Sunday, September 28, 2008; 1:00 PM
Los Angeles, California; USA
CGI Commencement Address (10 Minutes)
In the next ten minutes, I would like to persuade you that not only is this an important day for the graduates among us but a very important moment in all of human history - a moment that many of you will come to appreciate in the next 20 years. I study Supercentenarians... the oldest people in the world.
As you all know, a Centenarian is anyone age 100 years or older (only one in ten thousand persons makes it into this category). By definition, a Supercentenarian is anyone age 110 years or older (only one in five million persons makes it into this category).
As of today (Sunday, September 28th), we have identified 81 Validated Living Supercentenarians throughout the world. (The numbers go up and down sort of like a stock-market ticker tape.) Demographically speaking: US: non-US = 36:45; and interestingly, Female:Male = 72:9 (8x) and that's still a mystery.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest documented Supercentenarian in history was French woman Madame Jeanne-Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. BTW, nobody has come close to surpassing her record in the last ten years.
As a group, their mortality rate is very, very high; once you were to make it to becoming a Supercentenarian, the chances of living even one more year is like flipping a coin (H:T = 50-50)! Therefore, these individuals are a very precious resource for humanity, and we need to act quickly; otherwise, whatever each of them has to teach us will be gone forever.
So, what have we found that they share in common?
It's certainly not their life styles. They have different occupations and different religions. Some say it's due to drinking Jim Beam whiskey; others that they never drank alcohol in their lives. Some say that it's because they never smoked cigarettes. Others smoked heavily, and we know that that's bad for you. One lady... "My doctor gave me the same advice and he's dead; so what did he know."
So, when we ask them for their secret to extreme longevity, their explanations are mutually contradictory.
But they do share the fact that they "chose their parents wisely." They all have long-lived first-degree relatives - parents and siblings (brothers and sisters), and their children are also likely to live for a very long time. So we know it's somehow in the genes that they inherited. Therefore, it must be in their DNA, but we just don't know where yet. The cost of doing a complete DNA sequence is simply too expensive today (~$300,000; although the cost is expected to decline sharply to about $1,000 per sequence in the next five years when it will become more affordable).
How can finding gerontic genes in Supercentenarians help ordinary people, like us, who may not have these genes to live longer and healthier lives?
So why don't Supercentenarians live longer than they do? While the numbers of centenarians is increasing exponentially, the numbers of Supercentenarians has been essentially flat for the last ten years. It's almost as though there's an "invisible fuzzy barrier" preventing people from living longer than Madame Calment, concealed in our species' genome.
The most likely cause of death of Supercentenarians is a disease called Senile Cardiac TTR-Amyloidosis (Diagnosis by Autopsy [4 of 9 in all of history] and not by what is written on Death Certificates). TTR is a native protein that functions in the body as a means to transport thyroid hormone. It's configured as a tetramer. When it becomes unstable it breaks up into 1+3 or 2+2. Single monomer units can unwind and become sticky as strands unwind and misfold. That makes amyloid fibrils aggregate into a rubbery material that interferes with the function of all the organs in our bodies (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and so on).
What is the long-term significance of radical life extension? Potentially, this could be the most important scientific breakthrough in the history of the human species (over 200,000 years), more than the Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk, the Atomic Bomb, and Landing on the Moon, all combined.
If we don't have extreme longevity in our family tree, is there still hope? Yes. But if real Life Extension is still ~20 years away, in order for us to benefit from it, we'll still need to be here, whenever it does finally arrive. So for that, we'll need a "Bridge Plan" to make sure that we're still here. (See Ray Kruzweil's Fantastic Voyage and The Singularity Is Near.)
In conclusion, whether one believes our human condition derives from an intentional act of God or else appeared somehow as a subtle, emergent property of random Darwinian evolution, it is evident that the predicament of human mortality was thrust upon us without our consent. So how shall we now deal with this tragic phenomenon called "death," assuming that we will have real choices available for medical intervention? I hope we choose life.
You should be aware that, for the first time in human history, stem-cell biology -- in conjunction with nanotechnology, which has yet to be perfected -- will provide us with the ability to choose our human destiny. So, which of the following nearly-contemporaneous models of the human condition will become the true for us...
(1) In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (1651) described the life of man as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
(2) In Hamlet, William Shakespeare (1601) wrote, "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form-and-moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!"
Hopefully, we will choose the Shakespearean model rather than the Hobbesian model.
In case you didn't have a chance to take notes and you want to remember what I spoke about today, I plan to post a copy of the text of my remarks on our website... www.grg.org in the News Section. If you were to click on my photo in the line item for September 28th, starting tomorrow, the full text of this speech will pop-up.
I thank you for your attention...
- - L. Stephen Coles, September 27, 2008; Los Angeles, California; USA