Extending Human Lifespans Through Biotechnology

We live in a world where death is inevitable – or is it?  This question is the fulcrum on which the life extension movement pivots.  Dr. Ilia Stambler is one of the forward-thinking advocates for reshaping the way that human kind perceives the human life span and in turn, the meaning of life and death.

Dr. Stambler’s interest in the subject of life and death sparked at an early age, six years old to be exact.  “When I first realized that I’m going to die and my grandfather is going to die; and I came and asked is it true, are we going to die?  They said, you don’t have to think about those things, you just have to think about playing.”  But even in youthful innocence, Dr. Stambler thought this was an issue that needed to be thought about and addressed.  His ongoing interests led him to study bioengineering at the Moscow Polytechnical Institute and the Israel Institute of Technology, and to his current roles as Affiliate scholar with IEET, researcher at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and activist at the International Longevity Alliance (His dissertation on the “History of Life-extensionism in the 20th century” from Bar Ilan University is available on line.

Dr. Stambler identifies the Father of the ‘Life Extension’ Field as being the Russian Scientist Ilya Illyich Mechnikov, who in 1903 coined the term gerontology – the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.   The modern idea of pro-biotic diets stems from Mechnikov’s theory, which was based on the idea that auto-intoxication, which accelerates senescence, originates with intestinal bacteria, and that one way to combat this “self-poisoning” is through the introduction of acidified dairy products (probiotics).  These ideas and other helped bridge the connection between anti-aging and life extension research and mainstream medicine.  Senescene is the biological process of aging (when cells mature and stop dividing), and its discovery has led to great breakthroughs and ongoing research in the suppression of cancerous tumors.  Dr. Stambler’s own theoretical leanings for life extension are in a biological direction, where he would like to see the extension of life maintained or enhanced in its present biological form.  He mentions the birth and development of regenerative technologies, including stem cells, gene therapy, organ replacement, and tissue repair, emphasizing that wide-use of these technologies is “still a ways off”; however, he believes that advanced biotechnologies will be available before any type of computational or nanotechnologies are used for the purpose of life extension or enhancement.

There is the question, too, of how far life extension technologies reach into the future – do we aim for another 50, 100, 200 years, or more?  The latter extreme of the spectrum might be termed Radical Life Extension.  As an activist with the Israeli Life-extensionist Community, Dr. Stambler wrote a paper in January 2012 discussing activist events held in Israel, organized by the Israeli Transhumanist Community and a newly launched journal, “Let Us From Now On”, the first of its kind in Israel dedicated to the promotion of radical life extension.  The founders of the journal expand on their philosophy, as it speaks to radical life affirmation and the struggle with death; the power of modern art and science to affirm life; and zero tolerance for inter-personal, inter-religious, or inter-national conflicts in life.  The event, held at a cemetery for symbolic reasons, was meant to raise the issue of life extension to the public.  As Dr. Stambler quotes from Danila Medvedev, head of the Russian Transhumanist movement, “…this is not just a scientific question, this is first of all a social task.”

Broader social acceptance and movement of particular actions or lines of thought is a doubtless pre-requisite to real and lasting progress.  In August, the Pew Research Institute released Americans’ response to a life extension survey, presenting some interesting findings.  The survey showed a small margin of difference in Blacks and Hispanics, as well as younger people (compared to those 50 and older), as more likely to view life extension as a good thing, though general acceptance is about 50:50 amongst the general population.  One of the most telling sets of data is the public’s acknowledged primary concerns: that only the wealthy will have access (though the vast majority believed such technologies should be made available to everyone); that the economy will be less productive; and that longer life will strain natural resources.

These types of social effects are also a shared concern among bioethicists.  Some scientists also speak to the deep-seated belief that life extension “plays with evolutionary fire”, that we shouldn’t mess with any human trait resulting from natural selection.  Philosopher Bennett Foddy, deputy director and senior research fellow of the Programme on the Ethics of the New Biosciences at Oxford, believes this idea is a misconception.  In an interview with The Atlantic, he acknowledges that often people perceive certain technologies as being “new ideas” and are off-put by concepts that seem out of the realm of present experience. But Foddy makes the argument that an animal’s evolutionary environment is largely responsible for how it ages, differing widely across species. For example, lobsters have the capability to replace their telomeres, the caps that hold DNA together, much more frequently, while ours eventually unravel; this difference allows lobsters to live more than 50 years and experience very little aging.  Where we need to focus our technology, Foddy asserts, is not just in finding ways to keep people alive but in maintaining or enhancing physical or mental capacities for a much longer period of time.

Addressing social questions and concerns is a necessity for continuing progress, but Dr. Stambler also brings up the ongoing questions of cost and accessibility, as well as the time and research efforts needed to produce trial and error and see what really works.  Still, the biotech industry is definitely growing, drawing the interest of scientists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike.  This progress is further reflected by the interest of the American Government; in 2011, Congress introduced the bipartisan Regenerative Medicine Promotion Act, which makes it easier for researchers and private biotech companies to find funding.  Nonprofits with similar interests are also popping up on the map; Maximum Life Foundation, directed by Founder David Kekich, has set a goal of reversing aging by 2033.

Despite the seeming progress, Dr. Stambler still remains skeptical of deterministic predictions.  He reiterates the importance of increasing general public concern, noting that the rate of reversing aging by 2033, 2045, or before then “all depends on us” and how many minds and efforts pull together to address the issue.  Dr. Stambler advocates that what we can do now to slow down the aging process is rooted in thousand-year old holistic knowledge i.e. the need to get good sleep, to eat a balanced diet, etc., all things for which we still need to work.  In looking at the progress made thus far, Dr. Stambler remarks, “What I see is an extension of interest, more massive participation, and I do hope it snowballs, that it will grow into scientific advancements” that can be made available to anyone, regardless of race, income, or beliefs.