Is the secret to living forever about to be found? Dateline explores the secretive research centres trying to cheat death and asks what is the real price of this possibility.
The search for the secret to eternal life goes back thousands of years. So far, it's a quest that has utterly failed. But I've come to Japan to meet a living being that I'm told actually has the ability to live forever. In the remote beach town of Shirahama in southern Japan, a man has made it his life's mission to unlock this creature's secret.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA, BIOLOGIST, KYOTO UNIVERSITY: Oh, nice meeting you! We go there.
REPORTER: Did you find some good stuff?
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA: Yes.
Professor Shin Kubota is a biologist with Kyoto University. He explained to me that nature holds many mysteries which humans can learn from.
REPORTER: The one thing that doesn't seem to be a mystery in nature – it’s not a mystery, is wherever there's life, there's death.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA: Ohhh.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA: Yeah. This is mystery, because very ancient animals like bacteria never die. We are evolved. So we die. We can die, but bacteria cannot die. Like the immortal jellyfish.
The immortal jellyfish - scientific name Turritopsis dohrnii - sounds fantastical but what it can do is amazing. It is something that no other known species of earth can do. These tiny organisms can reverse their ageing process, reverting back to their original polyp form after reaching an adult state, or experiencing trauma. But despite its name, this jellyfish is only technically immortal.
REPORTER: Why is it so difficult, um, to keep immortal jellyfish alive?
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA (Translation): If the temperature gets too low or the water gets diluted, it will die. It lives with many other things in the world, so of course it eats and sometimes it gets eaten and will die. However, it has the ability to be immortal. So if we can unlock the secret then maybe, just maybe, we can apply it to humans. I am chasing this dream.
The secret, he says, lies in studying what is the blueprint of all living species - the DNA in its genome.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA (Translation): Even though jelly fish are at the bottom of the evolutionary tree, being very primitive creatures, their genes are actually not that different from our genes. Oh, I think it’s hungry!
REPORTER: You really enjoy these little guys, huh?
He hasn't yet found the key to our immortality, but to Professor Kubota, the jellyfish is an inspiration.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA (Translation): People tend to resign themselves to the fact that they’ll die, and hand over to the next generation. Bushido, the way of samurai, is about dying a good death with one’s honour intact. I used to want to die with good grace, but I changed. After studying jellyfish, I want to live forever.
Professor Kubota's dream may still be far from a reality, but many others are beginning to ask the same question he is. Are we humans resigned to ageing? Is there any reason that we shouldn't be? Across the world, it's precisely these thoughts that have sparked a movement.
Those at the forefront of digital innovation are building the new industry. The titans of Silicon Valley are going after ageing, merging the tools of technology with human biology.
ANNOUNCER: Please welcome to the stage Bill Maris.
Bill Maris is the head of Google Ventures and is partly behind Google's newest spin-off, the California Life Company, or Calico.
BILL MARIS, MANAGING PARTNER GOOGLE VENTURES: I think it's possible, within a generation or two at the most, to cure cancer.
Calico has said one of its missions is devising interventions that enable people to live longer and healthier lives.
BILL MARIS: It's going to be the next 25 years in life sciences - they're going to be really surprising, I think.
And Google is only the latest in big names trying to tackle ageing. People like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Oracle founder Larry Ellison, have already invested millions of dollars into the so-called longevity movement.
Some of that money has gone to a guy named Aubrey de Grey. He's been talking about anti-ageing for decades. A lot of people in science say that he's full of more talk than real science, but he claims this is no longer fringe thinking. He actually believes that we can either stay young, or return to youthfulness. We're about to take him out and see just how young we still feel.
De Grey is a biologist, and he co-founded the SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View, California, which raises money to support anti-ageing work by scientists. He says most people are stuck in a pro-ageing trance, where we think growing old is inevitable rather than a solvable medical problem.
AUBREY DE GREY, BIOLOGIST: We have a completely biologically invalid, incorrect, idea that there is some kind of black-and-white wall between ageing itself - whatever the hell we mean by that - and the diseases of old age, like Alzheimer's or cardiovascular disease or cancer.
He argues that we must treat ageing as the disease itself. He's clear that this is about a longer, healthier life - not just a long life but the ability to live forever?
REPORTER: That's what everyone's thinking about.
AUBREY DE GREY: The ability to living indefinitely, because of being youthful indefinitely, eternal youth, that’s the way to talk about it.
REPORTER: Eternal youth?
AUBREY DE GREY: Not eternal life - eternal youth.
REPORTER: And you think that could be possible?
AUBREY DE GREY: I think that could be perfectly possible.
De Grey became a lightning rod for controversy years ago when he claimed that the first person to live to 1,000 years has already been born. But he's found a relatively safe haven in the Valley and now with Google in the picture, he says the landscape has changed.
AUBREY DE GREY: The fact that you've got people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin putting their money and their names behind this venture, the fact that you've got people with an enormously good Track Record of taking on incredibly hard problems and succeeding - those are the people who will make the general public believe, and then of course governments believe - that this is not a pipe dream anymore.
If there is a cure for ageing, tech entrepreneurs won't be able to just write a program to increase life span. Doing so will also require close collaboration with those that are studying the mechanisms of ageing. At Stanford University, Stuart Kim studies super-centenarians - people who are over 110 years old.
PROFESSOR STUART KIM, STANFORD UNIVERSITY: We know that about 40% of longevity is genetic.
What's interesting, he says, is that many of the people he studied actually have fairly unhealthy lifestyles.
PROFESSOR STUART KIM: Healthy living could make you live a couple years longer, and we all try to eat well and exercise to stay healthy. That's a good idea. Your DNA could let you live 30 years. That's the idea.
Scientists have already successfully extended the lives of organisms like roundworms and even mice by altering certain genes in their DNA. Now, researchers want to see if manipulating human genes could extend our lives.
PROFESSOR STUART KIM: So if we could figure out the secrets in the DNA, we could acquire a different way to live longer and healthier that trumps all of the diet and exercise that you're doing right now.
One of the biggest efforts to understand human DNA sits right here, just off the beach in San Diego and the man at the forefront is a scientist who's been known for pushing boundaries in biotechnology. Craig Venter raced the government to sequence the first human genome in the early 2000s and then in 2010, he created the first synthetic life form. He's now started a company called Human Longevity, Inc, or HLI.
CRAIG VENTER, CO-FOUNDER HUMAN LONGEVITY INC: Each one of these boxes, there's 1,350 times what we could do 15 years ago.
This is the world's largest human genome sequencing centre. Currently, HLI gets samples from participants involved in various scientific studies around the world. Venter says HLI will collect 1 million genomes by 2020, along with terabytes of health data on each individual.
CRAIG VENTER: We now can amass these huge data sets which enables us to begin to understand the differences.
DR PETER DIAMANDIS, CO-FOUNDER HUMAN LONGEVITY INC: Because everything that affects you, what kind of diseases you come down with, whether you're skinny or obese - all these things are a result of your genome and genome of the bacteria in your system.
Peter Diamandis is a well-known entrepreneur in California, and is the co-founder of HLI. He's famous for backing futuristic endeavours like space tourism and asteroid mining.
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: We're heading towards a world that's going to be massively data-driven, the companies that are crushing it - Uber and air b and b are all data-driven companies and companies that don't gathering data and using it to make decisions are going to be gone, they will be destroyed.
REPORTER: And are genetics are going to be part of the big data?
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: The most valuable data.
CRAIG VENTER: It will be your number one life decision-making tool.
Venter says their goal is to increase peoples health span, and HLI will licence their data base for scientific research but the implications of so much information seem to hint at something bigger.
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: It starts changing the conversation around, "Do you elect someone who is president without knowing their genome scan?" I have the right to know whether you are going to come down with this disease or not, but it’s going to change life insurance, health insurance every aspect of our lives.
CRAIG VENTER: It becomes fact-driven, it becomes information-and knowledge-driven, so I've learned early on that knowledge is power.
The scale of HLI sequencing 1 million genomes in such a short time - is unprecedented. But people critical of this data collection point to other DNA analysis companies that show the risk of handing over genetic information. One of them is 23andMe, a company backed by Google which gives information on your ancestry by partially sequencing your genome.
REPORTER: It's $99 bucks and, I'm signing up for it, 'cause I want to know about my background and my genetics. The other side of this - this company, 23andMe, are going to keep my DNA and put it into their database.
JEREMY GRUBER, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL FOR RESPONSIBLE GENETICS: Now, we've seen, in just the last few months, multiple deals made between 23andMe and major pharmaceutical companies to sell its DNA database. They've actually changed the focus of their company.
But 23andMe told us that scientific research has always been part of their agenda, and they insist that they are not selling the data, but rather, giving access to the samples they have collected. Like most companies who broker in genomic data, they claim it's been de-identified and anonymised.
JEREMY GRUBER: You can make a claim that you're going to try to anonymise DNA and use your best efforts and hopefully they are, but it's a false promise to be able to say that you can truly anonymise DNA. It can't be done.
Even Venter agrees that DNA is not truly anonymous.
CRAIG VENTER: I would not advise anybody to do what I did.
REPORTER: That's to be so public about your own genome?
CRAIG VENTER: Yes.
The first study at HLI has nothing to do with disease at all. If I could only think about one thing at a time - hmmm... ..but it's to find out if scientists can reconstruct a person’s face and their voice, because to them, in their mind, this means safety. ..from only their genetic code.
REPORTER: This is like Minority Report stuff - you can get a little DNA from a crime scene, right? And be able to say, "Here's what he looks and sounds like." That's what you want to get to?
CRAIG VENTER: Yep. The implications of that are great.
REPORTER: You can't be de-identified?
CRAIG VENTER: Right.
He says that's why HLI will not have an open database that any researcher can easily search through.
CRAIG VENTER: That's why we put so much effort into database security - so that we can protect the records to the extent one can in computer databases.
But advocates of genetic privacy say it's actually very hard to control how genetic data will be used in the future, with even when companies have the best of intentions.
REPORTER: What's the real threat?
JEREMY GRUBER: Well, we have one federal law on genetic discrimination - the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act. It focuses exclusively on health insurance in employment. But genetic information can be used to discriminate on a whole host of different areas, from disability insurance to long-term care insurance. It can be used by a bank if they want to make a long-term loan and they think that there's information in your genome that you will not live long enough to pay back that long-term loan.
REPORTER: Isn't there, at some point, a genie that gets out of the bottle and there's too much power in people's hands?
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: First of all, the genie's out of the bottle. This stuff is moving, period. There's no way to put it back in the bottle. The only countermeasure for me, from all of this is, massive transparency. Getting to a point where, in fact, yes, the norm is that your genome is on the cloud and open to all. We're heading towards a society where we can know anything we want, any time we want, anywhere we want, there's no secrets anymore.
REPORTER: What's the impact of that?
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: Fundamental reshift of society. That's why this next 30 years, everything changes. How we govern, how we raise our kids, how we think about the future. Everything!
Maybe there is a future where my children won't age, or where they'll be able to live a lot longer. But there are still so many unanswered questions - ones that need to be raised before our society is outpaced by biotechnology.
REPORTER: Would it be okay in a world if rich people got to live longer than poor people?
HARPER RUSHING: No.
REPORTER: What's wrong with that?
HARPER RUSHING: Then it's no fair.
The truth is, of course, it already happens - life expectancy is linked to income, and this gap is only increasing and as the boundaries of human longevity are pushed, there are concerns that it will grow even wider.
OLIVETTE BURTON, BIOETHICIST AND SOCIAL WORKER: The politically connected and the wealthy would benefit, because they could afford the treatments and the technologies and they would have access to that. It would not be cost-prohibitive to them.
Bioethicists point out that if private companies hold the key to ageing, longer life may no longer be a public good.
OLIVETTE BURTON: They will control the dialogue, the discourse, the direction, and the agenda and they will put their agendas out there. They're also businessmen.
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: My goal is to create wealth, and be able to use that wealth to do thing that I think are important on this planet. And there is no larger marketplace - $60 trillion to $70 trillion of wealth in people over 60 and how much would they spend for an extra ten, twenty or thirty years of healthy life, it’s a huge market place.
REPORTER: What does it mean for the haves and have-nots, that the haves will have access to this kind of information and this kind of healthcare, and the have nots?
CRAIG VENTER: Actually, it has changed. Mine was the only $100 million genome. There wasn't a second one and now it's about $1,500 a genome. In the near future, we'll be even more accessible.
But many are asking, should we be chasing this at all, while people in many cities and countries struggle to meet their basic needs?
OLIVETTE BURTON: The realities of surviving are what those people are concerned with. So - food production, food consumption, clean water, better living conditions - that's what most people are concerned about.
Even billionaire Bill Gates has questioned the priorities of the longevity movement.
REPORTER: It seems pretty egocentric to have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer. What do you think about that view …. of this $100 million going into this when it could go into mosquito nets in Africa.
CRAIG VENTER: It's a silly argument – because that’s a need that you don't try and change healthcare in Western society. It's not okay to have a 6-month-old kid die from a brain tumour if it's preventable or treatable. Why is that any different than dying from malaria in Africa? It's just a different-scale problem in different populations.
DR PETER DIAMANDIS: But what it truly means, in my belief, is that we’re heading from a world of have and have-nots to a world of haves and super-haves, where we can meet the basic needs of every man woman and child. And yes, some people will be able to go to Mars, and others to live hundreds of years, but we are truly transforming this world. We’re creating a world of abundance. And for me that’s one of the most important things we can aim towards.
It's an optimistic vision, but is it masking a harsh reality? Are we building a world where the poorest are outlived by hundreds of years? It depends on who you ask.
PROFESSOR SHELLY KAGAN, YALE UNIVERSITY: It's not that I'm opposed to extending our lives, but this really is just one more instance of the haves getting more, and so the question is, is that morally acceptable? I think no - I think the answer is that we, all of us, the haves in the world - have an obligation to devote far more - far, far more - than we do to improving the plight of the have-notes.
Shelly Kagan is a moral philosopher at Yale University, and he teaches one of the school's most popular classes. It's called Death. He says, if science could really alter the upper bounds of human life span, even by 50 years, it would have major repercussions.
PROFESSOR SHELLY KAGAN: That would be something we've never dealt with and have, I think, pretty much no idea at all what it would do, to what kind of changes it would require in human society.
Even one of the biggest dreamers warns that we're not ready for this.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA (Translation): Humans are not really thinking about nature or the environment and are changing the earth in a way that suits our needs only. But for the other species, as many as 1.44 million, not only animals but also plants, bacteria as well, it’s a very bad thing. We are making this a human-centric world.
Professor Kubota says that humans have a fundamental flaw - as we chase longer lives, we're losing sight of our place in the world and that maybe, we need to learn how to live better today.
PROFESSOR SHIN KUBOTA (Translation): This is an issue of “heart” – we as natural human beings need to think about how we should live our lives.
PROFESSOR SHELLY KAGAN: Most of us go through life, I think, discovering that we are making, or have made, choices but haven't really reflected hard on whether those were the right choices to make or what our reasons were, or if those reasons were good. I think recognising that death is really the end implies the finitude of existence, and then that has the implication that, well it really behooves you to think long and hard about what is worth doing with your life.
9th June 2015