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Hanna Fogel
Beverly Jenkins
Victoria Kreyden
Sarah Panfil
Leeann Sausser
Bekie Stergar
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Research could make 'Tuck Everlasting' possible, but reality of immortality raises questions
April 28, 2009

In 1975, “Tuck Everlasting,” by Natalie Babbitt, hit store shelves. Through the years, the book gained popularity, inspiring children everywhere to fantasize about immortality and dream about what might happen if they ever stumbled upon a magic spring.

Today’s children may be able to do more than fantasize about finding a fountain of youth. Dr. Aubrey de Grey leads a team of scientists who are finding ways to radically extend human life. As a biomedical gerontologist – a doctor who studies aging – de Grey isn’t just studying how people age but attempting to slow down the process.

The therapies that de Grey is developing would extend human lives by hundreds of years, he said, noting that it could be available to the public in about 20 years. By that point, today’s youth will be around 40 years old, the optimal age to begin treatment, according to de Grey.

But is radical life extension a good thing? Babbitt doesn’t think so, and neither does a group of her readers.

“Tuck Everlasting,” which was an ALA Notable Book, tells the story of the Tuck family, who cannot die after drinking water from a magical spring. The novel concentrates on the difficulties of a never-ending life as the teenage Winnie Foster falls in love with Jesse Tuck and has to decide whether to join him in immortality or live (and die) as the rest of the world does.

Babbitt, like Winnie, would elect life and death over immortality. “Aging is very natural,” she said via telephone from her home in Providence, R.I. “We’ve had it from the very beginning. It happens to all living things.”

A group of local students who read the book mostly agreed with Babbitt.

Wes Boland, 10, said that aging is a part of life. “It is something that just happens.  It’s just a part of how everything goes along and everything dies,” he said.

Greta Herbertz, 11, agreed, paraphrasing a line from the book comparing immortality to being a rock “on the side of the road.”

“[Life] would just go on and on and on,” she explained. “You wouldn’t value it as much.”

Babbitt said that immortality, or radically prolonging life, would be undesirable for a variety of reasons, including social problems and overpopulation.

“If you have grandparents and they live to be 125 years old, who’s going to take care of them?  Where are they going to live?  It’s going to be expensive. And the world is going to be a lot more crowded.  It’s crowded enough as it is,” she said.

Babbitt also said that by nature, people would be too selfish about sharing resources and space with others whose lives have been prolonged. “There is no possible way that we could sustain life if nobody died,” she said.

Bat-el Miller, 17, read the book when she was 12 and said her first thought was that immortality would be a good thing. “But I realize now that I don’t want to live forever because it’s not idyllic, all these economic problems, Social Security and stuff like that.  I just don’t think that life would be as important or as breathtaking or fun if you have so much of it,” she said.

Other students agreed that prolonged life would lose some of its luster after reality set in, a point that Babbitt makes in her novel. However, several said that they would consider the therapy if they were given the option to live longer but not infinitely.

“I would take it if I would have good health at age 200,” said Caroline Gardner, 11.  “It’s not worth anything to live longer if you’re unhealthy or unhappy.”

Wes still resisted the idea of dramatically extending his life but acknowledged it could have advantages. For example, those with extended life could see successive generations and observe all of the latest inventions and technologies, he said.

While much is still mysterious about radical life extension, Tuck Everlasting” has opened up the students to larger thoughts about their existence.

I really do think about life more than I would have if I hadn’t read the book,” said Annabella Helman, 10.



Finding way to entend life could also lead to a cure for cancer

By Leeann Sausser, 15; Beverly Jenkins, 17; Hanna Fogel, 17; Viktoria Kreyden, 14; Sarah Panfil, 13; and Bekie Stergar, 14


Today, envisioning someone living 150 years or more would be considered science fiction or fantasy. However, that might not be the case soon.


Radical life extension, or RLE, is defined as an increase in lifespan or slowing down of death, according to Dr. Aubrey de Grey, biomedical gerontologist and co-author of “Ending Aging.


In his book, de Grey lists seven factors that cause aging: loss of cells, cells that live too long, mutations in chromosomes and in cell mitochondria, accumulation of “junk molecules” inside as well as outside of cells, and chemical changes in specific proteins.


Treating these seven factors will result in prolonged life, de Grey says. And he has a plan for each factor.


“I think that the therapies that we’re working on at the moment have a good chance of giving people about 30 years of extra life that they wouldn’t otherwise have had,” he said in a phone interview from Cambridge, England.


For instance, mutations in chromosomes, which can cause cancer, can be treated with stem cell therapy, de Grey said. “I’ve got a very elaborate approach to dealing with cancer, which involves essentially deleting some of the genes in our chromosomes that are responsible for maintaining the ends of the chromosomes.”


De Grey’s treatment for cancer is key for the success of RLE. “We definitely won’t get radical life extension until we have cured cancer,” he said. “We will need to fix a lot of other things in order to achieve radical life extension, but we will do it. Cancer will be the last thing we have to fix.”


De Grey expects to develop the therapies in the next 10 to 20 years. They will need to be repeated for continued life and well-being – probably at 30-year intervals, he said – and he predicted that people who routinely undergo treatment will be able to live thousands of years.


“I think that there won’t actually be any limit to how long people can live. Some people will obviously not live any longer than now because they’ll get sick or they’ll die in road accidents or whatever,” he said.


De Grey likened the therapies to regular car maintenance. “I don’t think we can be made into non-aging individuals.  I think what we can do is periodic maintenance to remove the damage of aging and repair it so that it doesn’t get out of control and causes diseases and stuff.  But we’re never going to be able to invent a therapy that makes us non-aging so the maintenance never has to be done again,” he said.


To age normally, a person would simply stop the therapies, he said.


Though such a breakthrough sounds expensive, de Grey foresees the price of extended life would be free for individuals. It would be in a country’s best interest to pay for such treatments, with more prosperous nations helping poorer ones to cover the costs, he explained.


“Keeping frail, sick, elderly people alive for an extra couple of years the way we do today is the main reason why health care is certainly the largest part of the national budget. Therefore it will be in the economic interest of a country to stop it from going that way by giving them these therapies,” de Grey explained.



Until that time, de Grey says maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to slow aging, which means not smoking, becoming overweight or eating junk food.



RLE isn’t as far-fetched as it seemed when “Tuck Everlasting” came out 34 years ago. Humans are living twice as long as they did 100 years ago, in part because of vaccines and cures for formerly fatal diseases such as measles and whooping cough. With the current rate of technological advances, adding 30 or more years to life may not be so radical after all.




For more information on Aubrey de Grey and his work on radical life extension, go to the SENS Foundation and also check out  The Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit medical charity cofounded by de Grey that is dedicated to extending healthy human life.


Copyright 2009 Y-Press

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