“Life begins as a quest of the child for the man, and ends as a journey by the man to rediscover the child.” The longer I stick around the more attention I give to holding the line against the decline of aging. When I close my eyes and examine my own self image it does not equate to the chronological expectations of the culture I find myself in. I push forward each day with the passion and verve of an earlier time and increasingly find it incumbent upon myself to redefine the concept of aging in the eyes of others by my living example. From everything I encounter in my readings and investigations, there are already sufficient findings to show that we can slow down disease and aging processes to the point that baby boomers like myself can remain in good health long enough to still be around for the full blossoming of the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions that will enable us to extend our lives for as long as we choose.
A very good friend, only six days older than me, died last Saturday from an aggressive bout with cancer. Too many of my contemporaries seem satisfied to accept aging gracefully as part of the natural cycle of life. Not me. I can find nothing positive in surrendering my mental agility, sensory acuity, physical resilience, and sexual desire to the march of time. I see disease, decline, and debility as problems that can be overcome. The question that faces me each day is how can I live a more optimal life? How can I stretch this experience out to find fulfillment in living for longer?
Aging is not some linear inexorable progression, but consists of a group of interrelated processes which we can manage to one degree or another. If we can stick around long enough, the remarkable advances in biotech and nanotech may allow each of us to manage these variables completely to extend health and life for as long as we like. Everything I read about the scientific revolutions we are in the midst of points to being able to very soon engineer our own senescence – stopping our bodies and brains from becoming more frail and disease-prone as we age.
Sci-fi movies are fond of referring to humans as carbon-based biological units. Essentially that's a pretty good definition. We are biochemistry factories housed in a skin package. Scientists have mapped the human genome and can reprogram our biochemistry. Biotech is finding new ways to change our genes, not just to make designer babies, but to make designer baby boomers. The knowledge is already there to be able to rejuvenate all of the body's tissues and organs by transforming simple skin cells into youthful versions of every other cell type. Research is nearing the stage of verifying robust rejuvenation of animals. Once that is confirmed with exhaustive trials, humans are next.
We are learning the precise biochemical pathways that underlie disease and the aging process by which specific cellular components – RNA and the ribosomes – produce proteins according to a specific genetic blueprint. Gene expression is controlled by peptides and short RNA strands. We are beginning to reverse engineer these biochemical processes to see how it all works. Many new therapies are right now under development and testing to turn off the expression of disease-causing genes and turn on desirable genes that may otherwise not be expressed. Cutting edge somatic gene therapy will enable us to effectively change genes inside the nucleus of any cell by “infecting” it with new DNA. Gene therapy can change adult genes that slow down and even reverse aging processes. Viruses are often the vehicle of choice. There is no greater master of delivering new genetic material to cells. By switching the material a virus unloads into a cell, instead of being infected by a disease the cell experiences a rejuvenation.
Aging involves a multiplicity of changes, processes that encourage senescence, all that can be controlled by technological innovations in the near future. That is what is so encouraging. All of us suffer mutations of our DNA. Our cells discard most mutations, but those that affect orderly cellular reproduction are problematic in that they can result in cancer. If existing gene therapy can be used preemptively to remove from all our cells the genes that cancer needs to turn on in order to maintain their telomeres when they divide, tumors will wither away before they have a chance to grow.
There are also mutations in the thirteen genes of the cell's powerhouses, the mitochondria. A mechanism already exists in the cell to allow nucleus-encoded proteins to be imported by the mitochondria so that they don't need to produce their own. Most of the proteins needed by the mitochondria for healthy function are already coded by the nuclear DNA. Researchers have been very successful at transferring mitochondrial genes into the nucleus in cell cultures.
Sometimes our cells reach a point at which they are not cancerous, but it would be better for the body if they could be gotten rid of. Such worn out cells can be targeted and tagged in such a way that the body's own immune system destroys and discards them. Similarly, toxins accumulate both inside and outside cells. Through somatic gene therapy new genes can be introduced to break down these toxins. A whole spectrum of proteins have been identified that can destroy virtually any toxin, using bacteria to digest and destroy dangerous contaminants from TNT to dioxin. This same strategy has been very successfully ued in cleaning up environmental disasters.
Finally, there is the problem of cell loss and atrophy as we age. Our bodies can replace worn out cells, but this ability is limited to certain organs and is not systemic. The liver can regenerate new tissue, but the heart cannot. The primary strategy here would be to deploy therapeutic cloning of our own cells. Starting with one's own egg or sperm cells, geneticists can trigger differentiation of diverse cell types just as what naturally occurs soon after fertilization, allowing them to clone your own organs from your own tissue for replacement.
Interestingly, no more than a few hundred genes are involved in the aging process. Science is not far from making all of this something each of us has to look forward to. In addition is a hybrid scenario involving both biotech and nanotech solutions turning biological cells into interactive computers. Such cells with “enhanced intelligence” could detect and destroy pathogens and cancer cells and even initiate the regrowth of human tissue at the cellular level, all software driven by nano addendum. At MIT researchers are employing wireless communication with nano chips to send intricate sequences of instructions for implementation at the cellular level. Once we have refined our ability to program cells, we are no longer constrained by the genetic instructions we are born with. New things can be programmed for new patterns. The potential is limitless.
Sure, there is a downside – just as there was with fire, the automobile, and the cell phone. The expansion of intelligence is an unstoppable force, however - the greatest power in the universe. It will happen. The only question is, can you hang on long enough to be there and benefit from it???