Does life extension bring immortality or immorality?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
CEO of Google Larry Page is funding a company called Calico, which aims to extend the human lifespan. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons CEO of Google Larry Page is funding a company called Calico, which aims to extend the human lifespan. (credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) Credit: Kelsey Scott/Operations Manager Credit: Kelsey Scott/Operations Manager

If you could drink from the Fountain of Youth, would you?

The idea of eternal, or even extended, life has been a divisive issue since its conception. Are we meant to live for only a finite period of time? Is it moral to allow death to occur when it could be prevented? If humans take longer to pass away, where will we find the space to house the world’s growing population? These are all questions that have different “correct” answers, depending on who’s talking. These discussions are taking on greater importance today as technology, science, and human ingenuity make it possible to achieve a substantially longer lifespan.

Last week, CEO of Google Larry Page announced the company’s next bold venture: finding the cure to aging. Google is funding the creation of a startup research company, Calico, that aims to extend the lives of people born 20 years ago by 100 years. In a post on Google+, Page said, “There’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives.” While Calico’s plan of action has not yet been publicized, there are many existing technologies and methods that could potentially be expanded upon to produce significant results. One such method that shows promise is called telomerase gene therapy.

Telomeres are essentially shields made out of nucleotide base pairs that are placed at the ends of every chromosome in animal cells to protect DNA from erosion during cell division. Each telomere loses base pairs every time the cell divides, which may cause the phenomena of aging. After telomeres deteriorate to a certain length, the DNA is no longer protected; the cell ceases to divide and consequently dies. However, some cells in the body, such as adult stem cells, have shown to express a protein called telomerase that prevents telomeres from degrading. Recent research conducted at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center has shown that treating mice with telomerase increases the length of their life by up to 40 percent. Calico could potentially expand on telomerase research by further investigating its effectiveness and by finding ways to safely and effectively administer it to humans.

Another approach — one currently being researched at Carnegie Mellon — looks at how organisms tend to express genes in different ways as they age. Javier Lopez, associate professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon, is looking at these differential expressions and investigating if waste produced by the cell plays a role. As cells produce energy to carry out the processes of life, destructive compounds are created that accumulate in cells. Lopez has been able to link this buildup with changes in gene expression that correlate to aging. Removing or limiting the effects of this byproduct could lead to insight into another form of life extension.

Page said, “[We] are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all — from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.”

While some believe Calico has good intentions, others believe that extending the length of human lives is not the right answer. Many contend that the resources required for this undertaking would be better spent protecting the environment or reducing poverty and hunger.

Additionally, life extension means that there will be an even greater increase in the population after each successive generation. This could potentially lead to a shortage of resources on Earth.
“Death, even though it can be sad and painful, is an unavoidable and necessary process of life,” first-year business major Sonali Avlani said. “I’m not saying that finding cures to diseases like cancer and AIDS is a bad thing. However, we simply don’t have the resources to sustain longer lives. We are already overpopulating the Earth.”

As of now, it is no longer a question of if we can live longer; it’s just a question of if we want to.