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The quest for immortality

  • Is there a limit to human longevity?
  • Young.AI can tell you how many years you have left to live
  • Can young blood transfusions fight aging?
  • Stanford scientists developed antibodies that boost brain function
  • Drugs that kill zombie cells could rejuvenate our bodies
  • Lengthening telomeres could reduce our biological age
  • Could technology help us live forever?

From the first moment we realised our bodies had an expiration date, we’ve been looking for ways to cheat death, or at least keep it at bay for as long as possible. Over the years, people have experimented with many different ideas that were supposed to grant eternal life, from trying to find the fountain of youth or the elixir of life to bathing in the blood of virgins. But no matter how hard they tried or how much money they threw at it, nobody has been able to defeat the grim reaper so far. That didn’t stop those who came after them from trying, though.

Thanks to recent technological advancements, the quest for immortality is once again back in the spotlight. According to the Bank of America, one of Wall Street’s major investment banks, companies working on delaying human death could be one of the biggest investment opportunities in the following decade. Already estimated at $110 billion, the value of the immortality market could exceed $600 billion by 2025.

A graph showing the value of the global immortality market in 2019 and its predicted value in 2025.

Is there a limit to human longevity?

For years, researchers have been trying to find out whether there’s an upper limit on how long humans can live. While it’s generally accepted that a person’s chances of dying tend to increase as they get older, there’s very little agreement in the scientific community when it comes to the limits of human longevity. In 2016, after analysing the reported ages of death for the world’s oldest individuals over the past five decades, the geneticist Jan Vijg and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York estimated that the maximum human lifespan was somewhere around 125. However, a recent Italian study offers a contrasting view, suggesting that those working on achieving immortality might be onto something after all.

 An infographic showing the survival probabilities of people aged 105 or older.
According to an analysis of 3,836 Italian people aged 105 or older, the risk of death flattens out after a person reaches 105 years of age and remains steady at 50 per cent.

A team led by a Sapienza University demographer, Elisabetta Barbi, and a University of Roma Tre statistician, Francesco Lagona, conducted a statistical analysis on the survival probabilities of nearly 4,000 Italian people aged 105 or older between 2009 and 2015 and discovered that the risk of death flattens out after age 105. Once a person reaches that age, their chances of dying from one birthday to the next remain steady at 50 per cent, which suggests that there might be no natural limit to how long humans can live. However, not everyone agrees with these findings. With less than 100 individuals who lived to 110 years of age or beyond included in the study, some believe that the sample is too small to offer conclusive evidence. Others consider the findings biologically implausible, which means the debate is far from over.

Young.AI can tell you how many years you have left to live

If there was a way to tell how long you’re likely to live, would you want to know? Developed by the US-based biotechnology company Insilico Medicine, Young.AI is a new platform that uses artificial intelligence to determine a person’s biological age and their life expectancy. The project is based on a deep learning analysis of blood tests from 130,000 South Koreans, Canadians, and Eastern Europeans, which Insilico published in November 2018 in cooperation with scientists from Johns Hopkins University, University of Oxford, and other research institutions.

The study focused on 21 commonly measured blood parameters, such as inflammation markers (CRP), cholesterol, hemoglobin count, and albumin levels, as well as 17 other chemical indicators. Using this data, Insilico was able to create an AI algorithm that checks blood chemistry against parameters like age and ethnicity to determine a person’s life expectancy from a single drop of blood.

To get a glimpse of what the future holds in store, all you have to do is get your blood tested locally for 18 parameters and upload the results to Young.AI’s website, along with a photo of your face, and then answer a couple of questions about your lifestyle choices. Young.AI will return with a prediction in a matter of seconds and suggest steps you can take to improve the prognosis. “Our test gives people a sober look at how fast or slow their biological clock is ticking. And for those who learn that their bodies are aging at a fast, unhealthy rate, the test will hopefully serve as a wake-up call, convincing them to take steps now that will add years to their life later—all this insight from a blood test,” says Alex Zhavoronkov, Insilico’s CEO.

Can young blood transfusions fight aging?

Blood transfusions are among the safest medical procedures in existence, used to support a variety of medical treatments by transferring a healthy person’s blood into another’s circulation intravenously. About 14.6 million blood transfusions are performed every year in the United States alone. That’s 40,000 potentially life-saving procedures per day. Yet, there are those who believe blood transfusions could do even more for us, like help us fight aging.

In 2016, Jesse Karmazin, a Stanford Medical School graduate, founded Ambrosia, a startup that claimed it could help people rejuvenate their bodies by filling their veins with blood from young donors. One year later, the company launched a clinical trial to determine what happens in the body during young blood transfusions, charging $8,000 per treatment for participation. Even though the company claimed that the results were really positive, they never released them publicly. To this date, nobody has been able to provide conclusive evidence that the treatment actually works. Finally, the Food and Drug Administration got involved as well. In February 2019, the FDA released a statement warning the public that young blood transfusions had no proven clinical benefits and could even be potentially harmful.

That’s not where the story ends, though. Scientists from Stanford University recently announced they were able to identify two new proteins in the blood of young mice that help rejuvenate important structures in neurons and improve cognitive performance in older brains. When applied to human neurons grown from stem cells, the proteins stimulated the growth of several key structures necessary for cell communication and resulted in the creation of more synapses. While it remains to be seen whether the process would work the same on a living human brain, these findings suggest there might be something to this idea after all, just not in the way Ambrosia presented it.

Stanford scientists developed antibodies that boost brain function

A team of neuroscientists from Stanford University recently released a statement in which they claim they were able to identify a gene that encodes a protein responsible for cognitive decline associated with aging and then develop special antibodies to block that specific gene. When injected into older mice, the antibodies successfully restored their brain activity to normal levels and helped them significantly outperform control mice of the same age on several learning and memory tests.

What makes this discovery particularly promising is that the same gene, called CD22, is also found in the human genome, offering renewed hope that we may one day be able to reverse the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “The mice became smarter,” says Tony Wyss-Coray, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Blocking CD22 on their microglia restored their cognitive function to the level of younger mice. CD22 is a new target we think can be exploited for treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Drugs that kill zombie cells could rejuvenate our bodies

Cellular senescence is a state in which a normal cell ceases to divide in response to DNA damage. While this mechanism has an important role in the defence against cancer, it has also been linked with some other, less beneficial effects. Also known as zombie cells due to their refusal to die, senescent cells accumulate in the body over time and are thought to be responsible for many of the effects of aging. So, what would happen if those cells were eliminated from the organism?

To find out, researchers have been working hard on developing drugs that can kill zombie cells. Known as senolytics, these drugs have proven rather effective in mice, improving a wide variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, clogged arteries, cataracts, kidney problems, enlargement of the heart, and muscle loss. When given to very old mice, the drugs were able to extend their lifespan by an average of 36 per cent. On the other hand, transplanting zombie cells into young mice significantly reduced their muscle strength, endurance, and walking speed.

Dr. James Kirkland and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently conducted the first study of the effects of senolytics on humans. The study involved 14 patients suffering from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive lung disease that causes scarring of the lung tissue. The preliminary results of the study are quite encouraging, with patients reporting improvements in walking speed and some other measures of physical fitness after just three weeks of treatment.

Lengthening telomeres could reduce our biological age

Another interesting idea that could potentially help us stay young revolves around lengthening telomeres, the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes. Each time a cell copies itself, the telomeres get shorter, until they get so short that our cells can’t regenerate anymore. Many scientific studies have linked short telomeres with premature cellular aging, which is why a number of companies are now working on treatments that would restore telomeres to their original length.

“If you can get the telomeres back to the normal state they were at when you were born, that could reduce your biological age back to 25,” says James Strole, the director of the Coalition of Radical Life Extension. “You wouldn’t be reversed back to a baby. You stop where maturity begins and ends.” Elizabeth Parrish, the CEO of BioViva, became one of the first humans to undergo telomere therapy in 2015, in which the human telomerase (hTERT) gene was injected in multiple locations throughout her body. Three years later, she provided an update on the treatment, claiming that her telomeres have grown younger by 30 years, extending from an initial 6.71kb to 8.12kb. Best of all, the therapy had no unwanted side effects whatsoever.

Could technology help us live forever?

Medicine has advanced tremendously over the years, significantly expanding our lifespan in the process. However, one thing still remains out of our reach – immortality. No matter what we do or how well we take care of our bodies, we all get old and die eventually. Could technology help us change that? In recent years, the number of companies trying to find a way to defeat death has increased exponentially, and they seem to be getting closer to a solution with each passing year.

Researchers around the world are now working on a wide variety of techniques, from injecting blood from young donors into old people to preventing cells from aging. Some of these techniques have shown a great deal of promise, others have been widely criticised. Even if scientists are eventually successful in their quest for immortality, the solutions they’re proposing are certain to be incredibly expensive and available only to the select few, creating even more inequality in the world. Perhaps the question isn’t whether we can do it, but whether we should.

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