Entrepreneurs Seek to Cure Ageing
Could scientists cure ageing, allowing humans to live Old Testament lifespans? A contest is on to fix the “chronic disease” of growing old.
Jacob lived to 147. Noah lived to 950. Methuselah lived to 969. Why not? A new “Palo Alto Longevity Prize” is attracting teams to “hack aging [sic], cheat death” says an intriguing article on Medical Xpress. It raises questions about genetics, health, economics and the meaning of life.
One year after Google created a company named Calico with the goal of extending human life, Menlo Park investor and Stanford-trained radiologist Joon Yun has launched a $1 million science competition with the lofty aim of “curing” the disease more commonly known as aging [sic].
While Calico’s plan remains largely opaque, Yun has laid out specific criteria for the 11 teams that have already signed up to compete for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which focuses on improving “homeostatic capacity,” or the ability of an organism to bounce back to normal in the face of stress.
And what is ageing? It’s a treatable condition caused by “Inflammation, stress (and) chronic disease,” according to one stem cell specialist. Yun is urgent about this contest, saying that “every day 100,000 people die unnecessarily of age-related illness.” The contest will start with test mammals and eventually move on to human trials.
One of the contestants, Joao Pedro de Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool, shared some of his reasons for thinking ageing is mutable on The Conversation. He points to some birds that stay healthy into their senior years, to tortoises that can live over a century, and to naked mole rats, who are extremely resistant to cancer. Work on extending lifespan is worthwhile because “it has been calculated that slowing down the process of ageing by just seven years could cut in half the instances of age-related diseases at every single age,” he says. “This would have a massive impact on the human lifespan, and on human health.”
Won’t longer life spans hurt the economy? What about overpopulation, and drains on the earth’s resources? Those concerns are addressed and dismissed by advocates, who believe innovation can solve them. Sonia Arrison says,
Arrison, a Palo Alto-based author and teacher, claims that increasing the healthy life span, by extending the sweet spot of adulthood that combines vigor with the wisdom of experience, will give the world’s best minds more time to innovate solutions to humanity’s problems.
How could life extension be achieved? Two methods are mentioned: stem cells and genetic engineering. Doris Taylor thinks the trio of inflammation, stress and chronic disease can be addressed with stem cells. Yun thinks hacking the “source code” (the human genome) is another approach.
“Ultimately, I think we’ll crack the age code and we’ll hack aging [sic],” Yun announced. “And if we do, not only will health care be transformed, but humanity. At that point we’ll have unlocked human capacity.“
Scientists know that telomeres—the end caps on chromosomes—shrink each time a cell divides. When gone, the cell dies. Some cells use the telomerase enzyme to replace lost segments of telomeres. Learning to control that process might allow cells to reproduce an unlimited number of times. That’s one reason cancer cells are able to proliferate and keep on going.
The article was spawned from a meeting that launched the competition. Participants are optimistic, thinking the contest could appeal to evolutionists and creationists:
Eric Weinstein, managing director of Thiel Capital, one of the tycoon’s investment funds, spoke at the launch. People are squeamish about major advances in biomedicine, he said, fearful of disrupting the natural order. But innovations that begin in controversy, such as in vitro fertilization, are accepted by succeeding generations.
“We find ourselves sitting on top of our own source code,” said Weinstein, referring to DNA. “We are being invited, either by a deity or by selection, to hack, to create, to collaborate, to join.“
Given the accumulation of mutations, and the change in environment from the days of Noah, it’s unlikely that antediluvian lifespans are achievable (see Sanford book). Significant life extension, though, is conceivable. What would you do with 100, 150, or 200 healthy years of life? As has occurred throughout history, some would use their extra time for good, others for evil. For the ungrateful, even 969 years would not be enough.
When Moses spoke of the “threescore and ten” years of human existence in Psalm 90:10, he wasn’t speaking of a divine mandate; he was just mentioning an observable fact. God told Adam and Eve at the Fall that they would surely die—and they did—but he didn’t say how soon. Most of the antediluvian patriarchs lived over 800 or 900 years. To God, for which a thousand years is like a day (II Peter 3:8) because He is unaffected by time, humans died quickly after sinning. In mercy, the Creator gave sinners enough time to consider repenting and believing in His provision for their salvation.
In recent centuries, human life spans were much shorter than ours: 40 years on average (still the case in some countries), and as low as 25 years a millennium ago. Few were those reaching into their 60s to 80s as is commonplace today. Many in that age bracket are probably watching the clock, even if their lives have been fulfilling. When death is at the door, all that time is going to look like a “vapor that appears for a moment, then vanishes away” (James 4:13-15).
Is it moral to try to defeat ageing? Why not? It’s like treating any other human malady. We know we will never live forever, but if you or I could get a few more productive years of vigor out of our lives, many of us would probably want that. We would not want to see terrorists and anarchists with that much time, though. It’s frightening to consider the evil that men like Hitler or Stalin would do with 200 years of vigor. Just before the Flood, the world was filled with violence (Genesis 6:11) from people with long life spans: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). God is merciful to spare us from those kinds of possibilities now.
When dementia or pain becomes our lot, we might wish for nature to take its course. But many a genius, like Mozart, Pascal and Maxwell, died young. Imagine the good that some could have done with more time. In God’s wisdom, with His foreknowledge, He may take some home what seems prematurely to us, for His purposes. Perhaps He knows their work on earth is done (could the world handle 200 Handel oratorios?) Perhaps He knows some would fall into sin if given more time.
Christians believe in a sovereign God who numbers our days and gives us the allotment we need, even if “man knows not his time.” This is not fatalism. It does not rule out seeking to extend life with good healthcare. In fact, doing good to others’ physical needs and being responsible with our bodies are virtues. The attitude of these Palo Alto contestants is surely better than the “War on Humans” mentality of others. There’s nothing unethical about trying to defeat ageing. In the end, though, we must realize that fellowship with our Creator is our highest good, in this life or next. It’s worth quoting Moses in context (Psalm 90):
- Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
- Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
- Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
- For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
- Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
- In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
- For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
- Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
- For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
- The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
- Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
- So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
- Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
- O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
- Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
- Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
- And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.
The focus of Paul, Peter and the other apostles was not on prolonging earthly life. Their eyes were on the heavenly prize, where real life begins. They prayed for one another’s health and prosperity (3 John 1:2-5) primarily that they might be able to use their time in service to others (Philippians 1:20-26). That is how best to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Jesus lived a short life by human standards. He felt urgency to complete His work in the day, “for the night is coming, when no man can work” (John 9:4), and His work was entirely sacrificial for our good. Christ followers have confidence of a beautiful life without sin, pain and death, but now is the time to make other Christ followers and teach them all that the Lord commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). Now is the time to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). So get busy! You may not have much time left. What on earth are you doing for heaven’s sake?