Did you ever fantasize about living to be a hundred? Or a hundred and twenty? Or living forever? Well, scientists are working on it and they have actually figured out ways to extend the life of human cells. That has a lot of people excited.
“It means that I want to live forever basically as long as I possibly can,” he says. “I see no reason to stop living and to want to stop living.”
Matthews has dedicated his whole life to going the distance. Even at a Toronto dance club he’s not there for a little action but for the healthful aerobic workout.
“Lots of swaying and moving around so that it’s very good for you for that part of the
body,” Matthews says. “Enough energetics. I am actually leaping off the floor, flailing my arms around at times very expressive. So it’s exercise, it’s social. It’s everything. It’s a lot of blended things.”
Why die if you don’t have to? Especially now since immortality seems to be just around the corner. All of the indicators are in place. More people living into their 80s, into their 90s. The number of 100-year-olds is doubling every 10 years.
Given the accumulation of research in the field in just the past half dozen years, we are told we are close to moving the yardsticks to 150 to 200 to 300 and beyond. Virtual immortality.
When you may ask? Many of those who are tackling the annoying problem of age suggest that the very first immortals-to-be are blissfully unaware that they’re here to stay. Whereas Matthews already knows he is here for the long haul.
“As a child I always thought of myself as different,” he says. “When I first heard about death, I thought that somehow there has got to be a way beat this and it ain’t going to happen to me. I am not going to let myself die.”
Being immortal is a full-time job. No time any more to be a math teacher. Matthews now spends his days absorbing the latest scholarly papers on the subject.
He is an on-line consultant to an assorted life-extension groups; advising others on how to stay in the game until science finally masters that old spoilsport death. He’s certainly his own best advertisement. For a guy who is 60, he is in remarkable shape.
Thanks partly to a strict dietary regime.
Breakfast is a blend of nuts, fruits, vitamins and minerals; whipped up with other appallingly healthy stuff. Matthews probably knows more than most doctors on what keeps us ticking. He often conducts his own medical tests on himself.
“My fasting glucose is not as good as I would like,” Matthews says. “I would like to have it lower but it’s about 89. And my blood pressure is very low. I am very pleased with that.”
He is convinced he is not going to see it as fast as others his age.
“I have stopped my aging rate,” he says. “I have really slowed it down. And that’s shown also by the fact that if I compare my blood tests with four years ago with today there is very little that changed... There are some bio-markers in there of aging. And there is very little change.”
Though it can’t be a lot of fun when lunch and dinner are often what’s left over from breakfast. But Matthews looks forward to the payoff—life without that awful downhill slide. To not only live long but without perceptively aging. Who is going to argue with that?
That explains why author Ben Bova is the biggest draw at a Florida book fair. Bova’s new book Immortality is one of many recent volumes that explain how science is starting to gain on aging and death. He is a renowned science fiction writer with an uncanny grasp of what science without the fiction is capable of in the near future.
“The first immortals are living now,” Bova says. “They are among us. And you might be one of them. We have the capability of producing human beings who will live for many, many hundreds of years. And perhaps live indefinitely.
“Biologists are learning what causes aging in the cells of your body,” he says. “You know, we are what are cells are. The human body has about 100 trillion cells. And when they go, we go. The biologists are learning what the clocks are in the cells, little molecular clocks that tell the cell when to die. That stops the cell from reproducing. And when the cells in your body begin to die in a large enough number you begin to get the symptoms of aging. Your joints get stiff, your muscles lose strength, your skin wrinkles. When enough of your cells die, you die. So if you can understand what makes cells die and stop that then you can live as long as your cells are healthy.”
Bova may seem overly enthusiastic about what science can do. After all, he has got books to sell. But there is no denying that science has begun to coax our body’s cells into living longer.
The pioneer in the field is California’s Leonard Hayflick. In 1961, he discovered that most cells in our bodies divide and reproduce themselves about 50 times before slowing down and pooping out. It’s the Hayflick Limit. Hayflick insists that despite science’s best efforts the outer limit of human life will remain about 120. The most a human being has ever survived.
“This field is a very young field despite the subject matter,” Hayflick says. “It is the last field in biology in which scientists are now becoming serious in respect to making efforts to understand it.”
“When you drive your brand new automobile off of the automobile showroom floor, you have a clear understanding of the potential of that automobile to live for a certain number of years before you have to buy a new one.
That’s longevity determination,” he says.
“And that’s what humans have when they’re about 25 or 30-years-old. They have a potential to live for a significant number of years beyond that point. The changes that occur at the molecular level in the automobile after it leaves the showroom and after humans after the age of 25 or 30, our age changes. The point I am making is that aging is inevitable…Everything in this universe ages. Including the universe itself.”
So you can’t beat the Hayflick limit. Fifty renewals per cell and then you wind up here. Or so it was thought till science started tinkering with our cells and discovered the Hayflick limit may not be chiselled in granite after all.
“Research labs have kept human cells alive much longer than their normal limits,” Bova says. “So that if you translated that to a whole human being, that person would live two or three hundred years easily. And be young all that time. Young and vigorous.”
Just outside San Francisco, headquarters of the world’s bio-tech industry, is where immortality meets the profit motive. The hottest player is the Geron Corporation—the first outfit to actually extend the life of human cells. These folks are confident they can cure aging. They are led by a Canadian head of research Calvin Harley.
“The possibility of breaking through the maximum genetic life span of humans which is current thought to be roughly 120 is definitely there,” Harley says. “ But can medicine achieve that? Can drugs or diet or various factors that we might take give us a really dramatic increase in life-span. It’s not at all impossible. It’s just, it is going to be a matter of time.”
Geron is concentrating its efforts on a part of the cell called the telomere.
“Telomere is [the name for] the physical ends of our chromosomes,” Harley says. “What we have discovered in the last eight or nine years is that telomeres gradually shrink with age. These ends of our chromosomes become shorter. And this is linked to why cells undergo an aging process. And as cells age so do we.”
Geron thinks telomeres are our clocks setting the rate at which we age. The more they wear down, the closer we are to death. Last year Geron injected old cells with an enzyme called telomeres which rebuild the telomeres to their once vigorous cells again. In effect making those cells immortal. Not just stopping the clock but reversing it. Those cells are still wildly frisky. If Geron can now figure out how to do it in people, you’ll want to buy some of their stock.
“If we can maintain telomere length or actually increase telomeres we can in fact increase the life-span of normal cells,” Harley says.
What makes the industry so sure there is a connection between aging and short telomeres is their study of kids like Devin Scullion of Hamilton. Devin is just two-years-old but biologically he is 90. At first, his mother Jamie couldn’t understand what was wrong with him.
“He was almost five-months-old but we figured something was wrong about a month after he came out of the hospital,” says his mother, Jamie Scallion. “He had bumpy skin.
It looked like cellulite but and he had really tight, tight skin. And he was really stiff. He moved like a robot. And we just kept saying like there is something wrong.”
What Devin has is progeria. It’s a rare disease—there are just about 30 cases in the world. Patients are born old and age rapidly with all of the aches and pains of old age. They are prone to strokes and heart disease “He could [die] they say anywhere between the ages of seven and 15.
Usually it’s around 12-years-old when they pass on,” she says.
If Geron can perfect its telemere therapy in the next few years, there could still be time to help Devin, along with the rest of us. “Aging in essence is like a disease that can be treatable if you understand the basic molecular mechanisms,” Harley says.
The trouble is there may be no one simple answer to aging. Which is why fruit flies are taking up space in the lab of Gabrielle Boulianne at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. In her lab, Boulianne has managed to keep the flies alive 40 per cent longer than nature intended. That’s good news for us humans because fruit flies share a lot of the same genes as people.
“I think what we found is we found that there’s specific genes that seem to be able to extend the life span of the fruit fly,” Boulianne says.
“And the gene that we have been studying is in codes and enzyme called superoxide dismutase or SOD. And it’s an enzyme that’s involved in—it’s present in all our cells from flies to humans that’s involved in removing or detoxifying toxic by-products that are made as a result of normal breathing.”
A little extra SOD is injected into the flies and they’re able to fight off the effects of oxidation—damage caused by simply breathing.
It will take time to be able to transfer the effect of SOD to humans.
“It’s exciting because it suggests that there are cells within our body that are vulnerable to the effects of aging,” Boulianne says. “ If we can identify those and put the genes into those cells that extend life span, we might be able to you know perhaps extend life span but certainly maybe improve the quality of our lives as we age.”
“If you could prevent oxidation damage, or at least repair the damage that is done, then the cell will continue to function properly and it will not age. So preventing oxidation damage is very important and research along that line is a major part of learning how to create enormous extensions of the human life span,” Bova says.
Naturally Tom Matthews is up on all this stuff and figures the breakthroughs will come fast enough that he’ll be around to see his granddaughter grow up and have kids and he’ll play with her kids. He guesses if he can just hang in another decade or two the now preliminary research on telemeres and SOD—among hundreds of other projects - - will advance enough to keep him going till the next round of breakthroughs.
“I believe that I have every reason to be able to live in good health to at least 100 and even more possibly,” Matthews says. “By the time I’m a 100, we’ll have more breakthroughs and I’ll be able to do more things to keep myself healthy you see. It’s a building up process. And so I think I may be riding that sort of wave into the indefinite future.”
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s
mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Though people are living longer, life remains the one incurable disease. No one had a better handle on its inevitable downward spiral than Shakespeare who recognized in As You Like It that—despite its buoyant beginning and satisfying middle—it always seems to end up rather badly.
Stanley and Miriam Sapiro think they can change Shakespeare’s script as “they” like it without waiting for a breakthrough. They’re well enough these days to go for a walk near their home in southern California, something they couldn’t have done four months ago. Stanley, 81, has Parkinson’s Disease, Miriam, 75, was worn down just caring for him.
“The problem is that conventional medicine has practically no answers to the problems of aging,” Stanley Sapiro says.
“Perhaps the accumulation of years is part of life but the rusting, the deterioration, that needn’t be part of life,” Miriam says.
They’re positive what turned them around so quickly is the regimen imposed by Dr. Mark Legome who practices the rapidly-growing speciality of anti-aging medicine. It’s big particularly in California among the well-to-do who can afford the $500 (U.S.) a month a piece. Legome doesn’t promise the Sapiros immortality—that’d be hard to swallow in their condition—but just more quality years they didn’t think they had in them.
“What we can do right now is we can recognize what it is that happens when people age?,” Dr. Leomone says. “What are the chemical manifestations of aging? What affects aging has on certain hormonal changes in our body. And the only thing we’re doing right now is by replacing the
deficits in these hormones, HGH, the estrogens, testosterones, some of the others. By replacing these things we’re finding that to some degree aging is reversing to some degree. But also the age-related degenerative processes are either being eliminated or slowed down.”
Legome’s prescription for the Sapiros: lots of vitamins, minerals and especially human growth hormone HGH which our bodies produce when we’re young but which dwindles with age weakening our immune system. HGH is controversial. Some say it works, others that it’s a placebo, even bad for you. But the Sapiros say it has rejuvenated them.
“[My] energy level that increased dramatically, just dramatically,” Miriam says, “ instead of dragging around and not wanting to get out of bed until 10 in the morning and then being tired until one in the afternoon and not being particularly interested in doing much of anything until four in the afternoon. Just the energy level increased amazingly.”
“I’ve gained over 12 pounds back again,” Stanley says. “My memory is still not what it should be but I think it’s getting a little better and I’m more able to concentrate on what I read.”
To Ben Bova, it’s just another example of science closing in on death and cutting it off at the pass.
“You know it’s difficult for people to grasp. But people... are going to live not just hundreds of years, very likely they’ll live thousands of years,” Bova says.
The godfather of aging, Leonard Hayflick, says don’t cancel your life insurance just yet. His speciality has come a long way but there’s one major stumbling block. “We would have to replace our worn out or aging parts which as we all know can be done with some organs,” Hayflick says.
“But even if it could be done with all of our organs there is one organ that we’ll probably will never be able to have accomplished and that is our brains. And even if that were to happen, you wouldn’t be the same person that you are now. And the exercise would therefore be worthless.
“You wouldn’t be present to live longer if your brain was changed. You wouldn’t be you any more.
Don’t bother Tom Matthews with such niggling details. He’s already making plans for all the time he’ll have on his hands when immortality inevitably arrives.
“I don’t know. There’s a million things to do. I might become a doctor. I might become a space scientist,” Matthews says.
No such dreams for Jamie Scullion. She’d just be delighted if science could help her son live, age and die at a normal rate.
“I want him to grow up. I want him to live longer than me. I want him to have children. I want him to have things that everyone takes advantage of that I know he won’t be able to have.”
That’s not enough for the rest of us. We want it all. And Ben Bova insists we shall have it.
“All through human history people have longed for immortality. The oldest stories we know—the tale of Gilgamesh for example—it’s all about trying to beat death,” he says. “We are going to do it. This generation of human beings is going to eliminate death from aging. And we’re going to have a different world as a result.”
A world in which the sun will never set on you. Life everlasting—barring car accidents and other bad luck. A million tomorrows. Till that day though eat your greens, take your exercise. Because until someone shouts “eureka”, those dreary remedies are your best shots at having the sun come up on you tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.