ROBOT MEDICINE, EXTREMIPHILIC INSIGHT, CRYONIC SUSPENSION, NANOPROTECTANTS, HEAT SHOCK PROTEINS, NAKED DNA ... 

Life Extension: Looking into the Next Millennium 

By David Jay Brown 

The quest for eternal life is one of humanity's oldest dreams, perhaps the ultimate goal of medicine all along. In recent years, life extension research has made great strides toward reaching this lofty goal. If the current trend continues, we can expect that much more radical developments will be along soon, and ultimately it may be possible to extend human life indefinitely.

For this article I interviewed several experts in varying fields about what life extension breakthroughs they think might occur in the next century. These pioneers delve into scientifically-sound possibilities that stretch the imagination - such as the ability to manipulate our own DNA, revive people from cryonic (frozen) suspension, and extend human life for hundreds of years through "bush robots" (extraordinarily powerful machines that will eventually be able to repair virtually any type of damage to the human body), and nanotechnology (repair machines made of our own biomaterial and so small that they can operate within the cells of our bodies with advanced super-computer skills).

I spoke first with two of the world's experts on life extension, Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw®, and asked them about possible longevity developments in the near future. Shaw told me, "There is a class of organisms called extremiphiles. These are bacteria that live under extreme conditions, in places where nobody thought anything could live - like down in deep vent sites under the ocean where there is extremely hot water coming out."

Pearson added, "Obviously there's some sort of repair mechanism going on there. I think that a genetic engineering company might very well make themselves a bundle someday by finding out exactly how these cells are able to repair their DNA so well ... One of the most surprising things that's been discovered in genetic engineering is that if you simply inject naked DNA into muscle cells, the DNA is somehow transported into the cells. There, it is incorporated into the nucleus and expressed as proteins. It's not a very efficient process, but naked DNA is real cheap, and just injecting it with a hypodermic syringe is not a difficult task. So perhaps it may be possible to equip people with some of these bacterial repair enzymes, and improve their ability to repair DNA."

Ultimately it may be possible to extend human life indefinitely. 

But, even with such genetic repair techniques, say that you still don't live long enough to see the major age-reversing breakthroughs of the next century. You might wish to consider the option of cryonic suspension. This involves having your body cooled down at the time of death, having cryo-protectants pumped through your cardiovascular system, and then being immersed (head first) in a vertical tank filled with ultra-frigid (320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) liquid nitrogen to preserve your body. This is done in anticipation of nanotechnology, advances in molecular engineering which will be capable of rebuilding the human body atom-by-atom. Then, if all goes well and there isn't too much structural damage from the cryo-preservation techniques, you will be thawed, repaired, resuscitated, and brought back to full health.

I spoke with Brian Shock - editor of Cryonics magazine, at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona - to learn more about the current state of cryonics. Alcor is the largest provider of cryonic services in the world and have been doing cryobiology research for more than 25 years. They currently have 35 people in suspension, and 456 are signed up. Based on the current rate of nanotechnological development, Alcor believes that they will be able to revive their clients in between 50 and 150 years. I asked Shock about Alcor's research.

With incredible speed, replicating molecular machines that are capable of precisely sequencing atoms could be programmed to repair any cellular damage in the body; they could also completely reverse the aging process, as simply as if you were changing graphics on your computer screen. 

Shock replied, "We've done a number of experiments with cold ischemia [lack of oxygen] in animals. We basically cooled animals down to near the freezing point and recovered them to demonstrate that at least the first part of our procedure works. We found that actually getting an animal down below the freezing point is something of a barrier. It could be done with Arctic-adapted animals, frogs, squirrels, and those kinds of creatures. But for regular mammals, especially humans, that's really just too damaging - especially if done at the temperatures needed to store our patients ... The next step involves fine-tuning the profusion system we use. There are questions of whether we should oxygenate patients in ischemic conditions; we're still determining that. We are adding medications in the initial step of suspension that we think will keep the person in a much better condition. We're also looking at some new and better cryo-protectants."

Nanotechnology - on another radical front of development and intimately connected to all others - offers hope that we will be able to repair the structural damage caused by freezing, and revive people from cryonic suspension. It also promises the greatest possible advance in life extension. With incredible speed, replicating-molecular machines that are capable of precisely sequencing atoms could be programmed to repair any cellular damage in the body; they could also completely reverse the aging process, as simply as if they were changing graphics on a computer screen. We know that this powerful sub-Lilliputian technology is possible because the idea for it comes from nature. All living things are already built by biological molecular assemblers. This is simply the most precise way to build (or rebuild) material forms, as well as the cheapest and the fastest. K. Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation, says that this sub-microscopic technology is inevitable given our present line of technological development in micro-electronics, computers, and genetic engineering.

If you apply nanotechnology to the human body, you basically cure disease and stop aging. 

I spoke with Christine Peterson about nanotechnology and human longevity. Peterson is the executive director of the Foresight Institute - a non-profit educational organization that has been keeping abreast of nanotechnology since 1986. She is also the coauthor of Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution. Peterson told me, "I think that we can anticipate fairly astounding medical technologies based on molecular nanotechnology - in other words, getting every molecule in the desired location. If you apply that technology to the human body, you basically cure disease and stop aging. So what you end up with is the ability to bring about a state of health in any given human body, which is about as much as you can ask from health-care technology. That's pretty much the ultimate."

The first nanomachine parts are already here. Virtually every week in Science there's a paper about how a new type of molecular-sized lever, gear, rotor, tube, switch, or piston has been engineered. Some of the most exciting recent news involves the building of machines out of synthetic DNA. Previously, the ability to build a "DNA nanomanipulator" had been blocked by the excessive floppiness of the DNA-junction molecules. But back in August of 1998, Nadrian Seeman and his colleagues at New York University reported that branched DNA junctions could be made more rigid by incorporating "double-crossover molecules of DNA."

This development opened up the door for a whole new avenue of molecular-machine design. Dr Seeman and his colleagues recently announced that they built a "nano-robotic arm" from synthetic DNA molecules. The device has two rigid arms that can be rotated between fixed positions, like a movable switch. Dr Seeman said, "Using synthetic DNA as a building material, we have constructed a controllable-molecular mechanical system. In the short run, this is an exciting technical achievement. In the long term, the work will have implications for the development of nanoscale robots and for molecular manufacturing."

Pushing into the future even farther, I spoke with Hans Moravec. Dr Moravec is the founder and Director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory of Carnegie Mellon University, the world's largest robotics program. He is also the author of Robot and Mind Children. Dr Moravec predicts that by the middle of the 21st Century, extremely powerful robots will be built with greater than human intelligence.

I spoke with Dr Moravec about the future development of robotics. With regard to extending human life, he doesn't think that there will be enough technological advancement for much robotic help in the near future, "except in that, robots are helping in the biomedical labs. A lot of molecular biology is done by these little laboratory robots that perform hundreds of tests at once."

Dr Moravec envisions that "bush robots" will eventually be able to repair virtually any type of damage to the human body.

Dr Moravec has suggested that we may eventually be able to transplant our brains into the bodies of super-human robots, and transfer the contents of our minds into extremely sophisticated computers. He wrote in Mind Children that, "Many people today are alive because of a growing arsenal of artificial organs and other body parts. In time, especially as robotics continue to improve, such replacements will be better than the originals. So what about replacing everything, that is, transplanting a human brain into a specially-designed robot body?"

But when I spoke with Dr Moravec about this idea, he told me, "I think of that as kind of a frivolous thing to do. I think we'll do it for amusement, but it won't have a serious impact on the future. It sort of strikes me now as building a car by starting with an ox-cart - and the ox-cart is us, the old design. Then you replace the wheels with rubber tires, the ox with a motor, and the sideboards with sheet metal panels. And when you're all done, you still don't have a very good car, right? Now, if you were to design a car from the ground up, then you could build a much better car than you could by replacing the ox-cart."

But that doesn't mean that robots of the distant future can't help us live even longer. Dr Moravec suggests a way that robots may be able to help us survive many accidents. He envisions that "bush robots" will eventually be able to repair virtually any type of damage to the human body, and that "even the most complicated procedures could be completed by a trillion-fingered robot, able, if necessary, to simultaneously work on almost every cell of a human body."
 


Fig. 1. Bush robot

"That's a long-term project," Moravec told me, "although I just completed a report for NASA on bush robots called 'Fractal Branching Ultra-Dexterous Robots' to actually study that idea. A bush robot is a branched hierarchy of articulated limbs, starting from a macroscopically large trunk through successively smaller and more numerous branches, ultimately to microscopic twigs and nanoscale fingers. We built two models. You can find it all on my Web page (www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm)."

How will longer lifespans effect us? At the very least they will force us to re-think our long-range goals, and to question many social and political institutions. But living much longer will also cause us to re-evaluate the very nature of our existence, and to redefine our relationship with the universe. Living for hundreds of years sounds like great fun to me, which is why I'm doing everything that I can now - cultivating a positive mental attitude, getting adequate amounts of exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and taking proper amounts of nutritional supplements. As we cross the threshold into the new millennium, the first truly effective life-extension modalities and benefits are already available to us, and new and better tools to dramatically extend human life are on the way.

The interviews that I did for this article will soon be available in their entirety on my Web site: www.levity.com/mavericks

References

  1. Drexler KE. Engines of Creation, Doubleday, New York, 1986.
  2. Drexler KE, Peterson C, Pergamit G. Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution, William Morrow and Co, New York, 1991.
  3. Moravec H. Mind Children, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1988.
  4. Moravec H. Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
  5. Mao C, Sun W, Shen Z, Seeman NC, "A nanomechanical device based on the B-Z transition of DNA." Nature, Jan. 14, 1999, 397:144-146.
  6. Slusser G, Westfahl, Rabkin E. (editors) Immortal Engines, The University of Georgia Press, London, 1996.
  7. Winfree E, Liu F, Wenzler LA, Seeman NC. "Design and self-assembly of 2-dimensional DNA crystals." Nature, Aug 6, 1998 394:539-544.
David Jay Brown earned his master's degree in psychobiology at NYU, and researched learning and memory while in USC's doctoral program in Behavioral Neuroscience. He is the author of Brainchild, and coauthor of Mavericks of the Mind and Voices from the Edge. His new science fiction novel, Virus: The Alien Strain, will be published this Fall by New Falcon, and he is currently working on a book with British biologist Rupert Sheldrake about the unexplained abilities of animals.

© Copyright 1999 Life Enhancement Products, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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