Aiming for immortality…

Death is a disease that Google can cure? Come on…

I’m all for Google’s recent decision to cure death; in fact, once they post the on-line registration form for the treatment, I plan to be first in line to sign up. Providing, of course, they can guarantee I won’t spend eternity suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or have to undergo permanent chemotherapy. And hopefully a lab somewhere will be growing replacement parts from my stem cells. It will be hard to find an organ donor among immortals; they’ll painstakingly avoid accidents and anything else that risks their chance for eternal life.

I’d also like to know where they plan to store all of us immortals – hopefully it won’t be in a drawer, or one of those shoebox-like hotels you find in Japan. But let’s not overthink this, or get fussy about the details. By the time the cure for death is found, I’m sure the big brains at Google will have solved much simpler problems like time travel, or instantaneous teleportation to the stars, or downloading my consciousness onto the Internet.

To take a more sober look at all of this, Google is putting the cart way before the horse. To use a metaphor: if you think of death as hitting the ground after a long leap, most medical research aims to raise the height of the diving board and to ensure that you’re as happy as possible until the moment of collision. Google’s approach is more like saying, “Jump into this hole; we don’t know what’s down there but don’t worry, you’ll never hit the bottom.”

Unfortunately, the hole always has a bottom. Most people used die from diseases or infections caused by viruses or bacteria. Many still do, but the development of vaccines and antibiotics, pesticides, and the introduction of modern sanitation largely removed those obstacles. New drugs and organ transplantations had a huge impact as well, meaning that 20th-century medicine lengthened average life expectancy by a couple of decades. It made for a longer fall, but it exposed a deeper layer of things to crash onto: cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s. These conditions weren’t as prevalent in earlier times because they typically strike in old age, and people didn’t live long enough to experience them.

The first step in achieving Google’s great dream will have to be to cure those diseases – which, incidentally, is already the aim of a vast amount of biomedical research. As far as I know, the company has no secret plan that will cause this work to jump ahead and achieve some dramatic spurt of progress. If they do, I’m eager to hear it. Of course the injection of a huge amount of money alone into biomedical research is a good thing; it could fund new labs, or help existing groups acquire equipment that they can’t currently afford. It may help keep talented young researchers in the field; frustrated by heavy competition for scarce positions, many end up leaving the lab. It might also shift priorities by putting even more effort into fields such as stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and the other siblings of the science of aging.

A jump in funding, the creation of a new institute, and other measures along these lines are always welcome, but they won’t cause a revolution in biomedicine. Scientists solve huge problems by breaking them down into tiny parts. Even when they have a definitive goal in mind, they can’t predict the outcome of experiments in advance. The best road to progress is to follow results wherever they lead, which is often someplace completely unexpected. It’s the reason that science funding agencies have discovered that investing in basic research is usually much more productive and profitable than supporting narrowly defined work in pursuit of a particular application.

Suppose all those who have been doing this work so long, and so well – now with support from Google – succeed in curing most cases of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. We can expect that happen – if not within my lifetime, then surely that of my children. But immortality will remain a distant dream. Just as major infectious diseases had to be cured before the demographics of disease shifted to these next barriers, once the current challenges have been faced, we’ll crash against the next thing. We do not know what health problems typically strike people who are 120 or 130 years old, but we’re about to find out. Likely candidates are prion diseases such as kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD, a cousin of Mad Cow Disease). Very few people currently suffer from these conditions, probably because they follow a period of incubation that is longer than the normal lifespan. Most victims of kuru were cannibals who ate brain material from other people, where the incubation had already reached an advanced stage.

Currently there’s no cure for prion diseases, and we don’t know what other syndromes will strike people in their second century of life. Once we recognize them, which will take a while, we’ll surely develop treatments as well. Then we’ll be able to move on to the diseases that strike 200-year-olds, and so on. The only hope of immortality is to find cures as fast as as new diseases are discovered. Even then, each challenge will expose a new one. Eventually we may run up against some fundamental physical barrier – a sort of biomedical “speed of light” – which dictates that the human body, at some point, will degrade back to the molecules that compose it.

So as far as I can tell, Google has no fabulous secret plan, and promises nothing new – still, maybe there’s a virtue in putting the label of “immortality” on a new campaign in biomedicine. It seemed to work out pretty well for physics; calling the Higgs Boson the “God particle” was surely effective in collecting the billions of Euros needed to build the Large Hadron Collider. I merely hope that before people become immortals, we’ve ensured that they’ll have a world to live in. First it would be nice to get a handle on overpopulation, pollution, and political strife.

Google may be planning to tackle those annoying little problems as well. Or maybe they intend to export immortals to a better place, using the interstellar starship they’ve begun building in a basement somewhere. You’d think we’d go to Mars before the Andromeda galaxy, just like we’d improve current health and social problems across the globe – for the developing world as well as wealthy countries – before aiming for immortality. But those aims may be a bit too pedestrian for the Google business plan.

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