Who Wants to Live Forever?

Molecular biologists Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews think they can put an end to aging. Don’t get excited just yet.

David Alvarado – the Dallas-born, Stanford-educated director of the new documentary The Immortalists – just turned 30 years old, which means – medically speaking – he’s standing on the precipice of physical decay. But after spending months with Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, two molecular biologists who follow the mantra “live forever or die trying,” he isn’t worried. “In principal, aging is just a physical process,” he explains. “There is nothing magical about it.”

The subjects of Alvarado’s film, well-respected members of the pro-life-extension movement, have both made significant progress toward the seemingly fantastical goal of ending aging. Andrews, who researches the effects of lengthening chromosomal nucleotide sequences known as telomeres, and de Grey, who advocates gene therapy, use different means of reaching the same end, but share a conviction that biological time can and will be stopped. This belief forces them to confront choices about their own longevity that would have seemed like science fiction a decade ago. After following their work, Alvarado was forced to engage in a similar internal debate.

“If you were to put a blue pill in front of me and say, ‘Take this, and you’ll be as healthy as a 25-year-old indefinitely,’ I’d be very tempted,” Alvarado says. Unlike the scientists he spent three years interviewing and following, he’d have to think about it.

Currently living in the UK, Aubrey de Grey credits the aging process for 90% of deaths, but theorizes that the natural deterioration can be defeated by cell rejuvenation. He wants to haul the cellular damage he refers to as “molecular garbage,” which causes terminal diseases like cancer and heart disease, off to the dump. To do this, de Grey plans to introduce new enzymes to the human body that break down detrimental cells. These enzymes can be found in other species, meaning evolution is already handling field testing.     

Scientist Bill Andrews tests his all-natural telomerase inducers on giraffes. 

Though less well-known than de Grey, Bill Andrews has a similarly radical hypothesis: telomere lengthening can effectively stop the aging process. The procedure, which focuses on specific structures within the DNA, has successfully stopped aging in mice. By stopping chromosomes from unraveling, Andrews hopes to stop the sort of internal mismanagement that manifests itself as aging. Several lifestyle choices have shown to help lengthen telomeres naturally – daily exercise, a low fat diet, stress management, even beer consumption – but Andrews believes the answer lies in telomerase, an enzyme humans can produce if triggered by the right compound.

In Alvarado’s film, de Gray’s and Andrews’ enthusiasm is juxtaposed with reactions from apprehensive scientists grappling with potential ramifications of prolonged life. One concern that becomes a sort of refrain concerns the potential onset of dementia and brain disease in patients with effectively younger bodies. Youth, after all, isn’t a matter of being in shape. Longer life could well mean longer suffering. De Grey dismisses this criticism, saying advancements in psychopathology will allay this concern in the near future, but not everyone is convinced.

Scientists that accompany Bill Andrews mix products to try and find a long-lasting telomerase inducer.

And plenty of population experts are already warning that the Earth has about as many people on it as it can handle. According to a recent study conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, third world countries will be most affected by elevated global temperatures, which will cause widespread famine and death. With the worldwide birth rate for lower income families some 50% higher than for households making $10,000 annually, the competition for resources is becoming steeper – and that’s without 200-year-old men joining the bread lines. If Aubrey de Grey had his way and eternal youth was a prescription available to all, poorer countries could well experience even more worrisome population growth.

“The nightmare scenario is that you will have this upper class of wealthy immortals and then you have the mortal people as underclass,” Alvarado explains. “Proletariats will die in regular life cycles, but we kind of already have that.” The current life expectancy of a Bangladeshi is 70 years old while in Norway it’s over 80. “I don’t think [Aubrey] is very concerned with [the possible consequences],” says Alvarado. “He’s more interested in just doing it.”

Hubris is a major theme of The Immortalists, which isn’t exactly a brochure for life everlasting. What the film makes clear is that the social contract will be tested (or shredded) by emergent technologies. Alvarado can document the science – and does so well – but he can’t know whether the individual desire to live will eventually trump the collective need for death. If lives lengthen, death may mount an insurgency. If only a select few are granted immortality, the invisible hand of the market will become godlike

Andrews and de Gray might be able to live forever, but Alvarado’s film poses the audience a clear question: Should we let them?

Check out an exclusive clip of The Immortalists before its wide release this Fall.