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Life and Death in the 21st Century:
Living Forever

BBC2 8:00pm Tuesday 4th January 2000

Sunbather NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): It’s humanity’s oldest dream – immortality, a world where we never age, a world where death will be purely optional, and a handful of scientists believe that this really will be our future. For now biologists understand the mechanisms that make us age and make us die, and some of them think they know how to reverse both, stop nature in its tracks and make us immortal, like the gods.

DR MICHAEL WEST (Advanced Cell Technology): The rate at which we’re understanding ageing itself, the mechanisms, the machinery of ageing actually what causes us to grow old, the rate at which we’re running that is breathtaking. I think in the next 3 years even the scientific community will be shocked at how much we’ve learned in such a sort period of time.

PROF. LEE SILVER (Geneticist, Princeton University): I really do believe that it is theoretically possible to have absolute immortality barring accidents that cause death. The only question that I have is whether it’s going to be in the next decade, the next century or the next millennium.

NARRATOR: Inside this limousine is a Texan oil millionaire and he wants to live forever, but he’s already nearing the end of his life. Miller Quarles is 85. He has offered a fortune to anyone who can prevent him from dying.

MILLER QUARLES : I’m leading an extremely happy life and that’s one of the reasons I’m willing to spend a lot of money to just to stay this way. I believe that, the cure of old age has got to come, it’ll come very earliest within a year, 5 years probable, 10 years a cinch.

NARRATOR: Miller Quarles has challenged science to make him immortal and a handful of scientists are planning exactly that. They are aiming to cure all the diseases of old age and, as a result, to give us unlimited lifespans. They have conceived the idea of full body regeneration, a way to gain indefinite life extension. It sounds like science-fiction, but it isn’t. Scientists are now seeking ways to stop our cells from ageing and to make our bodies regrow and replace all our organs and tissues as they wear out, to give us perpetual youth. But to make it happen scientists will have to defy the laws of nature. Our bodies have been pre-programmed to age. We are designed to die.

LEE SILVER: Death makes perfect sense in terms of evolution, in terms of passing your genes on to the next generation and then have them pass it on to the next generation. If we didn’t die then we would be around competing with our children and that’s not very good for evolution.

NARRATOR: The natural order of life on the planet depends on all of us dying. Evolution has designed our bodies to be healthy only during our prime years of reproduction. Once reproduction is over, we have completed our biological task and we deteriorate and die.

LEE SILVER: We actually could be immortal if we could figure out how to get around the ageing programme. Ageing and death are both programmed into our genes. That doesn’t mean it always has to be that way if we can figure out what the programme is, then we can try to fix the programme and to stop ageing from taking place.

NARRATOR: Until recently scientists believed that the ageing process was inevitable, that we could never manipulate the biological limits to life. But a series of dramatic experiments was to change that concept. In one such experiment the laws of evolution were altered – for the fruit fly. In this lab they have created a super-fly, a fruit fly with double the normal lifespan. The experiment they have devised is simple: it’s all about sex. Fruit flies mate and lay eggs continuously, but all the eggs laid by young flies are thrown out. The only eggs allowed to hatch are those laid by the oldest surviving females, those with the genes for long life.

PROF. MICHAEL ROSE (University of California, Irvine): The essence of the experiment is to say to the fruit flies OK, you don’t get to reproduce until you’re older and that means you have to survive until you’re older and it means also that when you’re older you have to have physiological ability to reproduce when you’re older and natural selection screens the flies under those conditions for postponed ageing by nature automatically. As an experimenter you don’t need to do anything more. You don’t need to monitor the individual flies, you don’t keep track of the reproduction. Natural selection does it all for you.

NARRATOR: This single experiment has been going on for over two decades. Over hundreds of generations of selective breeding the fruit flies have slowly doubled their lifespan, but the most remarkable thing about this experiment is what extreme old age does to these flies.

MICHAEL ROSE: A much longer lived fruit fly turns out to be very different from what you might imagine these fruit flies that have increased lifespan are far more athletic than normal fruit flies, fly for much longer, walk for much longer. They are vastly more resistant to a variety of stresses, they’re very robust in that sense and they certainly set to enjoying life, at least from a sexual standpoint.

NARRATOR: Extreme old age seems to gives flies the gift of eternal youth. But you can’t breed people like fruit flies. To create active, healthy, 300-year-old humans scientists would have to tamper with the biology of the human body. Humans seemed to have a fixed lifespan. Whatever our genes, our lifestyle, our nutrition our bodies always wear out at a maximum of 120 years. By then our organs and tissues have stopped functioning properly and that’s because of our cells. Throughout our life, our cells divide and multiply replacing old or damaged cells with new ones. But there’s a pre-programmed lifespan for each cell. After at most 100 divisions they die. Then the body can no longer repair itself and we develop the diseases of old age: arthritis, heart disease, strokes – the diseases scientists hope to prevent, but to do this they must understand the biological clock inside cells, and they’re gaining new insights into ageing from studying one very rare disease.

MAN: Wow, there’s my helper… MAN: That’s some more. Thank you.

NARRATOR: Ory Barnett is 3 years old, but he’s unlike other 3-year-olds.

MAN: Stuck. Thank you.

ORY BARNETT: Cups.

NARRATOR: Most of his body is already middle-aged.

MAN: Cup, for juice.

NARRATOR: He’s going bald, his joints are stiff, his skin is beginning to wrinkle and thin. For him the ageing process has mysteriously and tragically speeded up.

HEATHER BARNETT: When we first went to the doctors it was because he wasn’t keeping his food down, but everything was fine there and then they noticed the bumps on his legs so they wanted to send us to a different doctor, so he went to a geneticist and we waited in his office and when he finally came, he just looked over Ory for about 20 minutes and told us, that it was an ageing syndrome and that his body would age faster than normal, but his mind wouldn’t. He’d have the mind of a regular 5-year-old and 10-year-old and then he just sent us on our way home. I thought that he was just a perfect little boy and to find out that he had, you know, things wrong with him it was just, it was very upsetting.

NARRATOR: Ory suffers from progeria, a genetic disorder so rare that there are fewer than 30 children in the world today with the disease. In the next few years Ory, like all the other children with progeria, will suffer prematurely from heart disease, crippling arthritis, blindness or a stroke – the diseases of ageing. Most will die of old age in their mid-teens. For years scientists were baffled by this disease. It raised fundamental questions about our understanding of the whole ageing process.

DR. MICHAEL FOSSEL (Michigan State University): To see progeriac children is to realise that ageing is not simply a matter of accumulated years. Now these children age suddenly. They start off as normal babies and all of a sudden they begin to age in some way and fall apart, so again if you wanted to say that ageing is something that we can’t do anything about ‘cos it’s just wear and tear and wave your hands vaguely, then you have to explain why these kids wear and tear so much faster.

NARRATOR: Scientists now believe they can explain why these children age so suddenly and this is offering clues to how we all age. They’ve discovered that there is a time-bomb inside our cells that causes them to stop dividing and for progeric children the fuse on this time-bomb is the wrong length. Inside every cell in our body at the end of our chromosomes is a piece of DNA called a telomere. It stops the DNA from fraying as it divides, but every time a cell divides the telomere gets shorter. Eventually the telomere shortens to a critical length and the next time the cell divides the telomere can no longer protect the fraying DNA and the cell dies. What scientists now know is that progeriac children begin their lives with unnaturally short telomeres and that is why they age so quickly.

MICHAEL FOSSEL: At birth these children have a fuse length that corresponds to yours at age 80 or 90 years old. Not in all their cells by any means, just in certain cells and even within those cells there’s some variation, but if I look at the skin, for example, the fuse setting, the telomere setting is very short and that changes the way these cells in the skin act, it changes the way they make collagen and changes the way they make dozens of things. The same thing’s probably true of heart disease in these children, which is what kills them. Inside the blood vessels the telomere’s too short and it starts this cascade of processes and they die of heart disease.

NARRATOR: if scientists could find out why the telomeres in these children’s cells are too short they might find a way to extend them again and cure this disease. In doing so they might also find out how to reverse the ageing process in all of us, but it would mean finding a way to rebuild the telomeres inside cells.

MICHAEL FOSSEL: What we’d like to do with progeriac children is prove in principle that we could cure the disease and the way to get there is to see if we can reach at least some of these skin cells, for example, that we can get at and show that those cells now act like normal, young children’s cells because if we can do that then we can ask ourselves if we can get to the important cells, for example in the aorta, in the blood vessels and the coronary vessels that kill these children.

NARRATOR: In this lab they’re trying to find a way to rebuild telomeres. If they succeed they will have created immortal cells. It might be a cure for progeria and it might delay the ageing process in all of us.

JERRY SHAY (University of Texas, Dallas): What we have observed is that young cells have long telomeres and old cells have short telomeres and so we reasoned that if we could prevent the cells from continuing to shorten their telomeres that we would extend the lifespan of cells.

NARRATOR: These biologists had a hunch about how they might do it. They knew that there was only one thing in the world with the power to rebuild telomeres after they’ve shortened; an enzyme called telomerase. As though by magic, when telomerase is present in a cell it can actually reconstruct telomeres, but unfortunately adult cells don’t produce telomerase. It only exists in sperm and egg and the developing foetus. So these scientists resolved to find a way to make adult cells produce telomerase again. In a moment of inspiration, they decided to try something new, something even they didn’t believe would work. They genetically engineered copies of the gene that’s involved in making telomerase and in the test-tube they inserted these genes into skin cells taken from an old man. They hoped these new genes would make the old cells produce their own telomerase in the petrie dish.

WOODRING WRIGHT (University of Texas, Dallas): I remember being very eager to do the experiment and properly scientifically cautious about anticipating all the things that can go wrong and, and anticipating all the biology that can be different from what you expect so there could have been lots of other, unknown proteins and things that were needed for telomerase to be able to work.

NARRATOR: 24 hours later they analysed the old man’s cells to see if the telltale molecule of telomerase was really there- and it was.

JERRY SHAY: I can remember the post-docs bringing me the gel, this is a piece of film showing that these cells had telomerase and I told the post-docs remember this moment because it was one of those, it wasn't’ one of these Eureka sort of things, but it was almost like that because we were sitting there and I realised for the very first time we were able to actually put cellular ageing on hold.

NARRATOR:. These scientists had made an old, human cell act young again. Two years on, the cells are still dividing and yet their telomeres never get any shorter.

WOODRING WRIGHT: The cells that we were using normally divide up to, but no more than about 90 times. In contrast the cells into which we put this enzyme telomerase did not stop, have continued dividing and it continued dividing, and it continued dividing and they’re still dividing and some of them have now undergone 400 doublings, so you can see that’s 4 or 5 or 6 times their normal lifespan, but they’ve been behaving so consistently that we’re considering them immortal. We, our expectation is that they will never stop dividing.

JERRY SHAY: One analogy that we’ve used for telomerase is that it’s like the energiser bunny. If you introduce telomerase into normal cells it keeps the cells going and going and going

NARRATOR: Nothing like this had ever been achieved before. A small part of the human body had been given immortality by science. Already some are hoping that telomerase will be a quick fix for ageing.

MILLER QUARLES : The way I think it will be when I get to be 200 then I can take another shot for another 20 years or 50 years. Pretty soon, eventually you can go to the drugstore and buy a pill and take it for 5 year extension, 10 year extension or 50 year extension.

NARRATOR: But there’s a catch. Telomerase has only worked on cells in a petrie dish. The human body is quite a different matter. No-one knows how to insert genes inside every cell of a living person. But even if scientists could make our cells produce telomerase again, there is another fundamental problem. It might lead to one terrible thing: cancer. The reason why cancer cells cause tumours is because they will not stop dividing. They are immortal. So rather than promising everlasting life, making the cells in our bodies immortal might simply give us cancer. But perhaps there’s another route to immortality. Scientists in one lab have stumbled upon a remarkable discovery that suggests we may have hidden deep in our bodies a primordial and bizarre power of self-regeneration. It was unearthed during an experiment using mice specially bred without part of their immune system. As part of normal lab procedure the mice had holes punched in their ears to identify them.

DR ELLEN HEBER-KATZ (Wistar Institute, Philadelphia): We were doing an experiment and my laboratory assistant went upstairs to ear punch the mice and 3 weeks later I went to see how the experiment was doing and when I looked in the cage I was horrified to see that the mice were there, but the ear, the ear holes were not.

NARRATOR: When Dr. Heber-Katz examined the mice she found that the holes had not just closed up, the ears had rebuilt themselves. Instead of normal scar tissue, the mice’s cells had magically recreated cartilage, skin and blood vessels, something no mammal can normally do. These mice must have had some mysterious power of regeneration.

ELLEN HEBER-KATZ: Here it is. You can see that there’s no scarring whatsoever, you see blood vessels running through and it looks absolutely normal. It, it just has, the hole has absolutely disappeared. We were shocked that this was occurring and it was something that we had never seen before and we thought that this animal must have some incredible ability to heal wounds.

NARRATOR: There are creatures on this planet with this bizarre ability. When amphibians like salamanders and newts are damaged they can regenerate, grow back tails or arms or legs. Their cells are programmed to re-grow their body parts. It is a primitive, evolutionary ability that has been lost in mammals. Astonishingly, these unique mice seemed to have rediscovered this power of regeneration. They could re-grow new tissue too.

ELLEN HEBER-KATZ: I think that nobody really believed what we were saying. Actually I called another friend and told him about it and he thought that it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.

NARRATOR: But the potential medical benefits of such powers of regeneration are enormous, so this lab began a series of carefully controlled experiments to see how far these mice could rebuild their bodies. They began by cutting off part of the tail. Their tails regrew. Severed optic nerve reconnected itself. Finally they removed part of the spinal cord.

ELLEN HEBER-KATZ: After a month the mouse is able to move its tail, move its toes and can move its feet to some degree. We also know that these mice have the capacity to grow bones, muscle, central nervous system and, and it seems like there is really incredible regenerative capacity.

NARRATOR: The implications are extraordinary. If mammals like these mice have a hidden power of regeneration then science might one day find a way to stimulate humans to regenerate too. To heal paralysed bodies or even re-grow organs worn out by old age. The mice might hold the secret to full body regeneration. So what makes these unique mice able to regenerate? A key to the mystery was that the mice were missing part of their immune system. Normally there’s only one stage in a mammal’s life when it has no immune system: it’s when they’re first created, when they’re embryos and uniquely embryos also have extraordinary cells that allow them to regenerate. The very first cells of life – embryonic stem cells. The day after an egg is fertilised by a sperm it begins to divide forming within it a mass of embryonic stem cells. These cells have the amazing potential to turn themselves into any part of the body. Within the first few weeks of an embryo’s life these stem cells spontaneously form a skeleton, a brain, a beating heart. By the time the entire foetus is formed there are no embryonic stem cells left. They have all become the normal, functioning cells of the body – blood cells, skin cells, brain cells, specific kinds of cells that can never change their form again. Embryonic stem cells only ever reappear in our bodies if we develop one particular form of cancer: a tumour called a teratocarcinoma.

LEE SILVER: Teratocarcinoma’s the most bizarre kind of tumour that you can possibly imagine. It’s a tumour that actually looks like a little monster. The word ‘terrato’ means monster and carcinoma, of course, means cancer and these things grow spontaneously inside a woman’s ovary, out of her eggs, inside a man’s testis, out of his sperm, and they grow like little embryos at first, but then they become totally disorganised and so they can be as big as grapefruits, covered in hair with blood vessels and nervous tissue and even teeth inside of them and if you poke them they can actually respond with a nervous reaction to the poke and so there’s a real question as to whether or not these things are alive or not.

NARRATOR: A teratocarcinoma is a cancer unlike all others. Because they grow out of a sperm or egg they contain embryonic stem cells. These stem cells then try to turn the tumour into a mutant embryo by chaotically creating teeth, hair or even heart muscles.

LEE SILVER: They look so bizarre and they’re so frightening doctors who remove these tumours from women never show them to the woman.

NARRATOR: A team of scientists once extracted embryonic stem cells from a teratocarcinoma and left them to grow in a petrie dish. When they next looked, some of the cells were beating in the dish. They had turned themselves into heart muscle, kidney, liver and brain cells. They have the power of regeneration. If scientists could find a way of controlling these chaotic cells they might be able to harness them to regrow the ageing organs and tissues of our bodies.

LEE SILVER: The potential of embryonic stem cell technology is absolutely enormous because it gives us the idea that we could actually replace tissues and organs as they wear out in human bodies.

NARRATOR: In Pittsburgh doctors are taking the first step into the future. They are beginning to exploit the potential of embryonic stem cells to regenerate our bodies. They’re using stem cells taken from a teratocarcinoma to treat people whose brains have been damaged by a stroke. Don Fitch is one such guinea-pig.

DON FITCH: I was a welder and fitter burning and welding and fitting. I dealt mostly with metal all my life. When I first had a stroke I couldn’t do anything, I was in hospital, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t do nothing.

MAN: OK, try and lift your hand off the bed. Can you do that? Do it?

DON FITCH: No.

MAN: OK.

DON FITCH: The hurt and, and disappointment and so on is so profound that it’s really hard to explain to anybody you know how bad it is ‘cos I just can’t imagine anything being much worse you know.

NARRATOR: Scientists decided to try an experiment. They took stem cells from a teratocarcinoma that had spontaneously created brain cells – neurones. These neurones were collected, frozen and in an extraordinary operation they were put inside Don Fitch’s brain.

(ACTUALITY OPERATION CHAT)

NARRATOR: The hope was that they’d graft themselves onto his existing brain cells and grow helping to reconnect the neural pathways that had been damaged by the stroke.

DR DOUGLAS KONDZIOLKA (University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre): The procedure went very well. He was in the hospital, you know, just one day and during that procedure a small hole was made in the top of his head.

SURGEON: How you doing there Mr. Fitch, OK.

DON FITCH: I’m fine, yeah.

SURGEON: That’s excellent.

DOUGLAS KONDZIOLKA: And using a special guiding system and a CT scan we targeted an area of the brain to implant the neurones and these were implanted through a canular. Canular removed, sewn up and he went home the next day and then we started the process of let’s see what happens to him, which is really the experimental phase of the procedure.

SURGEON: Right now we’ll see you a minute.

DON FITCH: You don’t feel no pain so, it’s OK and, and actually I’m probably a crazy person in that way. My wife could tell you I always like hospitals and I’m not afraid of them, I went to heart surgery and all that and I kind of enjoy going to it. I don’t know why.

DOUGLAS KONDZIOLKA: We’re interested in two things with him. One was this safe, how, you know how was he doing generally, and did he begin to notice anything or did the test show any changes? So he’s been in this evaluation phase over the last year.

NARRATOR: Don Fitch’s operation seems to have made a difference. The new neurones from the teratocarcinoma have slowly begun to mend the neural pathways in his brain.

DON FITCH: My arm was completely dead. I had feeling in it. I could feel if you touched me, but it did, actually it didn’t feel like the arm was there you know, like now more than I can demonstrate to you how I can use it, I don’t have that much, but boy it feels so much different. I can feel like right now I can feel the muscle in my arm. I’ve got a lot more movement in the shoulder, that’s for sure. I can rotate it, I can do a lot that I couldn’t do before and actually I’m starting to be able to get this arm to come up.

NARRATOR: Scientists are only at the beginning of making this concept work, but if it does work it could be a key breakthrough, not just for people like Don Fitch, but for those who seek immortality because it means the idea of using embryonic stem cells to rebuild our ageing bodies might really work. The idea that embryonic stem cells will one day give us full body regeneration has become a growing fantasy.

MILLER QUARLES : When we find the cure they’re going to re, as our cells divide that we’re going to replace old cells with young cells. Old cells will die out and they’ll be replaced by young cells, so we’ll actually grow younger, so if everything goes right I’ll look like I’m 35 or 40.

NARRATOR: This might be over-optimistic, but a few scientists think they are on the verge of something remarkable. A new and controversial technology may allow them to re-programme your own cells and turn them back into embryonic stem cells to regrow your own damaged tissues or organs through cloning. What you’re about to see would once have been considered impossible. These are cells taken from a 70-year-old man. These cells belong to that same man. The big difference is these are the very first cells of his life, the cells he had just hours after his parents conceived him 70 years ago. They’ve been recreated in the lab by cloning.

MICHAEL WEST: The cells reprogrammed such that although it was once a skin cell it becomes taken back to the beginning of life such that it can become anything. It can become liver, or kidney, or any cell in the body and the power of these technologies to treat the problems of ageing is really enormous and that’s why we’re excited about it.

NARRATOR: Here scientists can take the DNA out of any cell in your body and put it into an empty animal egg. Adding chemicals triggers the egg into behaving as if it’s just been fertilised and it starts to divide, automatically creating hundreds of embryonic stem cells each with a copy of your unique DNA inside them. Cloning and experimenting on human stem cells is controversial, but here they believe that the future medical benefits of this technology are exceptional.

MICHAEL WEST: Our belief is that in 50 years from now you’ll break away some of your cells, you have them frozen away, maybe in some cases you’ll have those cells reprogrammed to make skin or liver tissue or heart tissue so that if you come in with a, suddenly with a bad body burn we can take out of the freezer skin that can be transplanted immediately on you if you have a bad body burn. In other cases, as you know, we have diseases that take years to develop, like Parkinson’s disease, or heart failure. There we’ll have plenty of time to have new cells and tissues made for you while you wait and those will be saved away for you sort of as spare parts in, in case you need them.

NARRATOR: But while this lab can produce your personal embryonic stem cells, they can’t actually use them because they don’t yet know how to control them, to direct them to form the organs you need. They don’t yet know the chemical formula the body uses to signal to stem cells to grow into each specific organ in your body.

MICHAEL WEST: Got a long ways to go in learning to turn those stem cells into heart muscle, kidney tissue, into neurones for the brain, skin for burn patients and so on, but we’re excited by the possibilities.

NARRATOR: So are a lot of other people. Labs across the world are competing to work out the complex chemical signals that control stem cells. It’s the next Holy Grail of regenerative medicine. And this organisation has already begun to crack it. Here they have an optimistic view of the future.

DR WILLIAM HASELTINE (Human Genome Sciences): I think that we may be able to see the first immortal human some time in the late part of the century, say 2075/2100.

NARRATOR: In this high-tech facility they have an ambitious goal. They plan to decipher all the chemical signals that the body uses to control exactly what happens to each cell. Our bodies constantly produce growth factors, hormones and proteins that signal to cells to grow and repair when we’re young and to stop growing when we’re older. Scientists now hope to understand all these complex chemical signals and use them to artificially stimulate the body to regenerate itself.

WILLIAM HASELTINE: We now have a virtually complete set of all the signals that the body uses from the time of conception to death to build, maintain and repair all of our tissues and right now we’re engaged in this giant jigsaw puzzle. We have all the pieces and now we’re trying to figure out which one matches which, which signal makes a cell grow, which signal makes a cell change, which signal turns off that process.

NARRATOR: With the knowledge they have so far these scientists are already able to use these natural chemical signals to rebuild key tissues of the body in the petrie dish.

WILLIAM HASELTINE: Let me give you an example of something that’s done today. You can pluck a small blood vessel from the body and a blood vessel has 3 –parts,. It has a lining, it has a, insulation and it has a muscle on the outside so it can control contraction. You pluck one of those small blood vessels, tease apart the tissues, grow them in petrie dishes with specific signals that the body uses. they grow as sheets of cells all touching each other. You then roll them up, first the inner layer, then the middle layer, then the outer layer, pull out essentially the straw, flow fluid through it and in a week or two you have a functional blood vessel suitable for implantation.

NARRATOR: But it’s their vision of the future that is truly startling. This lab is planning to inject key growth factors directly into our muscle and tissue, signalling to the cells to repair themselves while they’re still inside the body without any need for surgery at all.

WILLIAM HASELTINE: We take these growth factors and insert them into the body and trigger the body’s ability to regenerate itself, so in some cases it’s as simple as inserting a substance that you have and use as a child into your adult body.

NARRATOR: If it works some day in the future you’ll be able to regrow yourself from the inside out with the aid of injections of precise combinations of growth factors. Your body will be in a state of constant renewal throughout your existence.

WILLIAM HASELTINE: I think our grandchildren will have the opportunity to extend their life 200/300 years and beyond that I think perhaps indefinite life extension.

NARRATOR: Miller Quarles remains optimistic that he’ll get the cure for old age within his lifetime.

MILLER QUARLES : When I get to be 200, I’d like to move off to another planet. You know just saw recently that Mars has some peaks, some mountains that are 17 miles high and they’ve got some valleys that are 11 miles deep. Now what a view that would be.

NARRATOR: There is one more way that humans might make themselves immortal – through genetic engineering.

LEE SILVER: One of the approaches to overcome ageing is to genetically engineer our cells so that the ageing process is turned off. So I think what’s going to happen actually is that once we understand the genetic programme of ageing the simplest way to correct it is going to be in the embryo and the next generation will be able to have children born who don’t age.

NARRATOR: To genetically engineer our children scientists must discover all the many genes that trigger the ageing process and find a way to switch them off in the early embryo. Then our babies would be pre-programmed to live forever, but there’d be no going back. Immortality would be written into the genes of the human race.

LEE SILVER: I think the ability to overcome the ageing process ultimately to achieve immortality’s the most significant medical breakthrough that will ever be made, period, bar none because it will change our species, it will change the evolution of humankind, it’ll allow us to live for ever and evolution will stop.

NARRATOR: That’s tampering with the laws of nature. If it ever really happens who knows what might become of our species. If no-one dies how do we control the growing population, or perhaps only the rich might buy immortality and tyrants would never die. So should society let it happen?

MICHAEL ROSE: Sooner or later the forces that resist this being done will eventually be overcome. Whether I like it or not, or anybody else likes it or not, there are plenty of people now, and there will always be plenty of people, who will want to, and eventually they will be gratified.

NARRATOR: So what would we gain by postponing death indefinitely? How would we spend our extra time?

MILLER QUARLES : Well when I get the cure I’ll do a lot of travelling. I want to see much of the world that I haven’t seen before and I’ll find me a very nice girlfriend and take, take her on, take her with me and enjoy life for a while and then get back to work, find some more oil and read the newspapers. I never have time to do it now. I never have time to do a lot of that reading. And I'll just watch and enjoy the way the world is, is going.

Back to the Living Forever programme page.