With modern medicine continuing to advance, the possibility of immortality – once seemingly limited to sci-fi movies and books — might not be that far off anymore.
On Nov. 15, an audience of over 20 people gathered in the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan campus library to listen to “The Science of Immortality,” an AskUAS presentation by Dr. Matthew Pawlus.
Pawlus, the assistant professor of sciences at the university, gave this lecture on the heels of an October presentation, “Superhero Science: Biology and Beyond,” which also focused on molecular biology.
In “The Science of Immortality,” Pawlus discussed what happens inside an organism’s cells as they age. He then shared research about how scientists are exploring options in cellular science and molecular biology that could slow or even stop these reactions – bringing immortality off the big screen and into real life.
“A lot of us might have spent some time fantasizing about living forever and thinking about, maybe, all the things we might do with all that time, or all the things we might experience or see,” Pawlus said during the presentation’s introduction.
“Some people have argued that humans as a species are obsessed with this concept of immortality and living forever and (that) it motivates a lot more of our behaviors then we’re conscious of,” Pawlus continued. “Our obsession with immortality sort of stems from this overcompensation for our fear of death.”
It’s not just people in movies and television that consider death to be an interesting topic.
During his talk, Pawlus referenced historic figures such as Qin Shi Haung, an ancient Chinese emperor who obsessively searched for an elixir to grant him immortality, only to die from what is generally agreed to be mercury poisoning; Juan Ponce de Leon, the 15th century Spanish explorer who roamed the area now known as Florida in search of a ‘fountain of youth;’ King Arthur, whose tales often come with undertones of eternal life or rebirth; and even Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian countess who murdered in the belief that it would grant her eternal youth and beauty.
Before jumping into the science behind stopping aging, Pawlus provided the audience with definitions about death, taking care to differentiate between clinical death (“the cessation of blood circulation and breathing”), brain death (“the complete loss of brain function”), and biological death, which occurs at a “molecular or cellular level.”
Pawlus’ presentation focused on the sciences of using anti-aging sciences to stop biological death.
The opposite of biological death is life, which can be boiled down to a set of attributes. This list of attributes that Pawlus outlined includes things like blood circulation, the ability to grow, the ability to reproduce, being made of cells, maintaining homeostasis, and having a metabolism.
“Molecular biologists have designed this chart which breaks aging into nine different hallmarks of aging,” Pawlus said, gesturing to a chart on a projected screen. “And these include cellular changes that basically account for why we experience the things we do associate with aging, including disease and dying.”
Pawlus added that death occurs because of the “accumulation of mutations” and damage to DNA throughout an organism’s life. Chronic inflammation or infection, exposure to ultraviolet rays, or even some metallic compounds have been found to be factors in aging. Pawlus referred to these damages as “extrinsic factors” – things that happen outside the organism’s body to affect it.
Another big reason that aging occurs is cellular senescence, an intrinsic factor of aging.
“The cells basically start doing something strange,” Pawlus said. “Starting in about your 20’s, you start to get senescent cells showing up in greater and greater numbers in your tissues.”
Senescent cells, Pawlus explained, are known to cause “stereotypical phenotypes” of aging.
“If you’re a senescent cell, what happens is you sort of leave the cell cycle. You don’t die, you just don’t divide anymore,” Pawlus said. You just sit there and become sort of (in a) vegetative state.”
Over time, senescent cells will put out signals to other cells that will cause more cells in a person’s body to also become senescent.
These kinds of cells are a common target for anti-aging treatments.
“Treating aging directly will decrease morbidity and mortality,” Pawlus explained.
There have been many proposed methods of “treating” aging.
Pawlus highlighted four different methods of “disrupting” aging during the presentation.
The first method concerns telomeres, or the protective cap on each end of a chromosome. As a person ages, telomeres erode and become shorter. To combat this, an individual could undergo Telomerase Reverse Transcriptase therapy, which uses the same proteins that are expressed during childhood development. The hTERT proteins eventually stop being expressed in the body, which leads to the shortening of telomeres.
This therapy is currently being tested, namely by Liz Parrish, the head of BioViva, a company that focuses on developing therapies to combat aging. Parrish has been undergoing hTERT gene therapy, and according to information provided by Pawlus, the length of Parrish’s telomeres has increased by 20%.
Another way to fight against aging is by utilizing antioxidants, which Pawlus explained neutralize reactive oxygen species, which contribute to aging, in cells. Antioxidants also protect DNA from chemical damage.
There are two kinds of antioxidants – endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous antioxidants can be further broken down into two categories, enzymatic and non-enzymatic.
Examples of enzymatic endogenous antioxidants include substances such as catalase or perioxiredoxin. Non-enzymatic antioxidants of this kind include uric acid or glutathione.
Exogenous antioxidants are things that may be more familiar – vitamins A, C and E, selenium, polyphenols and phytochemicals fall in this category.
Pawlus also proposed – based on unpublished research that he conducted – that devil’s club contains properties that can cure damaged cells. Damaged cells are a contributing factor to aging.
Pawlus also explained that restricting calories may slow the aging process. The less food consumed, the less oxygen is consumed, which in turn produces less free radicals.
Additionally, fasting might have benefits. Pawlus cited studies that demonstrated fasting led to a decrease in diabetes, CVD, cancer and aging risks. At the same time, symptoms of ‘regeneration’ increased.
Finally, Pawlus discussed phenomena known as heterochronic parabiosis. Commonly illustrated using mice, this experiment features attaching two living organisms together. A young organism would circulate fresh plasma into the older organism, leaving the youthful organism drained and sickly and the older one displaying signs of youth.
Pawlus also noted that it “might take some time before effective anti-aging therapies are available.”
He elaborated that technologies such as cryogenics or suspended animation may also continue to develop in the future, allowing individuals to preserve their bodies until anti-aging technology further develops.