In the new movie The Age of Adaline, Blake Lively portrays the titular heroine, a woman born in 1908 who remains fixed at age 29 due to a freak accident involving a bolt of lightning. While electric charges have been known to resuscitate people [http://scienceandfilm.org/articles/2537/bringing-back-the-dead], they aren’t (as of yet, at least), associated with immortality. But that doesn’t mean immortality is impossible.
Today, there are many strands of research involved in the science of aging—and how to prevent it from happening. While most people are not “immune to the ravages of time,” as Adaline magically experiences, there is still hope for humankind to live longer and healthier lives—and theoretically, even exist indefinitely.
To find out how, Sloan Science and Film spoke with Dr. Sergiy Libert, an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University, whose laboratory focuses on a diverse range of techniques to study the process of aging (including cell culture, biochemistry, and computational methods) in order to develop interventions to delay aging and ameliorate age-related diseases.
Sloan Science and Film: Do you think that the human body, with the advances of science and technology, could live another 100 years? 200 years? Could we theoretically reengineer our cellular structure so that we’re living to be 200-years-old?
Sergiy Libert: I do believe that we probably can live as long as we want to. I don’t think immortality is unachievable. I think it is achievable. In fact, there are a number of organisms that are, to a degree, immortal. There are these planarian worms, which are very complicated organisms, with a nervous system, intestines, muscles, and they reproduce. It’s a very advanced organism, and it is immortal. It never ages. It can regenerate parts of its body. So theoretically, I don’t see why humans wouldn’t be able to do so, too. It probably would be a comprehensive panel of interventions, including organ replacement, stem cell therapies, genetic engineering, environmental controls, and other highly sophisticated ways to combat certain diseases. It’s been recently shown that a number of cancers are not caused by anything, except for bad luck, and we have so many cells in our bodies that some just go bad at certain point. So I do believe that our bodies can live forever.
SSF: What are your current research areas?
SL: We’re looking at different scientific interventions, whether it’s genetic interventions, or dietary interventions or environmental things that influence the rate of aging. We already know that we can change the lifespan of lab organisms—I work with flies and mice—by doing different things to make them live longer. The one thing about aging is that as you get older, you get disposed to age-related diseases, most famously cancer or neuro degeneration, like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons’s. All those things that don’t bother us when we’re young, but start to happen when you’re old. So that’s what we’re looking at: what exactly aging does to our bodies which makes us acceptable to those diseases, and if there’s a way to reverse it or change it, so we can age gracefully.
SSF: I’m aware of a number of areas of research, such as caloric restriction, anti-oxidants, cellular reengineering. What are the key areas for you? Caloric restriction seems like the easiest to manipulate.
SL: Caloric restriction is when you give animals 60-70% of what they would eat normally if left alone. Almost all of the animals that it was tried on lived longer. Many labs have tried to figure out what the mechanism is. And there are several groups of genes that have been shown to react to the caloric restriction. There are enzymes that, if activated, change the genetic programming of cells, and they make cells more robust, they make the DNA more responsive to internal damage and benefit the organism, in general.
SSF: How does this apply to humans?
SL: A mouse will usually eat as much food as it wants. About four grams every day. And the calorie-restricted group would eat two and a half grams a day. In humans, it’s recommended that you usually eat something on the order of 2,000 grams per day. So to calorie-restrict yourself, you’d probably have to survive the rest of your life on about 1,100-1,200 grams a day. Very little food. But you don’t want to not eat vitamins or minerals, because then you’d be deficient in those micro-elements. It is also argued whether it’s workable in humans. It works rather well in mice. It works a little bit less, but still works rather well in dogs. It works borderline effectively in monkeys. So many people are skeptical about whether starvation or caloric restriction works in humans. Nobody doubts that whatever mechanisms are triggered by caloric restriction are beneficial. But it’s not the magic bullet. There are good things and bad things. For example, the good thing is that it can increase your insulin sensitivity, but it can also suppress the immune system, so you might be more susceptible to flu.
SSF: What about anti-oxidants?
SL: That boils down to the question: Why does aging actually happen? And one of the most beautiful theories is the oxidative-damage theory. As we live and burn energy, the byproduct of that process is the creation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) molecules, which damage proteins and DNA and lead to aging. Based on that theory, if you eat a lot of anti-oxidants—chemical compounds that can capture these ROS molecules—there will be less damage and you live longer. But ROS molecules are not just there to do damage. In fact, many processes in our bodies have ROS signaling. So we need them for our bodies, during heart development, for example, which is guided by ROS.
SSF: Are there any other areas of research that you think are worth mentioning, other than lightning bolts?
SL: Yes, lightning bolts are unlikely to help. There are a couple of things that people attribute to aging. One is DNA mutation: as we get older, just by chance or by damage, our DNA mutates with time, and that might hurt the organism. So one area of research is what can we do to make sure the DNA stays the same. Another one is when we get older, there is debris that the cells do not bother to clear off. So one thing to do to live longer is to make sure that mechanisms that clear extra cells or debris are hyper-activated or develop some kind of therapy to help that.
SSF: Do you ever, or are you aware of other researchers in this area, who question the dangers, morally or psychologically, of extending life?
SL: There are people who oppose it. But if we can eliminate age-related diseases, like cancer or Alzeimer’s, the well-being of the population will improve dramatically. You’re not going to be immortal, because sooner or later, you’re going to get hit by lightning or by a car. It’s only a matter of time before some accident happens, So you can’t be absolutely immortal. But if you don’t have to deteriorate with age and you don’t have dementia and you have strength to do work, and you can stay productive for longer or still be creative for longer, as far as humanity goes, the eradication of diseases will be a benefit. I don’t think the idea that God designed us this way or nature designed us this way should be listened to.