Thursday, February 2, 2023

Keep On Truckin’

As the Immortality Era approaches and organ-printing mini-marts begin appearing on every street corner, those of us who wish to live to quadruple digits are trimming the sails and swabbing the deck to get ready for the eternal cruise.  And none of us with more diligence than one Bryan Johnson, a 45-year-old biotech company founder who aims to have the body of an 18-year-old, and we don’t mean Miss Teenage America.  Johnson and his select team of age-defying experts have embarked upon Project Blueprint, a quest to discover the true Holy Grail…the key to aging.

Bryan may be a chronological 45 but tests reveal the heart of a 37-year-old, the skin of man 28 and the lung capacity of an 18-year-old, and he’s just getting started.  He believes he can find a path not yet travelled which will lead his body back to teendom.  Johnson could spend as much as $2 million on his body before year’s end and he considers it money well spent.

Project Blueprint is led by Oliver Zolman, a 29-year-old physician who calls himself “the rejuvenation doctor.”  Zolman is supported by a team of 30+ “health experts” of one kind or another.  Their program, which is constantly tweaked as information is gathered, consists of an intense daily regimen of carefully curated supplements, meals, exercise and a slew of bodily tests, and is not for the weak of heart or the man with a busy schedule.  Hopefully, Johnson’s business runs on autopilot because the man is not available for small talk and stamping envelopes.

Bryan the zealot.

A Day In The Life Of Bryan Johnson

“I don’t want a pickle—just want to ride on my Exer-cickle!”

Bryan rises before the cock crows each morning, say around 5 a.m., with a breakfast of two dozen supplements, including lycopene, metformin, turmeric, zinc and a small dose of lithium (for brain health).  His meals are a vegan mix of solid and soft foods which don’t exceed 1,977 calories a day.  He exercises daily with three high-intensity workouts a week and endures blood tests, MRIs and colonoscopies each month.  Say what??  Did somebody utter “colonoscopies each month?”  Imagine having that scarecrow to pass by each morning.

“What I do may sound extreme,” Bryan smiles, “but I’m trying to prove that self-harm and decay are not inevitable.”  He claims his efforts in 2021 amounted to a world-record epigenetic age reversal of 5.1 years, but who’s counting?  Where’s the Guinness Book of Records when we really need them?

In certain aspects of his health, Johnson claims to have reached even younger plateaus.  His doctors say he has the gum inflammation of a 17-year-old (is there an app for that?) and a device that tracks his rate of nighttime erections promises they resemble those of a teenager.  We’re not going to ask what kind of machine they put on there but maybe it vibrates a little.

Brian would like everyone to examine his data.  To make it more fun, he’s turning his relentless pursuit of youthfulness into a competition with a website called Rejuvenation Olympics, which displays an epigenetic leaderboard ranking the current 1,750 people in the world who have signed up to join the fight against Father Time.  Johnson, of course, is in first place, but that’s because nobody else will do the colonoscopies.

James the optimist.

The Rest Of The Story 

 Brian Johnson, of course, is not the only game in town.  In 2016, an American real-estate investor named James Strole established the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, a nonprofit based in Arizona which aims to galvanize mainstream support for science that may one day significantly prolong human life.  Modern medicine is allowing us to live longer now with a rat-a-tat-tat of rapid discoveries which keep pushing back the limits on lifespan, but that is not Strole’s objective.  What good, he asks, are a few measly years?  James Strole is not interested in extending life by days and weeks, but by decades and even centuries, to the degree that mortality becomes optional.  Like, say, Willie Nelson’s grandmother.

“The deathist paradigm has to go,” reads a line on the Coalition’s website.  “It’s time to look beyond the past of dying to a future of unlimited living.”  Needless to say, CRLE has supporters numbering in the thousands.  But what makes them optimistic that such a weighty task can be achieved even in a matter of decades?  Even the most avid of longevity scientists seem to draw the line at 120 years.  “The human body is just not constructed to live forever,” says cynical old Andrei Gudkov of the Roswell Park Cancer Center in BuffaloBut James Strole would beg to differ.

Strole has been an evangelist on the subject since age 11, when his dearly precious grandma died.  “I had a pain deep in my gut, a feeling I can’t even describe,” he recalls.  “It all seemed so unfair.”  In the early 1970s, when he was in his twenties, James began touring the United States as a public speaker, extolling the benefits of gerontological research, imagining the possibilities and advocating the anti-aging benefits of a positive mindset.  Because Strole is not scientifically accredited, he based most of his enthusiasm around healthy-living ideas, common-sense wellness notions, the spate of promising medical discoveries which delayed death.  As unspectacular as his ideas were, Strole’s pronouncements were not always well-received.  He was accused of testing God’s will and condemned for disrupting the natural order of things.  Particularly aggravated spectators referred to him as “the Devil” and peppered him with death threats.  Nevertheless, he persisted, preparing his body to persevere until a significant breakthrough arrived.  He fasted, juiced, cleansed, devoured endless supplements and invited his followers to do the same.  “We feel it’s critical to do everything we can to stay alive until that day occurs,” he says.  “You wouldn’t want to give up hope and miss salvation by a week or a month.”  Damn straight, Jimbo.

James Strole is now 73.  He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. a desert town.  He avoids dairy and rarely touches bread.  He takes unnamed pills for “cognitive benefits” and 70 other supplements, including a tablet that “energizes the mitochondria” and whose effects resemble a shot of coffee minus the jitters.  Also, vitamins, multi-nutrients and metformin, a diabetes drug which life-extentionists call “the aspirin of aging.”  In the early mornings when the Arizona air is still brisk, Strole takes a dip in his unheated pool to shock his immune system into better function and later in the day he lies face-up on an electromagnetic mat that whirs silently against his body and “opens up the veins.”

Strole is not alone in his passions.  His practices are typical life-extension strategies used by most true believers, each of whom has a few ideas of his own.  To maintain a supple mind, gerontologist Max Kyriazis who heads the British Longevity Society, reads the newspaper upside down.  When that becomes too easy, he reads it upside-down reflected in a mirror.  Max thinks of it as a better version of Sudoku.  The people on the neighboring park benches ponder, then try turning their newspapers upside down to see what gives.

Albert the beachcomber.

But What If I Try All This And Die At 109 Anyway?

One might ask, what good is all this?  Is the deprivation and supplement-swallowing really worth it?  Devotees of McDonald’s and the Cheesecake Factory scratch their heads in bewilderment, but Strole and his kind live on a different planet from theirs.  They seek to live long enough for the next big innovation to occur.  “When it does,” he smiles, “you might be able to buy another 20 years.”  British billionaire Jim Mellon, in his book Juvenescence, claims “if you can stay alive for another 10 or 20 years and you aren’t yet over 75, assuming you remain in reasonable health, you have an excellent chance of making it past 110.”

Strole does not consider this to be some big quantum leap, invoking the analogy of a ladder; “step by step by step” to unlimited life.  In 2009, American futurist Ray Kurzwell called it “Bridges to Immortality.”

Though admittedly afraid of death, Stole seems more motivated by a kind of curiosity.  “We live our lives knowing they will one day end.  Imagine what we might accomplish if they didn’t?”  American entrepreneur Dave Asprey, who is 48 but plans to live to 180, taking 150 supplements a day in the process, says “One mind works on a problem for 50 years and accumulates incredible knowledge, much of which is lost when it dies.  What if that mind had another hundred years?  Think of the problems we could solve!  What would Einstein be working on now?”

Okay, let’s ask him.  What about it, Albert?  "You say I’m 142, right?” he smiles, scratching his hair.  “Sorry pal, I’m at the beach.”

“Mind Control To Major Tom….”

James Strole and the gang are trying to work their magic in the face of one grouchy constant; the human body is pretty fragile, prone to a raft of diseases and short on replacement parts.  Human life expectancy has, nonetheless, slowly increased over the years and will likely continue to do so even with a hiccup like Covid sneaking in every now and then to spoil the party.  Now that Longevity has become a card-carrying industry with impressive profits to be made, advances can be expected at a faster pace.  Many futurists contend that anyone who makes it to 2050 is probably not going to die so you might want to stay in the house and swaddle yourself in bubble-wrap.

Dr. Ian Pearson posits that by using the power of technology, humans might be able to merge their minds with machines, making bodies obsolete.  If you’ve always wondered what folks would say about you at your funeral, you could probably attend yourself and find out.  “One day, your body dies, but no big problem,” says Pearson.  “Because your mind is still running happily on IT in the cloud.  You can connect to an android to use as your body and Keep on Truckin’.”

Beyond 2050, there could be many different ways to preserve your mind and consciousness.  You might be able to switch to a different humanoid body the same way you’d buy a new car.  Or thanks to projects like Neuralink, your mind may be just a few simple clicks away from downloading yourself into a computer.  If all this sounds like so much science fiction, bright people like USC’s Theodore Berger, Duke’s Mikhail Lebedev and Moscow University’s Alexander Kaplan all believe it’s possible.  There are already companies out there working on ways to link our minds to machines, though for more immediate reasons like offering those with mobility difficulties the ability to live more normal lives.

The possibilities are endless.  Pearson points out that “the mind will be in the cloud and able to use any android it wishes to inhabit in the real world.  It could get to a point where you could hire an android body for the day.  Rather than travel to Jamaica, just upload your brain to an android stationed in Jamaica.  If there’s a great concert you want to see in another city, just upload yourself and enjoy the show.”  DAY-O!  Day-ay-ay-o!  Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

Brother Can You Spare A Leg?

3D printing has come a long way, impacting virtually every major industry in the world, including healthcare.  In the past couple of years,  researchers have found a way to 3D-print organs.  In 2019, a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel unveiled a 3D-printed heart with human tissue and vessels.  Companies like Skorpio Medical have started research in the realms of printed limbs.  In the near future, it should be possible to just renew a body part when it goes on the blink.  Genetic engineering could eventually prevent the aging of cells or completely reverse aging altogether.  Cut off a finger with your chain saw?  Just troop on down to Digits-‘R’-Us.  Need a new arm?  See your technician down at the Arm-ory.  Reminds us of a poem: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.  Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.  All the kings horses and all the kings men slapped that sucker together again.”  Nice.

The Iceman Cometh

“Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold cold heart?”---Hank Williams

We’ve heard all the cryogenics jokes, read about all the frigid franchises which have gone out of business, leaving Pops to melt when the power gets turned off at Acme Brainfreeze.  There was never much chance you could freeze yourself until your cause of death was fixable, then be awakened.  There is, however, some new positive research that centers on using cryonics to slow tissue aging.  The ability to safely preserve and store organs for extended periods is a gamebreaker.

According to statistics from the United Network for Organ Sharing, 22 people die every day in the U.S. while waiting for organ transplants.  Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t because there is a shortage of organs being donated---it’s because organs cannot be preserved for more than a few hours.  The time it takes to find a matching recipient and transport the organ safely to the donee’s location often exceeds the window of time in which the organ remains viable for transplant.  Over half of donated hearts and lungs are…well… thrown out each year because they don’t make it to a patient in time.  They can only be kept on ice for four hours on average, not nearly long enough in many cases.

A recent study, however, has made a significant breakthrough in cryonic preservation.  Using a new technique, scientists were able to cryopreserve human and pig samples, then successfully rewarm them without causing any damage to the tissue.  According to lead researcher John Bischoff of the University of Minnesota, by using nanoparticles to heat the tissues at an equal rate, scientists were able to prevent the formation of destructive ice crystals.  Researchers mixed silica-coated iron oxide nanoparticles in a solution and applied an external magnetic field to generate heat.  The process was tested on several samples and it showed that nanowarming achieves the same speed of thawing as the use of traditional convection techniques.  This is the first time that anyone has been able to scale up to a larger biological system and demonstrate successful, fast and uniform warming of hundreds of degrees Celsius per minute of preserved tissue without damaging the tissue.

He’s Number One!

Noone is sure why every living thing on the planet must die or why nearly all living things that have  existed already have expired.  Is death a feature of evolution or a byproduct?  The current hypothesis that aging is a disease, however, has shifted research into new realms.  Enter the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish, which reverses its cell aging and asexually reproduces, creating thousands of clones of itself.  This amazing critter gives anti-aging researchers optimism in their quest for everlasting life.  Turritopsis is an irresistible force, spreading in great numbers across the world’s oceans, hitching rides on cargo ships, arriving everywhere.  There is now no way to keep their numbers down, no means to stop them from spreading further, forever.  Of course, they said this about The Blob, too, and look what happened to him.

The Arctic and subarctic Bowhead whales are the longest living mammals, often surviving over 200 years.  These whales have mutations in a gene called ERCC1, which is involved with repairing damaged DNA, that may help protect the whales from cancer.  Another gene, called PCNA, has a section which has been duplicated.  This gene is involved in cell growth and repair and the duplication could slow aging.

A 2016 study of Greenland shark eye tissue published in the journal Science estimated that these sharks have a lifespan of at least 272 years.  The largest shark in the study was estimated to be about 392 years old and researchers suggested the sharks could possibly reach over 500 years of age.  Even the lowest estimates make these sharks the longest living vertebrates on Earth.

Scientists studying these jellyfish, whales and sharks for clues to possible human longevity posit that they live as long as they do for a number of reasons; (1) in the case of the jellyfish, it can combat physical damage or starvation by shrinking in on itself, reabsorbing its tentacles and losing the ability to swim, settling on the seafloor to rehab; (2) the Bowheads persevere because of unusually vigorous DNA repair processes, slowing the accumulation of damage in their genomes; (3) the Greenland sharks spend their lives 2000 meters down, where the water temperature is around 29 degrees Fahrenheit, fostering slow metabolism and maturation.  They don’t reach adulthood for 150 years.  Their hearts beat slowly, about one beat every 12 seconds, so they last for centuries.  Human heartbeat is about one per second.  Researchers also cite several other reasons for these creatures’ longevity---things like vigorous exercise programs, the absence of underwater Cheesecake Factories, a dearth of freeway driving and sensible gun control.  Stay tuned, every day brings a new discovery.  In the meantime, check your colonoscopy schedule.

That’s all, folks….