Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
Billionaires are busy trying to beat death while we are still not sure how cells live and die
The human body knows how to heal itself. In fact, this is true for most life on Earth. Healing often involves repair. Repair takes up a lot of energy. Till a child hits puberty, a lot of the energy is spent repairing the body which children are excellent at damaging. This energy spent is what gives us the youthful look.
Historically, post-pubescent adults would start to channel more of their energy toward reproduction instead of repair and this results in ageing and ultimately death. The body just does not have enough energy left to repair every single damaged cell!
There is a cult of billionaires that are currently throwing money at the problem and want ‘solve’ death. The high priest of this cult is Peter Thiel.
If you told someone 300 years ago of the things that these people are trying in their quest for immortality, they would have met the same fate as the women in Salem.
Larry Ellison, the eccentric co-founder of software conglomerate Oracle, donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to life-extension therapies every year. “I don’t understand how someone can be here, then not be here,” he says. We’re not sure if Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and unofficial technology advisor to US president Donald Trump, really transfused blood from younger men into his own in a search for eternal youth, but he’s definitely made an enemy of getting older. “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing,” he told the Washington Post, reflecting on the millions of dollars he has donated to anti-aging research.
There are three ways to meet death: Injury, disease or old age. Senescence is the deterioration of a body with age. In our protected environments and with the medical technologies available to us, we are capable of beating injury and disease. Old age is a whole other thing.
Nobody can cheat death. It is certainly possible to slow down ageing and learn more about it, we do not have to look far. Tortoises are known to live for a hundred years or more. Do they beat senescence?
The authors of a study published in Science last month say yes. Well, if you’re a turtle. With an extensive analysis of 52 species of turtles (a designation that includes both water dwellers and land-lodging tortoises), the team of four scientists found that the majority of them showed exceptionally slow—and in some cases, negligible—senescence while in captivity. That doesn’t make them immortal; turtles can still die from illness or injury. But unlike birds and mammals, their overall risk of death doesn’t increase with age. “We confirmed something that was suspected a long time ago, but never proven,” says Fernando Colchero, a biodemographer at the University of Southern Denmark.
Two species, the Greek tortoise and black marsh turtle, even displayed what da Silva calls negative senescence, in which the risk of dying actually decreased with age.
It’s important to note that all of the turtles were captive, living in ideal conditions for long life: enclosed habitats with controlled environmental and reproductive conditions, as well as easy access to sustenance and care. “They don’t have to spend all of their energy on finding food or avoiding predators,” da Silva says. “So they can just allocate all of that energy to surviving.”
In part, their lack of pace lends well to their long lives since they do not damage as many cells. Can we learn to slow down our lives?
Normally, if the body is unable to repair the damaged cell, it lets them slowly die. This takes time. But now scientists are discovering that air pollution tends to turn on the damaged cells which would otherwise be consigned to the garbage heap.
The classical view of cancer starts with a healthy cell. It acquires more and more mutations in its genetic code, or DNA, until it reaches a tipping point. Then it becomes a cancer and grows uncontrollably.
But there are problems with this idea: cancerous mutations are found in seemingly healthy tissue, and many substances known to cause cancer - including air pollution - don't seem to damage people's DNA.
The researchers who also work at University College London, have produced evidence of a different idea. The damage is already there in our cell's DNA, picked up as we grow and age, but something needs to pull the trigger that actually makes it cancerous.
The discovery came from exploring why non-smokers get lung cancer. The overwhelming majority of lung cancers are caused by smoking but still, one in 10 cases in the UK is down to air pollution.
The Crick scientists focused on a form of pollution called particulate matter 2.5 (known as PM2.5), which is far smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
Through a series of detailed human and animal experiments they showed:
Crucially, the researchers were able to stop cancers forming in mice exposed to air pollution by using a drug that blocks the alarm signal.
We don’t even fully understand how cells live and die.
We are undertaking wholesale changes in our environment through our own actions. Suffering the consequences of those changes causes new age diseases such as cancer. At the same time, the hubris of Billionaires is such that they want to be able to overcome death.