It's thought that all species share a very basic survival tactic: the ability to switch their body's priorities from reproduction to survival under famine conditions. At a continuous 30% reduction in caloric intake, the creatures are able to better recover from injuries and significantly extend their life spans by slowing down the aging process. While this does help them survive long periods without food, it sounds kind of miserable, doesn't it? A life spent asexually is a life wasted (sorry, priests: Sex is rad. Also, as long as we're being honest here, those robes make you look fat). To make matters worse, you need to basically be starving to death forever to maintain this mechanism. So you're constantly hungry and bad at sex — it's like being a Bizarro John Goodman (see, because he's kind of a big guy, and he looks like a tender lover?).
But what if scientists could trigger the famine response without actually cutting calories, thereby still leaving the body the necessary resources to celebrate hump day?
Good news: They absolutely can! An enzyme called sirtuin, which is thought to mediate that famine reflex, is the subject of extensive recent experimentation. They're hoping to release drugs called sirtuin activators that, well... activate the sirtuin. Listen, not all science is inscrutable; sometimes it's just straight up with you.
A mild sirtuin activator called SRT501 is actually through human testing stages and slated for release relatively soon. In tests, it prompted a mild famine response in human subjects with no change in diet and no negative side effects. Nothing too crazy, just kind of neat, right? But wait, there's another — as yet unnamed — sibling drug that has also just started human testing... and is one thousand times more effective. No negative effects have been observed thus far, and the drug is on the fast track to approval for release. Within the next few lifetimes, there could easily be a drug available to you that will extend your overall health, healing abilities and life span considerably.
But what about the endgame — the fountain of youth, the Holy Grail, the... punching of father time in the beanbags? (Okay, so I ran out of euphemisms there, but you know what I mean.) The big one: The complete and total cessation of aging. True, literal immortality.
Forgive the candor, but screw fantasy: We did it.
Scientists at Yeshiva University in New York have completely stopped the aging process — brought it to an indefinite standstill — in an organ's cells by blocking the buildup of harmful proteins. The entire reason you age is the gradually increasing ineffectiveness of your cell's abilities to get rid of damaged proteins. We're trying to replicate that MCAT stuff to repair the muscles, and we're working on Sirtuin Activators to increase the healing factor, but the true scourge of aging is always going to be organ shutdown. In healthy cells, there's a cleaning method present called chaperone-mediated autophagy that eliminates damaged proteins. And as we age, it stops working; our organs begin to die.
By simply adding "extra copies" of CMA receptors to the cells, the researchers were able to artificially restart the cleaning mechanism, and they completely stopped a liver from showing any signs of aging whatsoever... .
... in mice.
All right, that's kind of a rip-off, I know. But the good news is that the central cause of cell damage is the same in humans as it is in mice, and those same Yeshiva researchers have already moved on to working with pharmaceutical companies on drugs that could kickstart these receptors in humans. So a new race of immortals isn't exactly being birthed tomorrow, but we've definitely passed step one. Eternal (or at least significantly longer, substantially improved) life could very well be a reality within your lifetime.
Of course, maybe you forgot why I'm here in the first place: My book. You know? The one called Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody?
All the pills in the world won't help you when the robots come for you, when the nanotech plagues start, when the asteroids hit and the skyscraper-sized tsunamis break the cities in half. All of those things are quite real, and some of them could happen at any moment. Actually, come to think of it, there are some pills that might help you — but they're not so much the "life-prolonging miracle" kind, than they are the "anti-depressant or narcotic" kind.
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Robert Brockway is an editor and columnist for Cracked.com, and the author of Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his fiancee, Meagan Kennedy, and their two dogs, Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. He has been known, on occasion, to have a mustache.
Books mentioned in this post
Robert Brockway is the author of Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead