’ll basically grow younger. And, as a rule, most people do not die when they are young unless it’s from an accident, murder or a severe genetic problem.
So, by curing aging, we will, in one fell swoop, cure much of the cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other major diseases. This arguably makes solving aging the best way to eliminate a whole group of diseases, rather than try to track each one down individually like we’re playing some game of whack-a-mole. In fact, you could argue that these diseases will never be eliminated unless aging is eliminated first. We’ll just create a series of band-aids, but eventually something will get us.
Issues like depression are more problematic because they are not directly related to aging (though they sometimes can be). But, an additional bonus is that as science attempts to cure aging, we may well develop cures for many diseases that afflict people in their youth — genetic diseases, mental and emotional syndromes, viruses, childhood cancer — because we will understand the genomics of the human body so much better.
How close are we really to achieving immortality and what will be the first discovery?
I doubt there will be a silver bullet any more than scientists found a silver bullet that would cure cancer when the war against cancer was launched in the 1970s. It’s just too complex. But, I do believe that some major advances will be revealed and in use within the next four years. These advances will be incremental, but they will also gather speed. First, I expect to see a far broader use of stem cell technology to repair damaged and diseased bodies from arthritis to kidney disease. A company and scientist I explore in the book (Celularity) is tackling that.
Next, will come major advances as we better understand the human genome. We are gathering more and more information that is enabling us to decode the genome so that we can understand and develop drugs tailored to each individual. But first we have to understand what interactions within our DNA unravel the human body in the first place. ( I explore a company called Human Longevity, founded by genomic pioneer Craig Venter, that is working on that.) Third, based largely on genomics, will come advances that truly unveil why we age at all. Clearly we do. But why? Calico and Apple Chairman Arthur Levinson is working on that.
How will we solve all of these complex problems? Only the development of increasingly robust computing can solve that problem, and that software is advancing at an exponential pace. Ultimately, those machines, working with scientists of many stripes will crack some of these profoundly complex challenges. Generally, I believe those are the four forces that I believe will lead to the end of aging.
Has there been an actual breakthrough and if so, what is it?
There have been breakthroughs, but no cures (because, again, I doubt there will be a silver bullet). But as I reveal in the book, scientists now know, definitively, that genetics is the source behind why we age (or one of the key sources). We also know that certain key genes in other animals (like mice) can be switched, and when they are, the mice live far longer and healthier lives, sometimes more than four times longer. We also know that some mammals simply don’t age. They die of other things, but not aging. This was discovered while I was writing the book. Scientists in the book also have discovered what they suspect is the explanation of youth. Why are we born young? How does that happen and then why and how do we age? So, we have already seen significant fundamental advances, and they’ll continue to come.
How much of the book is about the personalities and how much is about science?
I did not want to write a book that was just a bland science survey filled with a bunch of facts. There’s a difference between fact and truth. When I first set out to explore and research “Immortality, Inc.,” the main question in my mind was this: are we actually now living in a time when science could solve one of the greatest mysteries the human race has ever faced? And if science can accomplish that, what does it mean? To tell that story I needed to understand the history of the key scientists, and the finances and thinking of those involved. And I needed to gain access to them. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I did. Much of what I found is exclusive information. Unknown until now.
In the end I wanted to thread all of those themes together into one larger, compelling story. How did something like this come to be? Who were these scientists? What motivated them? Are they crazy or geniuses? So, I spent a lot of time with all of them and I wrote about who they are and what led them to undertake such a monumental task. Who does that? Once I set the stage for outlining the personalities and the cultural and historical and financial issues, then I dove into the science that these scientists and companies were developing. I think this makes the book a much more compelling human story. At least I hope so.
How would you respond to critics who think the book is more about very wealthy older people in a quest to cheat death?
Well, the simple answer is that’s not what the book is about. So folks should read it and they’ll see that such an assumption would be off-base. I am sure that there are many well-heeled older people who would like to live longer and healthier lives. And I am sure that there are many not-so-well-heeled people who would as well. That doesn’t make them evil. This is only evil if the rich, and only the rich, hold on to technologies that would lead to longer life. That would be wrong. But history shows that as new technologies evolve, costs drop and then they become more ubiquitous. I believe that will happen here. Insurance companies will begin to see that they can save a lot more money by enabling people to remain healthy longer than by paying to have them go into the hospital again and again.
When it comes right down to it, does anyone want to die (unless you are facing horrible physical, emotional or mental pain)? I mean when each of us is facing death, that day, do we really want to blink out? Living is literally wound into our DNA. Every living thing does everything it can to remain alive, until it simply can’t anymore. From the beginning of time we have always tried to avoid dying. That’s the origin and purpose of Medicine with a capital “M.” Now, if we solve that problem and huge numbers of us live exceptionally long, will that create problems? Absolutely. But again, will most people say, “It’s okay, I’ll die so we don’t have an over population problem.” Let’s imagine someone has cancer and science offers a potential solution, do they say, “No thanks.” Not usually. I suspect the same will be true of drugs and treatments that extend life. A bigger issue in my mind is how, as a society, we are going to deal with a world in which we are living, not decades longer (as we already are), but hundreds of years longer. These advances are going to capsize everything. So I suggest we get a handle on it now.
Did you discuss immortality with any religious leaders or people in the death care industry? What were their thoughts?
I did speak to those people, but I didn’t get deeply into it in the book or it would have been 600 pages long. People’s feelings about this are all over the map, pro and con. There is, however, no religion that fundamentally holds that we must die. Some people, however, do feel it’s wrong to want to cheat death. That somehow it’s unnatural or that God wants us to die. But if this were universally true, then why take antibiotics? Why try to save people from automobile accidents? Why try to cure or treat any disease? All of these are basically ways to cheat death, at least for awhile.
But again, I want to clarify that my goal with this book isn’t to advocate one way or another for outfoxing the grim reaper. I am simply trying to tell the story of these forces and people who are creating profound and fundamental change in the human story. I wanted to tell that tale, not explore the theology and philosophy of life and death because it’s not about my point of view. It’s about what’s happening and why it’s important.
What, in your opinion, are the downsides to living forever?