Immortality – but who wants to be a worm?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Or a mouse, or a fruitfly? Scientists studying the phenomenon of ageing in a bid to obtain clues to slow it down, at the same time extending the life span, have found that restricting the amount of calories consumed significantly increased the life span of the nematode (threadlike) worm, mice and fruit flies. Further analyses showed that this was due to mutations – random changes – in some of the genes of these animals. The mutations acted by strengthening the mechanisms that repair damage in the cells – which are the building blocks of life – as the latter age.

Thus the cells were able to live longer, and hence the organisms too.

A combination of genetic tweaking and calorie restriction in one threadlike worm, C. elegans — which is about one millimeter long and is found abundantly in soil and on the seafloor – was found to extend its lifespan by nearly eight to ten times. If such were applicable to humans, theoretically we could live up to 700 to 800 years! Anybody for the trial?

At the conference on cardiovascular disease and diabetes that was held on Monday and Tuesday last at the Maritim Hotel, which saw the participation of several world-renowned experts, one of them presented a slide showing a projection that by the year 2026 we would all become immortal! Except, he said, that this was only a hypothetical projection from the trend shown in the graph – and we all know that this (meaning immortality) will never happen.

But, he added, there was definitely a strong case to keep us fit till the very end, so that the quality of life would be better. Or, to put it another way, we would be still be ‘young’ even if we died at a later rage. For to die we must, there is no getting out of that – like in the case of the worms, the mice and fruit flies, which in spite of living longer, nevertheless underwent the ageing process, which inevitably leads to death.

Man has always been in search of the ‘elixir of life,’ the magic potion that would make him live forever. Some rich men have paid up to have their dead bodies preserved in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196 degrees centigrade, At this temperature, any biological activity, including the biochemical reactions that would lead to cell death, is effectively stopped.

The hope is that when the formula is discovered at some unknown time in future, it would be applied to their bodies which would then be restored, as it were, to a better state and live all over again. But such cryopreservation, as the science is called, is costly: about $150,000 for the whole body! How many people can afford this kind of money, and will there be enough cryogenic containers to go around?

It is true that advances in medicine and sanitation have led to an increase in lifespan around the world, and in fact lifespan in developed countries continues to increase. However, scientists argue that there are biological constraints that will not allow it to increase forever. Each species has age limits. But as we live longer, the ageing process goes on in our cells with the accompanying damages that go with it. The purpose of studying and unlocking some of the secrets of the ageing process is not so much to find clues to immortality, but to ‘identify novel drugs able to combat age-related diseases in completely new ways and thereby shorten the period of chronic illness experienced at the end of life,’ as Thomas Kirkwood, professor of medicine and director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle university, England, in an article entitled ‘Why can’t we live forever?’

The article is published in a special issue of the magazine Scientific American devoted to our ‘eternal fascinations’ with endings of all kinds as we confront ‘the most fundamental fear of all: fear of our own mortality… death, the dissolution of our people, the extinction of our species.’ As 2000 approached, there was a fear that the world would crash, the famous Y2K, according to certain apocalyptic predictions. As we all know, it didn’t. The latest doomsday prediction that the world is about to end is based on the Mayan calendar which is due to end in 2012 ‘as interpreted by a cadre of opportunistic authors and blockbuster movie directors.’ After the men from Mars in HG Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) that was made into a movie in 1953… we are still around though! But individually dying, of course, as is inevitable.

All cultures have some form of afterlife built into their view of living and dying, and it’s mostly about continuing eternally in this human form in some enchanted place. Nobody has come back to tell us about such a place, so it remains mere belief. But a place, like an object, belongs to the material world of space and time which is in constant flux. That implies endings – and beginnings too. But living well and at peace with oneself and others does not have to be premised on an afterlife.

Best is to contemplate that, as Thomas Kirkwood concludes in his article, ‘when the end arrives, each of us – alone – will have to come to terms with our own mortality. All the more reason then to focus on living – and making the most of the time of our lives, because no magic elixir will save us.’ (italics added)

There could not be a better prescription for living. What doctors are telling people now goes beyond the proverbial ‘apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ In fact the recommendation is to take five servings of fruit per day, and also exercise more. Will not make you live forever, but will definitely make your quality of life better.

Doctors themselves are telling people to keep away from them! but are the people listening? From what was presented at that conference, it appears that the answer is no: everybody is chasing doctors for the magic pill.

But there is no magic pill or elixir. To creatures with reason, Kirkwood’s wise words sound like the beat formula for a good life rather than the illusion of eternal life in an illusory garden!

* Published in print edition on 27 August 2010

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