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The long and gruesome history of people trying to live forever

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/1/2022 Theo Zenou
An illustration of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian king who sought eternal life. © iStock/iStock An illustration of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian king who sought eternal life.

The Renaissance philosopher Montaigne quipped that “death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.” He could have added: until, finally, it strangles us. But what if we knew how to escape death’s chokehold? What if we could avoid death and live forever?

Immortality might seem like the stuff of science fiction, yet it’s increasingly becoming the focus of real science. In 2013, Google launched Calico, a biotech firm whose objective is to “solve” death. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, meanwhile, has pledged to “fight” death. And last year, it was reported Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos had invested in Altos Labs, a company that plans to “rejuvenate” cells in order to “reverse disease.” (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

There’s even a start-up developing drugs so that dogs can live longer. Clinical trials are scheduled to start this year. If they’re conclusive, the plan is to apply the same science to people.

Immortality — or anti-aging, as researchers soberly call it — is the next big thing. Estimates put the industry’s worth at a staggering $610 billion by 2025.

From Silicon Valley to Cambridge, England, scientists are writing the latest chapter in the tortuous history of our quest for eternal life. It’s a history that goes back a long way.

Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel during the Republican National Convention in 2016. © Carolyn Kaster/AP Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel during the Republican National Convention in 2016.

We’ve been trying forever to live forever. Our species’ oldest story, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” is about that very longing.

Etched on clay tablets four millennia ago in Mesopotamia, it concerns King Gilgamesh, a “wild bull of a man” with gigantic muscles and an even more gigantic ego. After the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh is forced to confront his own mortality. “Must I die too?” he cries to the heavens.

In his grief, he transforms into a Mesopotamian Peter Thiel and sets out on a mission to “overcome” death. He fails, but uncovers the meaning of life along the way:

Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
… Love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

But the rest of humanity didn’t get the memo. Take the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who ruled in the 3rd century B.C. and was hellbent on living forever.

Like Gilgamesh, Qin was terrified of death. So much so that he outlawed any discussion of the topic at court under penalty of — you guessed it — death.

According to Stephen Cave’s book “Immortality,” when Qin learned of a graffiti prophesying that he too would eventually die, he ordered his troops to kill whomever was responsible for this affront. But the miscreant eluded capture. So the emperor had everyone in the area slain. (For someone with such a neurotic fear of death, Qin was pretty casual about slaughtering his subjects.)

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One day, an enigmatic sorcerer named Xu Fu claimed he knew how to grant the emperor immortality. All the latter had to do was imbibe the “elixir of life.” This special beverage could be found on a magical island of the East China Sea. Qin, ever credulous, funded Xu’s expedition there.

But, of course, there was no island. Xu was a con man so brazen he made Charles Ponzi look like Desmond Tutu.

Still, the emperor remained obsessed with prolonging his existence. To that effect, he took to drinking a weird concoction; he died at 49 of mercury poisoning.

Qin was not the only historical figure convinced a cocktail could bestow immortality. Diane de Poitiers, reputedly the most beautiful woman in 16th-century France, drank gold to preserve her good looks.

Diane de Poitiers was a French noblewoman and prominent courtier who drank gold to preserve her good looks. © iStock/iStock Diane de Poitiers was a French noblewoman and prominent courtier who drank gold to preserve her good looks.

Poitiers didn’t arbitrarily pick gold as her panacea. The element was associated with immortality thanks to alchemy, the biotech of the Middle Ages, which centered on the search for the Philosophers’ Stone. It was believed to transmute base metals into gold and bestow eternal life.

A 14th-century Parisian alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, actually discovered the hallowed stone and is still alive today. Or so goes the legend, which inspired the first “Harry Potter” book.

Throughout history, blood has been a popular anti-aging remedy. In 1492, the moribund Pope Innocent VIII was injected with the blood of children, putting into practice the Italian polymath Marsilio Ficino’s recommendation that the elderly suck the blood of the young “like leeches” to turn back their biological clock. (Should that be too gross, Ficino advised mixing the blood with hot water and sugar.) Alas for the Supreme Pontiff, it was hogwash. Innocent died, along with his youthful blood donors.

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But what about bathing in the blood of virgins? At the turn of the 17th century, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory was apparently an adept. She believed regular dips would keep her skin from wrinkling.

Fast-forward two centuries, and an eminent neurologist credited injections from guinea pig and dog testicles with making him “feel thirty years younger.” An enterprising surgeon ran with the idea, grafting monkey testicles onto elderly men’s private parts in a bid to reverse aging. Learn more, at your own peril, in his treatise “Life; a Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life.”

The quest for immortality even extended into the darkest hour of the 20th century. At the height of World War II, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler embarked on a quest to locate the Holy Grail. The SS chief, steeped in the dark arts, believed the Grail would grant him superhuman abilities, including eternal life. Since the Middle Ages, it’s been said that drinking from the Grail would annul death. (Himmler never did find the Grail; he died in 1945 when he took a cyanide pill upon capture by the British.)

However, if you’re hoping to live forever, ditch the medieval fairy tales. Study instead the emerging science of cell programming, or “hacking” cells to recode them. It came under the spotlight recently thanks to a conference at the prestigious London Institute for Mathematical Sciences (LIMS).

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“In principle, life could be engineered to live longer,” LIMS director Thomas Fink told The Post. A physicist trained at Caltech and Cambridge, he sees immortality as a mathematical challenge. To solve it requires first asking why we age. “The canonical answer,” Fink explained, “is that aging is inevitable and a fundamental condition of life.” Every organism degrades over time and eventually breaks down. End of story.

“But the story’s much weirder than we think,” Fink said. In a recent paper, he used math to demonstrate that “aging can be favored by natural selection.” That’s a shocking insight: It means that the first forms of life, which started billions of years ago, likely didn’t die.

Death emerged during the course of evolution because it conferred an advantage. In short, species that died fared better than those that didn’t.

In Fink’s memorable phrase, “immortality — not mortality — is the natural state of affairs.” So how can we get back to this natural state? That’s where cell programming comes in.

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Several companies are trying to do this work, such as bit.bio, which recodes cells to attempt to find cures to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In the long run, this revolutionary biotechnology might well enable scientists to reset cells for immortality.

“If the aging process is a mechanism inside the cell controlled by a transcription program, then we’ll be able to influence it,” hypothesized Forrest Sheldon, a LIMS junior fellow who collaborates with bit.bio.

But Fink and Sheldon cautioned that we’re still a long way from becoming immortal. Don’t book your vacation for the summer of 4500 just yet.

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