One of the challenges of writing science fiction is to imagine future technology that has a plausible scientific foundation but is still likely to be sufficiently ahead of its time to be truly futuristic. So it is simultaneously validating and discouraging when present day technological advances rapidly eclipse fictional scenarios set decades in the future.
In The Methuselarity Transformation, I envisioned a process that could arrest the aging process at the cellular level and make young adults virtually immortal. Meanwhile, scientists seem to be closing in on ways not only to arrest aging, but to reverse it.
When the circulations of young and aged mice were linked, the elderly mice became more youthful in a number of meaningful ways, including rejuvenation of both heart and skeletal muscle and an improved sense of smell suggesting some reversal of brain aging. These changes apparently derived from something in the younger animals’ blood that neutralized the effects of aging. A team at Harvard subsequently identified a protein, GDF11, isolated from the blood of young animals that appears in decreasing concentrations with age and seems to mediate anti-aging effects. This appears the closest mankind has come so far to discovering a fountain of youth...at least for mice.
While it has been painfully found in the quest for a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease that agents that work in mice don’t easily translate to effective drugs for humans, other basic science advances have potentially shortened the time it will take to determine whether such cures will prove helpful in humans. Induced pluripotent stem cells, derived from people with various disease states, can act as substrates for testing chemicals on disease processes outside the body. This same strategy might well prove useful in testing the effects of GDF11 or similar molecules on human tissue as a stepping stone to human clinical trials.
A separate line of investigation is pursuing the effects of CRISPR, a new technology for precisely editing genes as well as regulating gene activity. This could soon provide a way to turn on specific genes that may have a role in extending longevity. It may even become possible in the very near future to harvest skin cells from patients, induce the stem cell state, edit their genomes and then supply the modified cells to malfunctioning organs to restore their youthful states. And the next decade may even bring a real possibility of rolling back aging altogether and reversing the effects of age-related diseases.