Will We Soon Be Able To Live Forever? | Why It Matters 5 | Full Episode
I was born in 1985 in Singapore, so I'll likely live up to 74 years old. But what if I could increase it by 30 years? What if I want to escape death by another 50 years? A hundred years? If my body is my temple, could I get inside to fix it up every now and then, so that it never collapses on me? Is there a pill I could take to simply stop growing old and weak? If my heart starts to fail, can I have a new one made just for me? Or inject cells into me, so that my body can rejuvenate from the inside out? Or maybe be dispensed with my biological body altogether? And just transfer my consciousness into something indestructible? Science fiction? Or just science? In this episode of "Why It Matters", I'm looking to find out if I can cheat death. How long will I live? I think that's something we've all asked ourselves at some point in our lives, maybe a bit more so in the past year. The oldest ever human on record is a French woman, Jeanne Calment. She lived for 122 years and 164 days.
Can I break Jeanne Calment's record of 122 years? In the 1800s, the global average life expectancy was 30. Two hundred years later, today, it's risen to 72. So, does this mean that we are living twice as long as our ancestors? Not exactly… This big jump in life expectancy is mostly because we've managed to stop a lot of babies and kids from dying. Thanks to advances in public hygiene, nutrition, and medicine.
So when we talk about the average number of years one can expect to live, bring down child and infant mortality, and the average goes up. While life expectancy has increased over the last 200 years… Lifespan? Not so much. Lifespan is the maximum number of years humans or any species can expect to live. Some of the longest living creatures are found in the ocean. One deep-sea sponge has been found to have lived for at least 11,000 years! A sponge! And this creature, which is a jellyfish species known as Turritopsis dohrnii, is actually immortal! So, compared to some creatures, our current lifespan of 122 years is pretty short. Does that mean there is room to extend it? To extend our lifespan, Professor Brian Kennedy and his team have been looking at ways to slow ageing.
And they are starting with finding better methods to determine how old our bodies really are. In other words, our biological age, which is different from our actual age. Why do we need to know our biological age? If you are 36, but biologically 45 in reality, that means you are not ageing very well.
With biomarkers, we can identify people who are not ageing well, and then help them with lifestyle interventions that will turn that number back down towards normal. Another thing is, if there is an intervention that we want to test, like a drug or supplement, we need some way to show that it is working. How do you even identify biomarkers in the first place? There are different kinds of biomarkers that have been tested. Physiological markers like pulse wave velocity, and activity markers that work very well with the elderly population, like how far you can walk in six minutes, and there are also vectors in your blood.
More recently, people have used very deep data sets in thousands of individuals, using artificial intelligence and computers to try and optimise age prediction based on thousands of different data points. That has led to these new-age biologic ageing markers, like the DNA methylation clock and measuring your age from facial patterns. These are not fully validated yet with the FDA, but there's a lot of data that predict the onset of diseases and also predict mortality to some extent as well.
I'd like to know what my biological age is, so I've offered myself as a guinea pig. We will take different views of your face, reconstruct your 3D face image, and use that to measure your biological age. How does it work? It measures 41 different parameters, and one of them is mouth slant. You might notice that young people tend to smile more, and when you get older, the facial slope goes downwards.
That's due to muscles in your face that control how your lips are. A lot of times, old people have trouble smiling, and so, that's one of the markers that turns out to really matter. Okay, this is my moment of reckoning. Wow, my biological age is older than my chronological age! But how does knowing my biological age help me to live longer? According to The World Bank, our life expectancy in Singapore is 83, one of the highest in the world.
But we also spend a lot of money on taking care of the elderly. One report estimates that annual elderly healthcare costs will be over S$50,000 per capita by 2030, the highest in Asia Pacific. But what if we could grow chronologically older without growing biologically older? I've just learnt that while I've lived for 36 years, my biological age is different.
I am biologically older than my chronological age, so the question is: Can I reverse that? Shaun Lim thinks I can! He started Regenosis in 2016, a one-stop shop for the average Singaporean looking to reverse ageing. There are many things that you can do to reverse ageing, whether it be interventions, supplements, or therapies that are medically proven and safe. These are very nice things to have, but I'm sure they're going to cost an arm and a leg. No. For example, there is a supplement called alpha-ketoglutarate (AKG). Your body manufactures AKG, it's something that your body uses for your cell energy transport as well as a lot of cell functions. But as you get older, you generate less and less of it, and you cannot supplement it from anything else.
For people aged between 55 and 65 who are taking this supplement, it reduces an average of 7 biological years within six months. How much does a supplement like that cost? S$150 for a month's supply. And this is just one of many things? Yes, this is one of the many different things that you can do. We try to map out the body as much as possible. We will do a very comprehensive DNA test, with over 5,000 genes examined. We will do a very comprehensive blood test to get an idea of your nutrition level.
And then we will look at different ways to see what you are doing wrong, for example, if you are eating wrongly. Apparently, I need to limit my caffeine intake. So instead of having coffee, I'm having hot chocolate this morning. Smells good! Based my body composition, I've been told to eat only 1,600 calories a day. And I've been given meal suggestions close to what I like to eat to achieve just that.
And it's not just how much we eat, but also what and when. In my personalised meal plan, I'm being asked to get most of my calories from fats, rather than carbohydrates or proteins. And I'm only allowed to eat in an eight-hour window in the day. For the rest of the day, I fast.
Studies have shown that fasting helps stem cells regenerate. Stem cells are the raw materials from which all our other cells are made, to repair or replace damaged cells in our bodies. It's a renewal process that's a lot faster than it seems.
Every five days, our gut lining is completely overhauled. Every three weeks, our skin cells are replaced. And every 10 years, our bones are regenerated.
But as we get older, it gets harder and harder for the body to keep fixing itself. A big reason for this is because we have fewer functional stem cells as we age, and stem cells are critical for healing damage inside our bodies. Back in the 1990s, scientists figured out a way to extract stem cells from human embryos and grow them in a lab. In the early 2000s, they even managed to turn regular adult cells into stem cells. Does this mean that we can keep replenishing our stem cell supply, and keep ageing at bay? To find out, I am talking to this man. Dr Freddy Teo started Singapore's first private stem cell bank in 2015.
Dr Teo, how can we use stem cells to fight ageing? We call it regenerative therapy. If you look in the animal world, animals like salamanders do not die. When you cut off a limb, it regrows.
That is because they have a lot of stem cells, so they can do that. For some reason, human beings lost that capability after evolution. Stem cells aren't new, and we have known about them for decades.
So why is it only now that we are starting to take steps to have results, because we have not even seen the results yet. In the past, we could only harvest what is available in the body. But now it's different, as we can grow the stem cells in the laboratory. There is a known example where a patient had cancer in the trachea.
If it is removed, the patient would not be able breathe anymore, so they actually grew that part of the airway in the laboratory. They removed the cancerous part and grew it back in, so it's literally like changing a tyre. Besides the loss of stem cells which help us heal inside, there's another driver of ageing, which is that we gain senescent cells. As we get older, more and more of our cells become senescent. They stop dividing and supporting the tissues and organs they're in. So, they are not alive, but not quite dead either.
They send chemical signals to make the cells around them enter into a "zombie" state. These zombie cells prevent tissue repair, cause chronic inflammation, and drive our bodies to age and break down. The question is, can we kill these zombie cells before they kill us? As we grow older, some of our cells become senescent, a zombie state where they stop dividing. And the theory is that removing them could stop ageing. Using CRISPR, scientists in China just found the gene that causes cells to become senescent, known as KAT7. Is cutting this gene out the panacea to ageing? I'm checking in with Professor Tan Meng How at NTU.
As someone who just developed a test that uses CRISPR to detect COVID-19 in patients, he should know if we are on the path to editing ageing out of our DNA. Professor, if we target the KAT7 gene and cut it out, does that mean we can reverse or stop ageing? The KAT7 gene is like a brake that tells the cells not to grow. So, if you get rid of KAT7, you basically remove the brake. But this brake protein is also a well-known tumour suppressant gene, so it causes cancer if you get rid of it.
Oh...So it's not safe to cut it yet. Did I get excited over nothing? Well, not really, since it could very well be a bona fide target. It is also very much dependent on who you are trying to treat. For example, if you are dealing with elderly people who don't have much time left to live anymore, if you knock out KAT7, the elderly people get to live a few more years and enjoy a few more years of life. -That's not necessarily a bad thing. -I see.
It might be beneficial for someone who is already reaching the end of their life. If you get a few more years, you do. But if you get cancer, in a way, you're at the end of your life anyway. Exactly, that is sort of the logic behind it. It's either you get a few extra years or not at all, so why not try to have a few extra years? From what I understand, it feels like CRISPR is not at that stage to help us confidently fight ageing.
There is definitely a lot of work that still needs to be done. At that rate, I'd be over 50 before I see the light at the end of the tunnel for a solution to kill my zombie cells. Perhaps I should be heading in a different direction? You don't have to be a science fiction nerd to be familiar with the idea that sometime in the future, we may be able to upload our brain into a computer and live forever in a simulation. Stories with such ideas have been told since the 1930s. I didn't realise that computers existed back then. But what would it take to scan our brains? Imagine, scientists have seen uncanny similarities between our brain neuronal network and the web of galaxies in the universe.
Currently, we know that there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there. The human brain, on the other hand, has around 86 billion neurons. Yes, our neurons are almost as numerous as the galaxies! How on earth are we going to map 86 billion neurons and the trillions of synapses between them into a computer? But researchers are rising to the challenge. They have already scanned the 25,000 neurons in the brain of a fruit fly. And now, over 1,000 scientists across the Asia Pacific are working together to map the human brain in 3D by 2024.
And this is the guy who got the ball rolling. Associate Professor Low Chian Ming from NUS co-founded Synapse, a partnership of over 40 institutions to use a strategy of divide and conquer to create the first map of the human brain. Professor, where are we, and what are all these? It is the first and only synchrotron facility in Singapore. What is a synchrotron? A synchrotron is actually a ring that generates high-energy X-rays. This energy is able to penetrate deeply into samples, which is important for imaging the human brain, where high resolution is needed.
Okay, so you are saying this is like a very powerful X-ray machine? Yes, indeed. A typical computed tomography (CT) scan or X-ray is able to achieve a resolution of maybe one to two strands of a hair's diameter, which is about 0.1 millimetre. With the synchrotron, we are talking about 0.0003 millimetre. That is 300 times smaller.
We are now on track to be able to scan the whole human brain, make an X-ray of the whole brain. Yes, the technology called AXON is on track. Speed is no longer an issue.
Having said that, currently, the storage is a big challenge. We estimated that the volume of data generated from imaging one human brain exceeds one exabyte, which is 1 million terabytes. A one-terabyte disk is already a lot, now you tell me I need 1 million? How do we do that? By using a divide and conquer strategy, we give certain parts of the brain's imaging to certain partner countries. Data will stored and processed in that particular country's high-performance computing centre.
What will be stored in Singapore will be the bare information to create the skeletal map. When can we start to do that for humans? We need a donor brain which can be stained, then it can be processed and imaged. This sounds really exciting right now. If we can fully map the human brain, does that mean that I can map my brain, store it in a computer somewhere, and years down the road, be able to put it into an inorganic body and I can sort of live again? The answer is no. From a scientific perspective, generating a map is possible. Whether the map represents your memory or experiences still requires validation.
We have been looking to live forever since, well, forever. More than 4,000 years ago, King Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia, one of the oldest civilisations in the world, looked for the "elixir of life" because he didn't want to die. Over 2,000 years ago, China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, ordered a search for a potion that would help prolong his life.
Ironically, he didn't even see past 40, because he took cinnabar, which contains mercury, to try and cheat death. And in 16th century France, nobles drank gold in the hopes that it would keep them young. Fast forward five centuries, we now understand how our bodies age far better than ever before. It looks like the idea of us escaping the impact of old age on our bodies may not just be a science fiction trope. It seems to be not a matter of if but when.
It reminds me of the Ship of Theseus. It's an age-old thought experiment that asks this question: If a ship was replaced part by part until every single part was eventually replaced, is it still the same ship? If I replace every part of me, as and when it wears out, would I still be the same person? With scientists all over the world working to cheat death, we may just get the chance to find out. And that's why it matters. Captions: Shelly Sim, Mediacorp Pte Ltd