Defeating death

Thousands of years ago it was written in Corinthians 15:26: “And the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Throughout history, we humans have vainly tried to defeat death in whatever way we could. We have created religions that promise an afterlife. We have, like Alexander the Great, conquered entire nations—not for land but for eternal fame. We have searched for “fountains of life.” The Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang even ingested mercury tablets in an attempt at immortality. When this backfired, islander Xu Fu convinced a desperate Huang that if only he lent him some treasure-laden ships he would find an elixir on the mythical island of Japan. Needless to say, Fu never returned, and today we are still headed toward the same destination as these men. It is a destination that is conceived as paradise by many and oblivion by few. It is a destination that has consumed billions.

The quest for immortality has not ended. Indeed, people who view death as oblivion are trying hard to defeat it. Armed with modern science, they are making so much progress that Harvard-educated physicist Michio Kaku has even questioned whether he is a member of the last generation to die. Kaku believes that a toddler alive today could be the first physically immortal human.

The idea sounds crazy at first—preposterous, even. But increasingly, more and more scientists are viewing death as less of an inevitability and more as something that science can and will tackle. Though previously senescence research was promoted primarily by charlatans like Aubrey de Grey, credible scientists like Michio Kaku and Michael West are coming to see physical immortality as an inevitability.

This is due to a few reasons. First, our understanding of where we age has increased, in large part because of our relatively novel ability to scan the human genome. “Think of a car,” Kaku recently explained in an online video, “Where does aging take place in a car? Well, the engine. Why? Because that’s where combustion takes place, that’s where we have the gum of deposits and soot buildup in the engine because that’s where oxidation takes place. But where does oxidation take place in itself? The mitochondria. The mitochondrion is the engine of the cell. So we now know where aging takes place.”

Second, numerous scientists think it may be possible to reverse cellular damage. In his well-reviewed book, “The Immortal Cell,” Dr. Michael West talks about how the death of his father spurned him to discover the cellular “clock” telomerase (a biological mechanism that manages the aging of cells). Telomerase is referred to as a “clock” because every time a cell divides, the cell’s telomere shortens, so the length of a telomere is correlated with a person’s age. After this discovery, West founded a company with the ultimate purpose of using stem cells to repair tissue damage. West faces harsh criticism concerning his research on cellular aging, especially in regards to stem cell use and telomerase activation. Interestingly, telomerase activation does hold some promise; for example, one study found that activating telomerase reverses tissue degeneration in prematurely aged, telomerase-deficient mice.

Third, our ability to grow organs in the lab is slowly but surely increasing due to tissue engineering research. Although currently we are limited to growing relatively simple organs such as the bladder, further research could enable us to grow new hearts or lungs. “Have a weak heart?” a future doctor might ask. “Not a problem. Just pop in a new one!”

Finally, we are no longer certain that death is a necessary condition of life. Some of you may have read “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” in The New York Times recently. As the article states, Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student, “discovered eternal life in 1988” when he unwittingly scooped up Turritopsis dohrnii, today known more commonly as the “immortal jellyfish.”

As The New York Times wrote, “After several days [Sommer] noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner. … Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.” Japanese scientist Shin Kubota is studying this “Benjamin Button” jellyfish in the hopes of uncovering the genes that allow it to live forever—and learning how we can harness them.

Do I think we will live forever? No. This research is still in its nascent stages, and there is still a long way to go. But the social consequences of immortality are interesting to contemplate, for they pose questions for religion as well as society. Would religions fight attempts at physical immortality? Given eternal life, how long would couples remain married? What would it mean to have a life-long career goal?

Whether you dread eternal life or welcome it, it seems possible that humans will eventually turn the dream, like spaceflight or nuclear fusion, into a reality. If this is true, the main questions are when—and at what cost to our humanity.

Mike Shammas is a Trinity senior. This is his final column of the semester.


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