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Scientists Turn Back the Hands of Time: But Should They?

By Fazale Rana - December 16, 2020
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“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” written by F. Scott Fitzgerald—one of the great American writers of the twentieth century—is a short story about a boy born with the physical appearance of a 70-year-old. As he lives his young life, Benjamin’s parents soon discover that he ages in reverse, becoming younger as he gets older.

This fictional tale about the extraordinary life of Benjamin Button is odd to us for one simple reason: aging is a natural part of life. It’s inevitable. We struggle to conceive what life would be like if we didn’t age. Yet, if we are honest, many of us find ourselves a bit envious of Benjamin. We wish we would become younger as we grow older.

As fanciful as it might sound, we just might get our wish, thanks to work carried out by a team of biomedical researchers from Israel.1 These researchers treated 35 human test subjects with hyperbaric oxygen over the span of two months and discovered that two markers used to assess biological age showed a reversal, indicating that the test subjects became biologically younger as they chronologically aged.

This work is exciting—and concerning.

Scientists may be close to clinically arresting and even reversing the aging process. This potential breakthrough would carry staggering biomedical implications, perhaps allowing us to stave off diseases such as cancer, type II diabetes, and a host of cardiovascular disorders. But this work also has broad-ranging ethical and societal implications, paving the way for dramatic extensions in human life expectancy, while at the same time fueling the transhumanism movement.

Some Biological Consequences of Aging
It goes without saying that as humans age, we experience a loss of physiological integrity (to use scientific jargon), which, in turn, makes us susceptible to diseases and leads to death. In fact, aging is the major risk factor in cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

Biogerontologists have identified a number of physiological changes associated with aging, such as: (1) telomere shortening, (2) an accrual of gene mutations, (3) reduced cell-cell communication in tissues and organs, and (4) impaired cell function, which includes arrested growth and division (called senescence) and (5) impaired function of mitochondria.

One of the challenges facing investigators who study the biology of aging is determining which changes are a consequence of aging and which cause aging. Most scientists working in the biology of aging think that both telomere shortening and cellular senescence have a direct impact on the aging process. For this reason, many life scientists view telomere length and cellular senescence as reliable markers for biological age, with telomeres becoming predictably shorter and cellular senescence predictably increasing as each of us ages chronologically.

Reversing the Aging Process
A growing number of biomedical researchers believe if we interrupt telomere shortening and cellular senescence, we can delay the onset of aging—maybe even reverse it. For example, in Humans 2.0, Ken Samples and I discuss the antiaging strategy advanced by Dr. Michael Fossel, which targets telomeres. Specifically, Fossel believes that through the use of the enzyme telomerase, it might be possible to lengthen telomeres, bringing an end to aging as we know it.

Even though Fossel’s idea seems reasonable, many life scientists and biomedical researchers have looked askance at the idea of antiaging therapies. Yet recent work published in 2019 by investigators from the US and Canada indicates that we are on the cusp of having genuine antiaging therapies.2

These investigators developed a drug cocktail that caused the thymus (an organ located between the heart and sternum) to increase in size. They carried out a small-scale clinical trial, administering their drug mixture to a small group of men between 50 and 60 years of age three or four times a week over the course of a year.

The thymus serves as the site for the maturation of white blood cells, a critical component of our immune system. As we age, our thymus becomes smaller, leading to loss of immune function. These researchers believe that by increasing thymus size, the loss of immune function can be arrested—perhaps even reversed.

As an afterthought, the researchers decided to take samples of blood from the test subjects, using an epigenetic clock as a way to measure the biological age of the study participants. To their surprise, the drug cocktail not only increased thymus size but also it turned back the epigenetic clock by two years, with the effect lasting six months after the drug trial ended. In other words, though the test subjects aged by a year chronologically over the course of a year, they became two years younger—at least based on an epigenetic marker for biological age.

New Study Holds Added Promise
In contrast to the earlier study by US and Canadian investigators, the team from Israel deliberately tried to reverse the aging process by administering hyperbaric oxygen. Earlier studies indicated that hyperbaric oxygen treatments can improve cognition in test subjects by increasing cerebral blood flow. Administering hyperbaric oxygen also triggers stem cell proliferation and increases the biogenesis of mitochondria. These researchers reasoned that hyperbaric oxygen may well delay aging. To test their idea, the investigators enlisted the help of 35 volunteers who were over the age of 65. Over the course of 3 months, the investigators delivered 100% molecular oxygen to the test subjects, with sessions lasting 90 minutes. During the study, they measured telomere length and cell senescence of several different types of white blood cells, observing nearly a 40% decrease in cell senescence and a 20% increase in telomere length. In other words, hyperbaric oxygen treatments appear to have turned back the hands of time.

Is Aging a Disease?
These types of studies are a harbinger of change in the way the biomedical community—and the public at large—is beginning to view aging. A growing number of biogerontologists argue that aging should be viewed not as an inevitable part of life, but as a disease.3 And, if viewed as a disease, it means that aging can be treated—maybe even cured. These scientists argue that if we successfully treat aging, diseases such as cancer, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and others will wane because they are a byproduct of aging.

Though this view of aging is controversial and not widely accepted, it will likely increase in prominence in the years to come both within the biomedical research community and in a culture already obsessed with antiaging products and regimens. The difference is that studies such as the one conducted by the scientists from Israel are not based on questionable “junk” science. Rather, they herald the arrival of bona fide antiaging technologies undergirded by real scientific evidence.

Antiaging Therapies and Transhumanism
The idea that aging is a disease instead of an inevitability has broad-ranging implications, as you might imagine. Now that biomedical researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to reverse biological markers for aging, the prospects that we might be able to extend human life expectancy well beyond our natural biological limits become a real possibility. This hope gives credibility to an intellectual movement called transhumanism.

Advocates of the transhumanist vision maintain that humanity has an obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to correct our biological flaws—augmenting our physical, intellectual, and psychological capabilities beyond our natural limits. Perhaps there are no greater biological limitations that human beings experience than those caused by aging bodies and associated diseases.

Transhumanists see science and technology as the means to alleviate pain and suffering and to promote human flourishing. They note that, in the case of aging, pain, suffering, and loss characterize senescence in human beings.

Antiaging as a Source of Hope and of Salvation?
Using science and technology to mitigate pain and suffering and to drive human progress is nothing new. But transhumanists desire more. They advocate the use of advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to take control of our own evolution with the grand vision of creating new and improved versions of human beings. They hope to usher in a posthuman future. Transhumanists desire to create a utopia of our own design. In fact, many transhumanists go one step further, arguing that advances in gene editing, computer-brain interfaces, and antiaging technologies could extend our life expectancy perhaps indefinitely, allowing us to attain a practical immortality.

In essence, transhumanism has a religious element to it, with science and technology serving as the means for salvation. But can the transhumanist agenda deliver on its promises?

I think the answer is no for the simple reason that ethical concerns abound when it comes to the prospects of wide-scale application of antiaging and life extension technologies.

Ethical Concerns
What could possibly be wrong with wanting to live a longer, healthier, and more productive life? For the most part, don’t people do everything they can to delay the onset and effects of aging? Don’t we do what we can to avoid an early death? We try to eat right, take health supplements, exercise, submit ourselves to all sorts of medical screening procedures to ensure that we live as long as we possibly can—even sacrificing quality of life in some cases. It is hard to imagine anything inherently wrong with wanting to live longer. In fact, disrupting—even reversing—the aging process would offer benefits to society by potentially reducing medical costs associated with age-related diseases such as dementia, cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Yet, these biomedical advances in antiaging therapies hold the potential to change who we are as human beings. After all, aging is part of our nature and it shapes our life experiences. Antiaging technology most likely will fundamentally alter the nature of society, too, by ushering in wide-scale social and economic changes. Unfettered access to antiaging technologies will lead to overpopulation as people live longer and death rates fall, putting demands on limited planetary resources. In the end, antiaging technologies may well be unsustainable, undesirable, and unwise.

One way to make long life spans in humans sustainable would be to curtail the birthrate. This may mean that married couples would be restricted on how many children they have, or perhaps some couples may be denied the right to reproduce at all. One could easily envision a future world in which only couples who meet certain criteria would be allowed to have children.

Further, in an effort to avoid overpopulation perhaps only certain individuals will be granted access to antiaging technology because of their demonstrated or potential contributions to society. Or maybe only the wealthy will have access to the technology, because they can pay for it and they possess the monetary resources to live for hundreds of years.

There seems to be an inherent unfairness to denying some people the opportunity to have children or restricting access to antiaging technology to only a select few—particularly if that technology can ameliorate the suffering that accompanies aging.

Having access to life-extending technologies likely will change intergenerational attitudes and relationships. For example, people living in the current generation may well become more concerned with selfishly devoting resources to extend their life and hold onto their place in society, than with investing in the success of the next generation. This selfishness poses the real risk of changing the way people view members of future generations. It is conceivable that people living in a current generation will begin to view members of the next one as a threat, as the next generation consumes already limited resources and seeks to replace the current generation in the workforce and society.

It is reasonable to think that this animosity will extend in both directions. People in the next generation may view members of the current generation as standing in their way, preventing them from assuming their place in society. It is conceivable that the next generation will believe that people of the current generation have unjustly imposed their will on all future generations. (This discussion merely scratches the surface. For a more detailed analysis of the ethical issues surrounding antiaging technology, check out the book listed below that I cowrote with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0.)

Transhumanism: A False Gospel?
Can transhumanism truly deliver on its promises of a utopian future and a practical immortality? Cataloging the many ethical concerns surrounding antiaging technologies highlights the real risks of pursuing a transhumanist future. If we don’t carefully consider these concerns, we might create a dystopian, not a utopian, world.

The mere risk of this type of unintended future should give us pause for thought about turning to science and technology for our salvation. Transhumanism exposes the real need in all of us for hope, purpose, and destiny. I submit that the only way that need can ever be fulfilled is through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Yafit Hachmo et al., “Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Increases Telomere Length and Decreases Immunosenescence in Isolated Blood Cells: A Prospective Trial,” Aging 12, no. 22 (November 18, 2020): 22445–56, doi:10.18632/aging.202188.
  2. Gregory M. Fahy et al., “Reversal of Epigenetic Aging and Immunosenescent Trends in Humans,” Aging Cell (September 8, 2019): e13028, doi:10.1111/acel.13028.
  3. Joelle Renstrom, “Is Aging a Disease?” Slate (March 02, 2020), https://slate.com/technology/2020/03/aging-disease-classification.html.

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  • Controversies
  • Human Flourishing
  • Ethics
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  • Transhumanism
  • hyperbaric oxygen
  • anti-aging
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