Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Can ageing be reversed? Why DO we grow old and die?

Trees outlive humans by hundreds of years 

Currently, ageing is a remorseless, unrelenting and inevitable process from which nobody seems able to escape. Yet finding a cure for this condition, maybe even for death itself, has been the ultimate goal for humans since time began. 

In ancient China, for example, Taoist priests led
 people to neglect their labour to search for “the elixir of life” or “fountain of youth”. Alchemists in medieval Europe and Arabia used noxious ingredients such as arsenic, sulphur and mercury to create their supposed life-preserving potions - though how long anyone actually lived after taking them is anybody’s guess! 

One African legend is that God send a chameleon to deliver immortality to mankind, but it moved so slowly that another lizard got there first and persuaded people to accept a message of death instead.

As far back as the 4th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle attempted to explain just why we die, concluding that life hinged on the human body’s ability to balance heat and cold, observing: “It is always to some lack of heat that death is due.” Another philosopher, Plato, taught that man has an immortal soul that survives the death of the body.

Today, little has changed and it isn’t just women who yearn to turn back the clock, nor is it just the rich who pay handsomely to have their bodies frozen via cyronics, hoping for a revival once a cure for their terminal condition has been discovered. Every day, dubious and sometimes highly unethical therapies are being lined up as the only way to achieve that everlastingly flawless complexion and perfectly toned muscles. One stomach-churning report by a national newspaper exposed the use of desiccated foetuses in tablet form which are thought to preserve youth.

Are ageing and death natural?

For many people, the idea of living forever seems too far-fetched, even absurd. But is it? If we were only meant to live for just three score years and ten (or longer if we have exceptional genes), why do we fear death so much? Why do people undergo painful and unpleasant treatment to defeat life-threatening disease, or grieve so much when a loved one dies? And, if old age is as natural as we’re led to believe, why do so many invest heavily in creams, fillers, and cosmetic surgery to hold back the years?

The sad fact is, even a tree can last ten times longer than we do - which seems an awful waste of our incredible brains, described by molecular biologist James Watson as “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.” Just as we learn how to use it, we're too old to care!

Superficially, looks matter too. One photographer who specialises in cosmetics and skin care products believes a model is over the hill at 17, as, by then, the complexion has lost its dewy glow!!

But were we actually meant to grow old? At one time, gerontologists believed human bodies were programmed - to grow, to reach their peak and then to rapidly decline into old age and, eventually, death. Yet some experts into ageing have now modified that view, largely due to the miraculous way the human body functions. 

Biologist Jared Diamond, for example, noted how we “replace the cells lining our intestine once every few days, those lining the urinary bladder once every two months, and our red blood cells once every four months,” adding: “Nature is taking us apart and putting us back together every day.” 

This means that our physical bodies don’t really age at all but, according to one scientist: “In a year, approximately 98% of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in through our air, food and drink.” 

And, as other experts admit they don’t know why ageing should occur, we have to wonder whether we really should live forever. In his book, Conquest of Death, Alvin Silverstein wrote of his desire to “unravel the essence of life” and to understand how a person ages.” He was convinced that one day there will be no more old people, “for the knowledge that will permit the conquest of death will also bring eternal youth.” 


"Then God says, 'Spare him from going down into the pit! I have found a ransom! 
Let his flesh become fresher than in youth; 
Let him return to the days of his youthful vigor'" - Job 33:24,25 (NWT)

Recent scientific findings:

The Telomere and the Flatworm

Forget the Botox, cancel your facelift – according to researchers at Nottingham University, the Fountain of Youth may lie with the humble flatworm.

From just one member of this innocuous species, a team led by Molecular Biologist Dr Aziz Aboobaker have created over 20,000 worms which, when divided, simply grow back again - i.e. the head bit grows another tail while the tail portion grows a replacement head, producing two worms for the price of one. And the more they are cut up, the more parts there are to regenerate into complete new worms, each identical to the first, with bodies and organs that never seem to deteriorate.


As a result of his research, Molecular Biologist Dr Aziz Aboobaker believes flatworms are immortal thanks to telomeres which keep their cells dividing and renewing perpetually, unlike humans.

Telomerase research has now become one of the hottest fields in molecular biology, boosted by results from Dr Aboobaker’s recent study.  

Every cell contains a nucleus, a complex control centre, providing instructions for all the cell’s activities. This set code is stored in the chromosomes, a mix of protein and deoxyribonucleic acid, now commonly known as DNA. Although discovered in the 1860’s, DNA’s molecular structure was not fully understood until a century later when biologists began to realise its primary role – to convey genetic information.

At the tip of each chromosome is a short snippet of DNA called a telomere - from the Greek te’los (end) and me’ros (part).  Acting as a protective shield, rather like the plastic cap at the end of a shoelace, the telomere helps to stabilise the chromosome, preventing it from fraying, breaking or sticking. Unfortunately, most telomeres shrink grow shorter with each cell division until they wear away to mere stumps and no longer prove effective. Without the telomere’s protection, the cell stops dividing and begins to die due to the Hayflick Limit, a process discovered by Dr Leonard Hayflick in the 1960’s whereby cells appear to have a finite number of divisions – around 50 during its life span.  

Because of this phenomenon, human cells eventually shrink with age, resulting in our inevitable decay. Not so with flatworms. Their telomeres remain exactly the same, so cells keep on dividing at the same rate. As a result, Dr Aboobaker and colleague Dr Thomas Tan claim to have already isolated the ‘immortality’ gene and feel confident that it may one day help scientists to grow new organs and develop treatments to keep old age at bay. The implication is that if biologists could use telomerase to stop telomeres shortening during normal cell division, perhaps ageing could be halted or at least delayed. According to Geron Corporation News experiments with telomerase have already shown that normal human cells can be modified with “an infinite replicative capacity.”