Eternal youth…life before and after immortality

I can’t remember which book it was (Bully for Brontosaurus??) but prior to about 50,000 years ago, cave-person stuff looked pretty much like primitive chunks of rock with flakes chipped out. Then in a short space of evolutionary time, there was a cave-person super-renaissance, when (by caveperson standards) all sorts of art, crafts, design, and invention exploded onto the scene. Like say, bone fish-hooks and needles. Might not seem much to you, but a huge technological breakthrough for food and warmth. Further, these artefacts began to be traded over huge distances, the same fashionably marked cave-artefacts found in Africa and France. The unremembered author (apologies, obviously someone far more knowledgeable than I) postulated that this came about through a tiny mutation that changed our larynx, tonsils, throat, glottis thingy (whatever I’m not an ENT specialist) in a way that permitted speech.

In isolation, humans are fairly useless; soft weak with pitiful claws and teeth. Only in groups are we formidable. So instead of ugh ugh, point point, imagine what a breakthrough it was to be able to strategise together. “You Urg, Jurg and Murg, hide there (point behind rock). Me, Arg go there (points) chase herd to rock. You” (hand movements indicating jump out and stab herd animal with Org’s newly invented spear or fish hook or whatever). Knowledge transfer. It’s our species’ superpower.

So I then embroider this, and think about the transformation from writing, and the printing press. As a child I found incredible the idea of writing, and of books – to be able to travel to other places and times through someone else’s experience, learn thoughts and life lessons from people I’d never meet, often people long dead. Books, and our whole education system are a way of saving and moving knowledge from one generation to the next. We built empires, castles, mountains of knowledge, in all fields of human endeavour; science, humanities, medicine, education (and so on) on the shoulders of the generations of giants before us. Some of my blog photos are from when I visited the Huntington gardens and library. As a physicist I was profoundly moved to see the actual writings of Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton. For some reason I conceived them as mythical beings, like Donald Duck or Mary Poppins, not people whose blood pounded in their veins like mine, who picked up actual pens, and thought and wrote their thoughts on paper. It left me feeling quite awed to see the ideas build from one genius to the next, until… Einstein.

Some people thought science had discovered everything.

Hah! Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition! And nobody expected the internet. And thus we connect instantly, googlezillion pieces of information, fractions of a second, the most trivial searches to the most bold collaborations. Yes most of us use it to send each other funny pictures of cats (lol! humour is never wasted time, no) or binge watch the latest series, it turns out that there are enough serious people in the world to use it as a force for good. The power of communication to generate innovation and discover remains; not vocal cords but Wifi. Scientific knowledge is expanding at unprecedented rates.

Now this is quite a long introduction to immortality. Star Trek suggests space is not the final frontier; but the frontier its human health. One of my siblings is a genetic engineer; I read Cracking the Genome (Kevin Davies) outlining the race, a decade long and costing billions, to sequence the human genome by 2001. So I was delighted to get a 23andme kit for Christmas 2014 (told you my spouse is a wonderful). The recipe for me, for only $100, back in only 4 weeks. What stunning progress. Btw it’s a narcissist’s dream. Feed your raw 23andme data into Promethease, click on any strange mutations (SNPs, Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) you land in SNPedia, a crowd-sourced encyclopedia of PubMed information on SNPs. What you find is, go back the next day and SNPedia will have grown. What we don’t know about mutations is much bigger than what we do. Fascinating. I’m a slow caffeine metaboliser (I know you were wondering). After 2001 genome books stopped being written. Vince Giuliano advertised for help in reading all the articles on anti-ageing. Nobody could keep up!

The whole world needs to know about telomerase. The 2009 Nobel Prize was for its discovery (Elizabeth Blackburn Carol Greider et al). At the ends of the 23 human chromosomes are caps, telomeres (at their centre, centromeres) made of a repeating sequence of noncoding DNA. As an aside, mitochondria (tiny entities we enslaved to make energy for our cells) have circular DNA.

Every time a cell divides, the telomeres (TEE-low-meers) get shorter. When we are conceived we have quite long telomeres, by the time we get to about 80, our dividing cells have short telomeres (have a look at something called the Hayflick Limit). Once the telomeres get too short, the cell can no longer divide, and if it is damaged it either commits hari kari (apoptosis; weeds itself out of the gene pool) to allow new cells to regenerate, or it kind of hangs in there by its fingernails barely functioning (senescent).

As telomeres get shorter, the DNA near the telomeres gets less effective – some genes are twenty times less effective. The length of the telomere acts like a ticking clock on our gene expression, and limits how many times your cells can divide. So currently, that is what being 80 looks like. Unable to repair youself, ‘old’ gene expression instead of ‘young’ gene expression.

But if you make the telomeres longer, the genes start acting like young genes again, the old mouse skin looks young again, and cells can divide and replace themselves when damaged. And of course… science found how to make telomeres longer…you need telomerase (Tee-LOM-er-ase). Discovered by Elizabeth Blackburn (et al), thank you scientists. Telomerase exists in all our cells, but gets permanently silenced at conception.

Bill Andrews at Geron Corp (slogan “Live Forever or Die Trying”) tests products to see if they turn telomerase on; early on they found that astragalus did. Geron has since found thousands more, but many are toxic. Astragalus is pretty much a weed (or let’s be kind, herb) that’s been used for 3000 years in ancient Chinese medicine (for respiratory infections). It has a long history of being safe to use on humans. TA Sciences isolated and refined the active component, TA-65. For the first time, we can slow down that ticking clock. Not by delaying death, but by recreating youth. So now I look at the world and think, are we the first generation that will experience before and after radical life extension? If we keep up the rate of discovery, even immortality? The last time we have to lose forever Beethoven, or Mother Teresa?

Turn left at the North star and head onwards until dawn to Wonderland.


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