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  Indefinite Lifespan

Economic Implications of an Indefinite Human LifeSpan

Forget mega doses of vitamins, strange herbal supplements, advanced mediation and all the products that promise long life. There is convergence of medical technologies that are working to extend human lifespan indefinitely. This is not immortality in the classical sense because humans will remain frail, they will still get sick, and will continue to be easily damaged. What these technologies do is keep our bodies forever in a state of being in our mid-twenties when there is a perfect balance between repair processes and damage processes. The economic implications of an indefinite human lifespan are enormous. It will certainly be nice to live forever but can you make any money on it?

Living Forever

The problem is: why do we age in the first place? Living causes wear and tear on the cells in our bodies. Cells die for a number of reasons; disease, physical damage, and they self destruct on the waste products their little factories make during the living process. There are processes that clean up the waste products and repair the damage but these are not perfect and cells are dying all the time. To compensate adjacent cells can divide and take up the duties. If cells had no limit on the number of times they divide you would simply replace the lost cells and you would appear to stay in your mid-twenties forever.

The bad news is cells can only divide so many times and this is called 'senescence' or the Hayflick Limit. Different species have different limits and for humans it is about 90 divisions. Cells seem to know how close they are to the 90 division limit and as you age your cells are less willing to divide so the damage goes unrepaired. The wrinkled skin, the weaker muscles, the aching bones are all signs of unrepaired damage.

You can fix the problem by slowing the rate of damage. Don't consume things that cause damage like tobacco or alcohol and make sure you do consume things like anti-oxidants that soak up the waste products of the cells. This reduces the rate of damage and conserves those precious 90 divisions. You could also get better parents since number of divisions is genetic and arranging to have parents with cells that divide 100 or 120 times will extend your lifespan. Up to this point in human history you have not had a lot of options.

Repair, Rejuvenation, and Tumors

There are three technologies that are foundation for achieving an indefinite lifespan; stem cells, telomerase and a cancer cure. Stem cells are the ultimate repair system because they configure themselves to do the job of whatever cells have been lost or damaged. Telomerase fixes the problem with our DNA that causes the 90 division limit. A cancer cure is really hundreds of different treatments because every cancer requires its own treatment and cancer is really hundreds of closely related diseases.

Repairing Human Bodies

There are stem cells in your body that are still trying to decide what they want to be when they grow up. They do not age like other cells and when they find a damaged organ they will settle in and become whatever type of cell is required whether it is heart, liver or skin. If you inject a lot of stem cells into a damaged organ most will stick around and rebuild the organ. Once they decide to become a specific cell type they get a fresh 90 divisions even if the surrounding cells have used most of their 90.

The problem is your reserve of stems cells decline rapidly as you approach adulthood. To avoid running into transplant problems you want to use your own stem cells. So how do you get a lot of your own stem cells? There are a couple of approaches; save some from when you were a baby or extract one from you body and trick it into growing millions more in a flask. When a baby is born its blood has a huge number of stem cells so you could save some of that. Now taking a pint of blood from a baby is a really bad idea but there is a lot of baby's blood left in the umbilical cord and placenta. Parents are now saving this cord blood and freezing it just in case their children need major repairs in the future.

If your parents were not foresighted enough to save your cord blood you can get adult stem cells from your body. Stem cells are extremely rare they look a lot like regular cells so finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Research on adult stem cells involves three steps; identifying and extracting a stem cell, growing a stockpile of cells in a lab flask, and making sure the stem cells stay where they are put and fix what needs repairing.

Growing stems cells in a flask is called therapeutic cloning and it is legal. Growing fertilized eggs cells is called reproductive cloning which is illegal in most countries. Fertilizing an egg, growing it to a few dozen cells, smashing it into stem cells and growing those is a mixture of reproductive and therapeutic cloning which is illegal in many countries.

Successes with stem cell research are all over the popular press. "Stem cells used to grow man a new jaw" or "Possible Pancreas Stem Cells Fuel Diabetes Hope" and dozens of other articles show that stem cell research is rapidly moving from the theoretical to the routine. Within a decade we will almost certainly have a repair kit for the human body.

Cure for Cancer

If we live long enough everyone will get some form of cancer. Half the men over 60 have slow growing prostate cancer that would kill them in 50 to 80 years if left untreated. Moles are cancers that are not growing. Cancer is an extremely common problem for humans. In the past wild animals, disease, and untreated injuries killed most people before they ever had to worry about cancer. Destruction of wild ecosystems, public health measures and emergency medicine have made our lives much safer but revealed cancer as a serious limit to further gains in lifespan.

Cancer is not one disease but hundreds. The reason they are all called cancer is because they all appear as normal well behaved cells that begin uncontrolled growth. The cancer cells form masses that no longer perform a function but consume resources and physically disrupt adjacent organs. Since the cancer cells are your cells your normal immune response does not work and your body will not kill them off. Cancer cells also seem to have avoided the 90 cell division limit. So cancer is a part of you that has achieved immortality and decided to become a parasite.

Treatments for cancer try to identify something that makes the cancer cell different from your normal cells. Cancer cells need lots of new blood vessels so stopping new blood vessel formation limits the cancer size. Cancer cells release chemical markers at a much higher rate than normal cells so you can sensitize the immune system to those chemicals and have it kill the cancer. Cancer cells divide rapidly so you can restore the 90 division limit and the cancer dies of old age. Since each kind of cancer requires its own treatment and the treatments can take several different approaches a cancer cure is really a huge catalogue of treatments.

There will probably never be a "cure" for cancer. Some cancers already have treatments that are almost 100% effective. Some cancers are certain killers with no treatment available. Rare cancers and cancers that operate so quickly that a treatment does not have time to work will continue to kill. Over time the more common cancers will get effective treatments most people will be safe from this limit to lifespan.


There is a general understanding that the 90 division limit is caused by a problem with DNA replication. At the end of each DNA strand is telomere which is a bunch of nonsense DNA comprised of a repeated sequence of amino acids. Geron has a very good introduction to telomeres. Telomeres act like the little plastic ends of your shoelaces by keeping the DNA strand from unraveling. When you are born your telomeres are really long. The DNA copying process cannot copy right out to the end of the DNA so a little of the telomere is lost with each division. It also appears there are genes that are close to the ends of the DNA strand that change their behaviour when the telomeres get short which explains why old cells hesitate to divide.

The good news is there is an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds telomeres. This effectively resets the counter so you get another 90 divisions. There are some animals like the Leach's Storm Petrel that have telomerase turned on all the time and apparently do not age. The Storm Petrel is a sea bird that lives some 40 years in the wild before something other than age finally kills it. Petrels without the telomerase fix die of old age at about 10 years. Many kinds of cancer turn on telomerase to get their immortality. Telomerase appears to work without any side effects and humans have the ability to make telomerase. So the trick is to get normal cells to make telomerase.

There was a lot of research on telomerase before the 1999 tech crash sucked all the money out of long range basic research. Geron was a leader in the field but shut down their telomerase research to focus on stem cells and cancer research on anti-telomerases. Geron's principal researcher on telomerase left Geron and started his own company Sierra Sciences. The best research in this area is currently being done at the University of Texas.

Telomerase research will probably result in a discovery that instantly takes the technology from the impossible to the obvious. The research in this area is likely to result in a pill with few side effects that turns on telomerase in everyone who takes it. This is unlike stem cell research and cancer research where there are dozens of little things that need to work before a specific cure is found. The discovery of a telomerase pill could happen next week or take ten years but is almost certainly going to happen.

Immortal Humans as Consumers

The most important thing about immortal humans is they are very, very careful. You get to live forever as long as accidents or disease don't kill you. During a 70 year lifetime your chance of being killed in a traffic accident is one in a thousand. If you live 70,000 years a traffic accident death is almost certain. Even the one in a million change of being hit by lightning starts to become a serious concern. Careful people want safe houses, safe vehicles, safe recreation and are willing to pay a lot of money to stay safe. Designing cars, boats, buildings that are marginally safer will make you rich.

Immortal humans spend a lot of money on medical services. They want constant monitoring for cancer and they want emergency medical help the instant they need it. You may get to close all the old folks homes but you will be building medical diagnostic clinics that can provide rapid and regular services to people who get a scratch or notice a new mole.

Immortal humans want to look pretty. There is little point in looking like you are in your mid-twenties if you are an ugly mid-twenty year old. Cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, and fitness centers will be everywhere and suppliers of these retail operations will get rich.

Immortal humans will want to be entertained. If you live a thousand years you probably will have seen everything. Providing the immortal consumer with something new and interesting will be a huge industry. The immortal consumer may have a long life but they will have a short attention span and most of their income will be spent on fads and throwaway trends. Theater and spectacle from high-brow, to off-Broadway, to Los Vegas gaudy will be big sellers.

Finally immortal humans will probably have lots of money to spend. Someone who spends every cent they make will not have enough to pay the medical bills and will die off. Those who are left will be careful with their money and compound interest will make them wealthy. Immortality may not be a Utopia but if you understand the market segment it should be easy to identify the businesses that will flourish when it arrives.

2005 Update on Anti-aging Initiatives

The visible face of research to eliminate aging disappeared after the tech boom ran out of money in 2000. The researchers kept researching but stock offerings and venture funding of extended lifespans dried up and so did the news articles.

Aubrey de Grey from Cambridge University is reviving interest partly because he has a plan and partly because he is very photogenic (he reminds people of Rasputin). de Grey describes the problem as one of "escape velocity" gradually eliminating the causes of disease and aging. This is like the early space program when they advanced rocket technology from launch pad explosions to orbiting satellites.

The "Manhattan Beach Project" (not to be confused with the adventure novel) is promoted by the Maximum Life Foundation. They want to get support for a life extension project similar to the "Manhattan Project" that created the nuclear bomb. The analogy is a bit of a stretch because building a nuclear bomb was an engineering project that extended earlier work on nuclear reactors. Research in life extension is not nearly so advanced but they are probably accurate on the impact an immortalized human would have on society.

While both of these groups are seen as fringe they do have some serious support from the aging research community. Monitoring the news links from these sites is probably the best way to follow advances in the field.

2007 Update on TA-65 a Telomere Lengthening Drug

TA Sciences was formed in 2002 to exploit the "non-prescription nutraceutical and cosmeceutical use" of telomere lengthening technologies developed by Geron. In 2004 they developed TA-65 which showed it could lengthen telomeres in a human body. In 2005 TA-65 was included in a medical service called the Patton Protocol named after Noel Patton who started TA Sciences. To get TA-65 you have to subscribe to the service ($10,000/year) but it provides a lot of age assessment and other medical support that probably justifies the price. Go to the TA Sciences site to read more about obtaining TA-65 or Patton Protocol services.

TA-65 comes out of research Geron was doing on the Astragalus membranaceus (or propinquus) root. Propinquus is an ancient Chinese herb (huáng qí) for strengthening the immune system and healing wounds. It contains a group of molecules including cycloastragenol and astragaloside that activate telomerase to build telomeres. These molecules appear to only extend telomers and do not change cells into aggressively immortal cancer cells. TA-65 appears to have no nasty side effects and is considered by the FDA to be a nutritional supplement not a drug.

TA-65 is not extracted from Astragalus root. The anti-aging components in the tablets are produced through a standard pharmaceutical lab process. They add vitamins and other things that are thought to slow aging.

You would have to consume enormous amounts of Astragalus root to get the amount of the active ingredient in a single TA-65 pill. You can get cycloastragenol and astragaloside but self-medicatation or taking anything experimental without medical assistance is a very bad idea. There is no way an individual has the resources to replicate the research Geron has done. The best advice is to wait until the price comes down.

2009 Update on Sooty's 10 Year Prediction

In 1998 Sooty predicted there would a commercially available "fix" for aging in ten years. Well it's ten years later and we are still a long way from a fix. TA-65 is not the fix. It does however suggest a fix it possible.

I still believe aging as a disease that is the fault of a very few errant genes. Once the fix is discovered all the researchers in the field will have an "of course" moment and there will be a rapid push to commercialization.

There was a second part to the prediction that in twenty years Sooty could afford to purchase the fix. Having something possible for the very rich is not the same as having it safe and economical for the rest of us. Watch this space as Sooty watches the sands of time run down to the 2019 update.

2010 Update on TA-65

It appears TA-65 can be purchased in six month quantities for $600. This is less than a lot of people pay for vitamin supplements each month. It is not the "fix" but it is cheap and safe to try.

2016 Update on "Senolytic"

Senolytic is a new approach to anti-aging that comes from cancer research. Some drugs that kill cancer cells also kill senescent cells.

When cells reach their Hayflick Limit they not only stop dividing they also slow down their primary functions. Senescent cells take up space (so an old liver looks like an intact liver) but they are little more than parasites. There are a few critical functions performed by senescent cells but as we age most of these cells are freeloaders.

A senolytic drug kills off the senescent cells. The body sees this as damage and stem cells are recruited to the site. They multiply rapidly and differentiate into the kind of cell that was lost. In the healing process your 80 year old wounded liver becomes a rejuvenated 30 year old liver.

One worry is the senescent cells will be replaced by cancer cells. It turns out this doesn't happen. Most of the senolytic drugs appear to kill off both cancer and senescent cells. Another worry is most chemotherapy drugs are very toxic. They kill both normal and cancer cells and the hope is you have enough normal cells left to stay alive once the cancer is gone. It appears senolytic drugs mostly leave normal cells untouched. It also appears your body (even an old one) has enough stem cells to repair the damage.

So what's the catch? Let's put this stuff in our corn flakes like vitamins and we'll all live forever. These are early days (carefully reread the Wikipedia Senolytic article for updates) and there are all sorts of side effects from the handful of known drugs. There is the possibility that the replacement cells are not quite as good or through subtle DNA damage may not even be proper replacements. A drug that heals your liver may destroy your heart. A drug that saves a mouse from aging may fail to do anything useful in humans.

The most important thing about senolytic drugs is that they use a completely different mechanism from the telomere lengthening drugs.

Cancer is not one disease but dozens of different problems each with their own "cure". It may be that aging is also dozens of different problems and when you hit (chronological) 30 you will be subject to dozens of different medical interventions to keep your 1000 year old body (medically) young.

2017 Update: "FOXO4 Senolytic"

If normal cells feel sick (for example they have a virus inside their walls) they will commit suicide to save their sister cells. A common mechanism is the activation of the p53 Suicide Gene.

Senescence cells like many cancers know they are sick and die through the p53 process. You are probably getting cancer all the time and old cells and entering senescence all the time but the p53 process kills them off.

Some cancer and senescence cells make a "Please don't kill me" protein called FOXO4 that blocks the p53 action. Cancer cells that have disabled their growth limiting mechanism and have this protein become tumors that kill you.

Senescence cells with this protein don't do any damage and don't make any daughter cells but they don't do anything useful either. Over time these immortal freeloaders gradually make up more and more of the cells in your body so you age.

FOXO4 is rare in normal cells. A process that disables or destroys this protein in all cells allows the p53 gene to do its job in sick cells.

In a very well written article in Cell (local copy here) the authors show that they can interfere with the FOXO4 protein. More important they show their process "restores fitness, hair density, and renal function in fast and naturally aged mice".

This is exactly the promise of senolytics: you take a pill and get younger. Well let's not get ahead of ourselves... these are early days and there is no pill. There may be lethal or other side effects. The process may only work in mice (oh wonderful now I can have immortal mice in my attic).

An encouraging sign is that they are starting a company and planning clinical they believe they have a commercial product. Perhaps in five years they'll make us this space for more updates.