Two Doctors Aim To Put Funeral Directors Out of Business Within a Decade

March 18, 2014
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We’ll Cure Death in a Decade, Say the Stars of the SXSW Documentary The Immortalists

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Immortality is a decade away, insist scientists Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, the stars of the SXSW world premiere documentary The Immortalists. The two make a good advertisement: Andrews is a 61-year-old molecular biologist who runs a 100-mile marathon every month, de Grey is a trim Cambridge-educated PhD with a wife, two girlfriends and two-foot long beard. They already act like they’re gong to live forever, because they’re certain they will.

Andrews and de Grey couldn’t be more different. Andrews is a tee-totaller and lifelong bachelor who finally gets married during the movie. De Grey is a beer-swilling nudist whose legal wife Adelaide is a brilliant biologist 19 years his senior. (His other girlfriends are in their 40s and 20s, as he’s deliberately transcending age.) Andrews wants to find the cure to save his loved ones. De Grey is offended by sappy sentiment – he’s in this to save the world, starting with himself.

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At least both men agree that scientific research is on the wrong track. It’s focused on curing specific diseases – cancer, heart disease, diabetes – when it should be solving the one ailment guaranteed to kill everyone: old age. “Hundreds of years from now, we’re going to look back and be shocked by this horrible world we used to live in where people get old and die,” groans Andrews. To him, mankind is under the delusion that death is inevitable, just as we once believed it was natural that swaths of people die from tuberculosis and childbirth.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. They believe that our bodies are machines made up of even smaller cellular machines, and all we have to do is keep them from breaking down, like a Model T owner who dutifully oils his crankshaft every week. Ignore Big Pharma, who’s been painting them as crackpots. After all, pharmaceutical companies financially benefit from our deterioration. They can sell a thousand different pills for a thousand fatal diseases than a single cure-all.

Science might be on Andrews and de Grey’s side. A Harvard research team discovered that by rejuvenating the mitochondria in elderly rats, they actually reversed the aging process. Within a week, the old rats’ muscle tone was indistinguishable from that of their young rat buddies, and the clock had rolled back on their rodent form of Type 2 diabetes. What if we’re so close to a cure that the biggest question isn’t how, it’s how soon?

Yet the stars of The Immortalists don’t agree on the remedy. Andrews is obsessed with telomeres, caps on the ends of our chromosomes that keep them from unraveling. Picture the plastic tips of your shoelaces that hold the threads together. When telomeres deteriorate, the chromosomes – and our bodies – fall apart. Andrews is on the hunt to create telomerase, which lengthens and strengthens telomeres and could keep our bodies young forever.

De Grey is attacking immortality on a cellular level. Instead of searching for one smoking gun (he fears telomerase correlates to cancer), he’s taking on seven including chromosome mutation, mitochondrial mutation, and junk proteins inside and outside of our cells. What we need is nanobot maids and handymen who can clean up the biological clutter and hammer our cell walls back in place.

What’s striking about The Immortalists isn’t just Andrews and de Grey’s ambition – it’s their confidence. Andrews is certain he’ll cure death in time to save his octogenarian dad, De Grey made headlines when he boasted that the first man to live to 1,000 has already been born, and is probably in their 60s. Over the two years that documentarians David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg followed their subjects, we see their worlds shaken by funerals, funding problems, and Andrews’ own collapse while running a 138-mile ultra marathon in the Himalayas.

But they remain convinced that immortality is a decade away, even as hand-wringers ask them what will happen to humanity if they’re right. Will over-population and poverty wreck the earth? Will only the wealthy live forever? How will the young support themselves if the old never retire? To thinkers like Dr. Richard Faragher, the Chair of the British Society for Research on Aging, who publicly debates de Grey at Oxford, we need to solve these questions before these immortality-obsessed men irrevocably change the planet. But to de Grey and Andrews, the first priority is finding a cure for death – and once they do that, then we’ll worry about the rest as we’ll have all the time in the world.

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