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Can We Live Forever

Since the birth of time, human beings have been trying to find the elusive fountain of youth. There is an old saying, which is 'Only two things are certain: Death and taxes'. Many people have come and gone, lived and died in pursuit of the ultimate prize; immortality. Many religions have also come and gone preaching and touting immortality, or to a lesser extent, reincarnation. In the past decade there has been extensive research into how we can slow, stop and even turn back the clock on the aging process. Is there any substance to these claims, or is this just the next fountain of youth? This article will look at the history of man's pursuit of eternal life, previous and current research and also what the possible impacts of success may ultimately be.

Life and Death

Death, just like life, is a biological process. People are conceived, are born, live and then die. This has been the case since the dawn of time. The only thing that has conceivably changed is the length of this process. Your expected life expectancy today can change depending on a host of factors, such as which country you live in, your socio-economic status, your sex, the colour of your skin, your genetic history or lifestyle factors such as food,alcohol and smoking. Advances in recent medicine and the implementation of hygienic living practices have had a role in increasing the general life expectancy of humans today. Despite this, all is not equal. Life expectancy in several African countries is around 50 years, with famine, disease and unhygienic conditions taking their toll. If you are lucky enough to live in a country such as Monaco however, you can expect to live to the ripe old age of 90 1).

The Fountain of Youth

The pursuit of everlasting life is not a new concept. The first known concept of this can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, who created a book called the 'Book of the Dead', which outlined the departed person's road to the after world. Confucius also promised eternal life to those of his believers who followed his teachings. The concept of everlasting life is ingrained in most religions, albeit they take different forms such as the promise of life after death, an 'afterlife', reincarnation or even just plain immortality, such as the belief that he who drinks from the holy grail will face no death. Even the writings in the Bible of the reincarnation of Jesus Christ points to a possibility of life after death. So far there is one thing in common with all of these beliefs: Not one of them has succeeded so far, or if it has happened, there has been no documented proof 2)

fountain_of_youth.jpg

Depiction of the fountain of youth

There are also many examples of claims of immortality in mythology. Many central characters were said to be immortal, such as King Memnon, Achilles and Heracles in Greek mythology, Merlin in the English medieval times, Qin Shu Huang of the Chinese Qin Dynasty and even Leonard Jones, who once ran for president of the United States in the mid 1800's 3).

Empty Promises

The promise of immortality has also been a means for making money almost as long as the concept itself. Whilst religion used the promise of eternal life to lure people to their faith, cunning businessmen also used it as a means to lure people for their money. In the late 1800's and early 1900's travelling salesman would go from town to town and attempt to sell ointments, lotions and other concoctions with the promises of curing the common cold right through to eternal life. The phrase 'snake oil merchant' was coined to describe these individuals 4). As time went by, the travelling salesman did not disappear, they merely changed costumes.

snake_oil.jpg

Snake oil

Individuals posing as doctors and scientists have also taken advantage of the quest for the fountain of youth, however recently the terminology has changed. Immortality or eternal life has been replaced by a common term: Anti-aging. There have been many claims of medications and herbs that can radically slow or stop the aging process, get rid of wrinkles and make you feel young again. The common trend that can be seen with these new snake oil merchants is that there is never any proof, and all the while you can hear the medical community trying to make people aware of these fallacies. Unfortunately the desire of humankind to try and find this elusive fountain of youth can sometimes outweigh common sense and logic, or maybe it is just the risk-reward mentality, with many people willing to take the punt on investing a few thousand dollars on a one in a million 'what if' 5).

Telomerase – New Hope or More Snake Oil?

The concept of Telomerase has been touted by some scientists as a possible revolutionary breakthrough in slowing, stopping or even possibly reversing the aging process. Telomerase is an enzyme that acts on telomeres, which are located on the end of DNA strands. Each time a cell splits, the telomeres on the new cells are slightly shorter. The repetitive process eventually compounds the shortening of these telomeres, killing off the cells and hence limiting and preventing the healing process, or as we know it, aging 6).

The Telomerase enzyme is thought to exist in many plant and herbs, however scientists have so far been unable to produce the enzyme in concentrations that are required to produce the desired result. In 2010 scientists from Harvard University reported that they had successfully used Telomerase to reverse the aging effect on mice in a laboratory setting. Whilst successful in mice, it is noted that these animals can continue to create the enzyme all the way through their lives, whilst in humans the enzyme production is switched off in the juvenile years. It is though that this is to stop the multiplication of any cancer cells that may be present in the body 7). The dilemma that is faced with the possible use of this enzyme in adults is that undetected cancer cells will be accelerated by this enzyme.

Telomerase extension 8)

There are several private companies who are also in a race to unlock the secrets of Telomerase, with some of these companies claiming that they are getting close to being able to mass produce and sell products containing this enzyme. These companies are currently selling products that they claim to have an inhibiting effect on telomere shortening, however like most anti-aging peddlers there is yet to be any solid proof to these claims, which begs the question whether these companies are the snake oil merchants of our generation.

In 2013, scientists from the University of Copenhagen announced that they had successfully mapped the Telomerase enzyme, which is a world first. The scientists state that this is a breakthrough in cancer research, as they discovered that telomere length does indeed have a correlation with certain types of cancer. They have also discovered that cancer cells use the Telomerase enzyme in order to keep themselves young and constantly renewing. This discovery may help scientists find a way to find a method in which to be able to switch off this enzyme and stopping the rapid reproduction of caner cells 9). The same group of researchers from the university have also identified other animals that can produce Telomerase enzymes all the way through their lives, such as sea squirts and starfish, who have a unique ability to be able to eradicate bad or old cells and even have the ability to divide and reproduce replicas of themselves. This is also a significant breakthrough for humans as these animals have gene structures that closely resemble human genes 10).

Avatar Was Just a Movie Right?

There are also some alternative projects in the quest for eternal life. A Russian businessman, Dmitry Itskov, claims that his company will be able to transplant human conciousness into avatar type holograms by the year 2045. The avatar is intended to be in a human like form, and the transplanted conciousness will be able to control the body 11). This concept is still more than 30 years away, and the research team are making certain assumptions of technological advancements which are yet to be proven.

We Succeed – Now What?

With recent advancements in medical research and the evolution if nanotechnology, it is not inconceivable to think that one day we may be able to find a cure for death. There is little doubt that given the option, most people would choose to be able to live forever, but would this cause a new wave of problems.

Do People Die For A Reason?

This is an interesting question. Do we live and die because that is the way we are genetically programmed to do so, or are there other reasons for this. Just try to imagine a world where no one has ever died, which would now see the worlds population well over the 100 billion mark 12). Many people believe that the earth is already overpopulated with approximately 7 billion people alive today. The answer to this would be most likely that we would have ceased to exist, as there would be a great difficulty in finding enough resources such as food, water, medicine, fuel and other consumables.

Would It Be Available To Everyone?

Another question would be that if such a medicine were to found to be successful,who could access it?Would it be only the people who discovered it, or maybe only the people who help fund the project? Could there be an unrealistic price tag put on the drug making it only available to the wealthy elite? Would the country who discovered the drug share it with other countries, or could this be means to another world war? Many people may also argue that if and when such a discovery is made, it will perhaps be kept secret in order to avoid such problems and prevent the over population of the planet.

Breeding

As touched on by the population debate, if such a drug or program were to be made available, the issue of reproduction would need to be looked at carefully by governments. Would having children be banned all together, or would there need to be a queuing system, where couples could only have children whenever someone died from an accident? This would cause a great deal of ethical debate, although one could argue that maybe when human kind finally finds the elusive fountain of youth, such problems could pale into insignificance.

Conclusion

It is evident that we as humans have been seeking eternal life ever since we have witnessed death. It seems that people have been trying to grip onto any sort of concept that may give them comfort that death is the end of all existence for them, be it religion or spending thousands on anti-aging products. It is hard to foresee exactly what may happen in the future, but it appears that we will stop at nothing in order to find the holy grail, with little regard for the possible consequences. Do we have the right to deny future generations the right to live, or do we have the right to deny people from other countries or socio-economic statuses the opportunity for eternal life. The potential for humans to live forever perhaps poses more questions than answers.


Health | Longevity

1) CIA World Factbook, 2013, 'Life Expectancy at Birth', Available: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html
2) Academia.edu, 2012, 'Immortality: Human Nature and the Quest for Life Everlasting in the Epic of Gilgamesh', Available: http://www.academia.edu/2204082/Immortality_Human_Nature_and_the_Quest_for_Life_Everlasting_in_the_Epic_of_Gilgamesh
3) Listverse, 2013, '10 Notable People Thought to be Immortal', Available: http://listverse.com/2013/05/28/10-notable-people-thought-to-be-immortal/
4) Code Switch, 2013, 'A History of Snake Oil Salesman', Available: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/08/26/215761377/a-history-of-snake-oil-salesmen
5) Web MD, 2004, 'Spotting Anti-Aging Scams', Available : http://www.webmd.com/beauty/aging/20040813/spotting-anti-aging-scams
6) Nature.com, 2010, 'Telomerase Reverses Ageing Process', Available: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101128/full/news.2010.635.html
7) The Guardian, 2010, 'Harvard Scientists Reverse the Ageing Process in Mice – Now for Humans', Available: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/28/scientists-reverse-ageing-mice-humans
8) Telomerase by Boumphreyfr licence CC 3.10, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Telomerase.png
9) Science Daily, 2013, 'Fountain of Youth Telomerase: Scientists Successfully Map Enzyme That Has Rejuvenating Effect on Cells', Available: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130327133341.htm
10) Discovery News, 2011, 'Immortal Animals Reveal Anti-Aging Secrets', Available: http://news.discovery.com/animals/immortal-animals-reveal-anti-aging-secrets-110421.htm
11) Discovery News, 2013, 'Seeking Immortality? So Have Others', Available: http://news.discovery.com/history/immortality-eternal-life-history-20130408.htm
12) Live Science, 2012, 'The Dead Outnumber the Living', Available: http://www.livescience.com/18336-human-population-dead-living-infographic.html

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