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Gertrude Weaver of Arkansas died on April 6, 2015, at the age of 116 – just five days after being named the world's oldest person. In 1900, when Gertrude was two years old, the average life expectancy in America was 48 years. Today, people born in the most advanced countries are routinely living well into their 90s.
But can we live forever?
It's not such a strange question when you consider how advances in medicine – antibiotics, new surgeries, prescription drugs – have continuously extended our lives.
And according to Dr. David Sinclair of Harvard's genetics department, in light of recent medical breakthroughs, "There is no limit on human lifespan."
Dr. Sinclair, along with colleagues at Harvard, MIT, Penn, Scripps, and Johns Hopkins, are working to develop a treatment that could be the first step toward a permanent cure for mankind's most deadly disease: Aging.
After all, seven of the top ten causes of death in America are age-related. And you can trace the root cause of all of these conditions to one specific cellular defect.
Can We Live Forever? The Age-Old Problem
As we age, cells die off and are replenished through cytokinesis. Cytokinesis is the process where cells repeatedly duplicate – they make copies of themselves.
Here's the problem: Every time your cells duplicate, the protective "caps" at the end of each strand of your DNA, called telomeres, shrink. So over the years, with each successive copy, the telomeres keep shrinking, the DNA gets more exposed – and your cells become less and less accurate copies of themselves.
The gradual deterioration of these telomeres is the primary reason we get weaker and sicker over time, and why aging eventually kills us.
But what if the breakdown of telomeres can be slowed – or even reversed?
Scientists have identified at least nine species that have a naturally occurring "immortality gene." These specimens, including lobster, bacteria, and certain types of jellyfish, are capable of cellular regeneration indefinitely.
"Immortality might be much more common than we think," said Dr. Kevin Peterson, a molecular biologist at Dartmouth.
That's because the "immortality gene" is present in human DNA…
Can We Live Forever? The Game-Changing Solution
It all started when Dr. Carol Grieder and Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, biologists at UC Berkeley, showed that an "immortality gene" creates a protein that prevents the deterioration of telomeres during cytokinesis.
The implications of this discovery for human aging were huge. It won Drs. Grieder and Blackburn the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009.
At Harvard Medical School, geneticist Dr. Ronald DePinho led a team investigating those implications in a study using mice. The normal lifespan of a mouse is 2 years. But with telomerase switched on – in other words, with the immortality gene switched on – they lived 40% longer.
That's the equivalent of adding an additional 32 years to your life. They described what they saw as an "unprecedented reversal of age-related decline."
And now, after decades of experimentation and recent clinical trials, doctors have developed a safe and effective treatment that could allow us the switch on the human immortality gene. The New York Times described this breakthrough therapy as "The biggest change in our understanding of biology since the discovery of the double helix."