An Eternal Quest?

Imagine reading a story 5000 years old. And then to realize that despite the millennia gone by, we face the same dilemma today and the solution remains as elusive as ever!

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is one such story. The earliest surviving work of literature, the epic fictionalizes the reign of brave Sumerian king Gilgamesh who ruled Uruk in modern day Iraq around 2600 BCE.

In the story, King Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine and one-third mortal. He is young and handsome, energetic and athletic. Also cruel and arrogant. When the oppressed people of his kingdom appeal to the gods, they create Enkidu, an equal in brute strength, to humble Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage in fierce battle. Gilgamesh wins; the two acknowledging each other’s might, become friends. On one of their adventures, they incur the wrath of gods who decree Enkidu’s death.

When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is inconsolable. He calls upon the mountains, forests, rivers, animals, and all of Uruk to mourn for his friend. He clings to his dead friend for days until he sees a maggot drop from the corpse’s nostril. Disgusted and appalled, he realizes that one day, he too will die. And he resolves to overcome death.  

He sets out to find Utnapishtim, the only man granted the gift of immortality by the gods. He travels for days under the mountains, over the oceans, until he finds Utnapishtim.

Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh to first conquer the ‘little death’ of sleep for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh is unable to pass the test. Utnapishtim then instructs him to fetch a magical thorny plant from the ocean’s center which rejuvenates and ‘makes an old man young’. Gilgamesh fails again.

A dejected, depressed Gilgamesh returns home, as mortal as ever but wiser with the revelation that “death is the inevitable destiny of man and man must learn to live with it.”

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Like Gilgamesh, we accept death as inevitable. We live our lives knowing that in the end, we will leave everything – our bodies, our relationships, our material possessions – behind and become one with the elements. Yet, our innate instinct to survive keeps us searching for the key to youth and immortality.

The quest continues to this day.

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Till the early 1900s, people could reach, at the most, middle age.  People died from poor health due to insanitary living conditions, inadequate nutrition and lack of medicines, surgical treatments and vaccines. Today, we can hope to live about 70-80 years which may increase by a few more years as healthcare improves. But even under the most ideal circumstances, the shelf life of our species cannot exceed 120 or 130 years. And living up to a fantastic age of 200 years or longer remains the substance of fiction, legends and myths.

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Recent scientific advancements have given a modern fillip to our pursuit of eternal life. The fields of biology, genetics and medicine have come together with engineering, nanotechnology, computing and artificial intelligence to make the war against death more relentless than ever. AND we may be successful sooner than we think.

Interestingly, modern scientists have an entirely different take on death. They view the human body as a system run by tens of thousands of biological processes. The body is at peak performance in the early 20s; thereafter, it keeps becoming slower, weaker, and more prone to infection and disease. What if we could maintain optimal biological performance indefinitely? What if we could strengthen the body’s ability to resist infection and ward off disease?  What if we could regenerate or replace damaged tissues and organs in the body? What if we could remove all glitches in the system? What then could prevent us from leading a healthy productive life forever?

Sounds improbable? But then, so did treating injuries and infections two hundred years ago!

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Government institutions, private organizations and academic institutes all over the world are exploring different routes to slow down aging.

Genetic engineering – wherein genes are edited or removed/ added/ activated/ inactivated – shows the most promising potential to extend life. While 15 genes have been manipulated to extend the life of worms, flies and mice by almost 50 per cent, similar bioengineering in humans will be many times harder. But not impossible.

Antioxidant therapy to remove free radicals – toxic elements that accumulate in the cells with age – has been able to extend the life of fruit flies and worms, and made rats more physically and mentally agile. Will consuming antioxidant-rich supplements then delay aging for us humans too?

Particularly promising is the development of a class of drugs called senolytics which destroy cells that stop dividing and secrete compounds that damage surrounding tissues in old age. Or will deft manipulation of declining levels of hormones and antibodies do the trick?

Another approach reduces caloric intake in diet to slow down aging. Since humans are unlikely to starve themselves to prolong life, efforts are on to develop drugs that trick the body into thinking that it is on a drastically-reduced diet… could these mimetics do the magic for us?

Latest research at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine claims to have identified synergistic cellular pathways that amplify lifespan in tiny nematode worms called C. elegans by 500%! In terms of humans, this would be equivalent to a life of 400 or 500 years!

Also it may soon become possible to generate tissues from the patient’s own cells to replace defunct parts. Or to insert inorganic implants to replace damaged organs. Or to insert nano-robots into our cells to repair them or to open blocked blood vessels or to fight viruses and bacteria or to eliminate cancerous cells… Or perhaps to link our bodies inseparably with inorganic parts to modify our abilities, desires, personalities and identities?

Scientists sincerely believe that a combination of therapies will be required to remove all glitches in our functioning to give us an indefinite lifespan with good health. How soon? They cannot tell.

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Anti-aging research is serious business today. The latest to enter the race for eternity are ultra-rich Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and technology innovators who are investing billions of dollars in anti-aging research be it Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, X Prize foundation founder Peter Diamandis and many others. Most of the companies and foundations set up by them are working in stealth mode and have not yet revealed concrete achievements.

How long will the quest for immortality take? 100 years? 500 years? 1000 years? Who knows… Perhaps we will be proven to be wrong all along. Only the future will tell.

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