A scientist named David Gems, over in London, discovered that death and aging actually resembles a "ghostly burst of blue fluorescents" that pulses through a worm's body right before death. What does this mean for humanity? We asked him.
Anaylizin' the death wavez.
If you could increase your life by a decade or two would you do it? Everyone has wondered what is beyond the light at the end of the tunnel, but what if you found out you wouldn't have to worry about that for quite a while because we would be practically immortal? What if you didn’t have to stress out about getting cancer or Alzheimer’s or going blind? What if you could live many lives in one and actually get all those things that you’ve always wanted to do, but never had enough time to do them? Wouldn’t that be ideal?
I called up David Gems from the Institute of Healthy Aging Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at the University of London to have a little chat about the future of the human race. David is the co-author of the newest breakthrough in health and aging advances. He and his partner Cassandra Coburn have found out what death looks like (apparently it’s blue) and are working hard to try and slow down the aging process in their lab across the pond.
VICE: For people who aren’t aware of what this is, can you give us a brief description of what you’re working on?
David Gems: We’ve been studying aging and death because we want to understand it. Aging is probably the biggest unanswered question in the science world. When people get seriously ill these days, it’s generally from aging—so aging is a disease. We study it in worms, not because we care about aging in worms particularly, but because it's too difficult to study it in people. If you can understand aging in one animal properly that’s a good start.
Specifically what we found was when worms die, there is this phenomenon—it’s a sort of ghostly burst of blue fluorescents that actually travels through the worm and it tracks death. These worms are transparent, so it means you can actually watch death as it passes through the animal, which is kind of eerie. But it’s also kind of useful because it means you can watch death. As a scientist, you can actually do experiments on it. You can try and stop it and slow it down and figure out how it’s happening.
Okay, so now that we’ve identified what death and aging looks like in worms, what does this mean for humans?
Aging in worms relates to humans in two different kinds of ways. We have to understand fundamentally what sort of thing aging is and what kind of process it is. That’s important because what’s going on now is kind of like a battleground of ideas in connection to the worm with what aging is. This is part of the process of overturning this old theory of damage causing aging and we’re working on a new theory that can replace it.
More directly though, what we see in the worm in terms of what’s more directly applicable, the big organ in the worm is the intestine. It’s this huge organ inside the worm which is also its liver and fat, and what happens is that you get one cell in the front of the intestine that dies and then the neighboring cell responds to having a dead cell next to it by dying itself. So you get a cascade, like a chain of death spreading from cell to cell. Now that sort of thing also happens in humans where you have some damaged tissue. Imagine you have a stroke, so a bunch of your brain cells died so you have these sort of dead cells surrounded by live cells. These live cells have to cope with these dead cells being right next door to them and often what happens in these dead cells trigger death in the live cells so you get this propagation of death. That turns out that the kinds of biology involved in the spreading of death through the worm and the way death spreads within the tissue in humans is actually quite similar. So by studying death in the worm we can work out ways to slow down the spread of death in humans.
Blue Death: the Movie.
Damn, that's really cool! On the video I watched on Wellcome Trust you say that this discovery has opened a lot of doors to be able to find cures for things like cancer, diabetes, blindness, and a bunch of other age related diseases, what’s going to be the next step to implement this into humans?
The thing is that studying aging in humans is very difficult—there are a lot of experiments. So the idea is that we could solve aging in very simple animals like fruit flies and worms, not because I give a damn about worms it's just because it's really easy to study. The big news in these animals is you can slow the aging down by a lot. Aging is something you can intervene in. You can't reverse it, and you can't stop it, but you can slow it down. In the worms you can double, triple or quadruple their lifespan.
How do you think expanding the human lifespan by 2, 3, or ten times change society?
Let me try and do some crystal ball gazing based on what’s currently possible. I think that it's very likely if they applied these practices to humans in nature, it would be possible to slow aging down modestly. So that might mean increases of the lifespan by a decade or two—and that's fairly optimistic—but remember if you were to cure all cancer you would only increase human lifespan by a few years, so this would involve an enormous improvement in late life health.
I don't think that at the moment there is concern about consequences of massive life extension, from what I know of aging I don't think it's very likely at all that there will ever be any silver bullet like antibiotics, where you take a pill and massively slow aging down. I think it's likely that this will be very incremental. So people shouldn't worry about human evolution, but more about resources and all that stuff for the older population. We've got to figure that out or we're finished. You can't start saying, "Oh a convenient way to deal with this problem like managing our resources and population is to ALLOW people to get Alzheimer's and cancer" because that's a simple Nazi kind of approach. Old people’s suffering is just as painful as suffering in young people and we have to do whatever possible to improve health in everybody.
More immortality and health:
The Immortality Commune of Gavdos