Stayin’ alive

30 Mar 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THERE is nothing quite like a global pandemic to remind you of your own mortality, is there? All day long, we are subjected to an ever-increasing tally of infections and deaths, as if the whole world were glued to the scoreboards of a morbid, seemingly never-ending Olympics. At some point, you have to wonder if you too will end up as a statistic on a government chart.

But, as singer Hank Williams lamented, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive,” and while we will, as a species, survive this latest plague, it is also certain that, at some point, our individual lives will come to an end. After all, only two things are certain: Death and (depending on where you live) Taxes.

Still, trying to forestall the inevitable has always been a human obsession, and it is no different when it comes to trying to outwit or dodge death itself. Over 2,000 years ago, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of united China, proclaimed a dynasty that “would last 10,000 generations”. He also expressed the desire to be around long enough to see it through. Seeing as the Qin state was also arguably the world’s first proper police state, he simply ordered his governors to search for the elixir of immortality, and newly discovered records show a fascinating series of exchanges between an increasingly impatient emperor and “assorted awkward replies from regional governments who had failed to find the key to eternal life”.

Qin Shi Huang died at the age of 49, but the quest continued for millennia, with subsequent emperors and noblemen remaining wedded to the idea of discovering the elixir of immortality, often with deadly results. Ironically, the elixirs brewed by Chinese alchemists were better suited to ending lives rather than prolonging them, containing as they did toxic metals and minerals such as mercury, lead and arsenic.

The goal is to defeat or delay death.

An even greater irony perhaps is that the experiments of one alchemist, who was using saltpetre in his concoctions, ended up blowing up in his face, burning him and his entire house: he had not found the secret of immortality, but had in fact discovered gunpowder, which has played a major part in ending so many lives since then.

Of course, the quest did not start with the Chinese. The ancient Epic of Gilgamesh revolves around the mythical king’s search for the plant that confers immortality, and millennia later we have the apocryphal quest of Ponce de Leon for the Fountain of Youth.

And today, we have medicine replacing sagas and superstition, and we have scientists looking to succeed where heroes and kings failed. The end-goal, however, remains the same: to defeat or at least delay death.

That is not to say some of these techniques are not inspired by legend and history. Bram Stoker’s Dracula believed that “the blood is the life” and so did the real-life ‘blood countess’ Elizabeth Bathory, who reportedly bathed in the blood of young women to preserve her youth and beauty.

In the modern iteration of this technique, a company called Ambrosia, led not by count Dracula, but by a Dr Karmazian, is infusing the blood of the young into the veins of the old, a process it claims can rejuvenate the recipient at the trifling cost of up to $12,000 for two litres of a young person’s plasma. While the US Food and Drug Administration has warned that this treatment has “no proven clinical benefit”, effectively shutting down Dr Karamazian’s business, the overall anti-aging industry is considered to be a safe investment bet, given that, according to Merrill Lynch, it is expected to reach a value of at least $600 billion by 2025.

That is a lot of money, and so you can expect that a lot of different techniques are being tried right about now, such as organ replacement technologies, in which the most promising is currently the prospect of 3-D printing working human organs to replace failing ones. Nanotechnology offers another lifeline with two potential applications: one is to use these microscopic machines to cure life-threatening diseases like cancer, delivering their payload directly to malignant cells. Similarly, custom-built nanobots are being designed that could actively work to remove the plaque that builds up in arteries leading to heart attacks and disease. Extend that concept and you could, sooner than you think, have armies of nanobots in your body repairing cellular damage in real time.

The most promising frontier for life-extending technology lies in the field of genetic research, where scientists are studying the genetic structures of long-lived species like whales, turtles and tortoises in an effort to unlock their secrets. As creatures age, their DNA strands become increasingly prone to damage and breakage, and learning to control that may prove to be a key to longevity. This is what the future holds, let us see if we live long enough to see it.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2020