“Biological immortality”

Can we utilise telomerase to allow us to live in good health indefinitely?

We have already talked about the natural and man-made conditions (forced or voluntary: such as glycation, length of telomeres, various pollutants and stress) that limit a long, active life (we are not interested in any other kind of existence here besides one that is active and creative, rewarding, useful and supportive of others; it is about getting as close as possible to the Greco-Latin ideal – practical and valuable – healthy mind and healthy body). We have also looked at ways these conditions can be modified to help us live longer.

This month I want to mention a team of Spanish researchers from the Spanish National Cancer Research Center in Madrid, led by Dr María Blasco, who in 2007 showed how telomerase can be used to prolong life. Telomerase is a natural enzyme that maintains the protective capsules at the ends of chromosomes. The scientists found that mice genetically treated to produce more telomerase and given  antitumour genes to protect them from cancer, lived 50% longer than common rodents. Is this technique applicable to humans? Does it mean our bodies could fight against the relentless diffusion of cancer-initiating cells? Could stem cells slow down the aging process by lengthening telomeres without upsetting the ability of these cells to regenerate tissues? Tumors are believed to be caused by an unusual type of cell with properties similar to stem cells. It is believed stem cells could be used to maintain the length and property of telomeres and activate the natural release of telomerase. But the issues surrounding stem cells (which are fashionable now because of their theoretical properties for regenerative medicine and immunotherapy) are too long and complex to explain here; In addition, we have not yet seen reliable and definitive results, although the signs are encouraging. They say it will take a decade for this to be confirmed.


We already know that cancer kills about one third of humans. Although survival rates have increased significantly, cancer continues to be, along with cardiovascular diseases, the main cause of death. Unfortunately, cancer cells follow the same pattern as the ones that, in theory, hold the key to immortality: they divide again and again. But in cancer’s case this division leads to a person’s demise.

Is telomerase, therefore, a double-edged sword that could be extremely dangerous in the hands of people who are not true scientists? This enzyme has been proven to both prevent aging and lead to the spread of cancer so it is possible to believe in it without becoming fanatical about its use. What’s more, new applications of telomerase have elongated the short telomeres of old mice, which were previously worn by their own divisions, without increasing the incidence of cancer. (Lancet, 2007; 369: 2097-2015).

But regardless of any speculation about the positive benefits of a telomerase that can fight cancer and extend human life to unsuspected limits, science tells us that if a cell is divided repeatedly, once the number of divisions reaches what is known as the HAYFLICK LIMIT (named after the American anatomist who created the first inverted microscope and wrote the book How and why we age, who was critical, however, of whether it was possible or desirable to extend life, contrary to other gurus who believe in the indefinite prolongation of life, such as Ray Kurzweil or Terry Grossman), which says a cell can only be divided so many times before it dies. But there are researchers who claim that the use of telomerase, which could be added artificially or manufactured by the body according to a kind of biological programme, would enable each cell to replace the lost pieces of DNA that shorten the telomeres and allow it to divide indefinitely, thus prolonging active life until our bodies reach a new limit that has nothing to do with Hayflick.


As knowledge increases, this is gradually becoming less a matter of science fiction. Indeed it has been proven that some aquatic, bacterial and even plant species have the potential to be virtually immortal if they can avoid accidents and diseases. We’ll talk about this in other articles. It’s biology, it’s not fantasy. Also, technology may allow healing devices such as nanorobots (which are thousandths of a millimetre in size and can be introduced to the body to seek and destroy diseases, viruses and negative bacteria) to create biological or synthetic spare parts for dead or diseased body parts. Cryogenics is something else that already exists. It’s about preserving corpses at very low temperatures so they can be resuscitated when science has advanced enough to cure their illnesses or recompose them after they have suffered a fatal accident. It may sound hard to believe but cryogenics is already being sold on the market. Several companies now offer it, 50 years on from when the first body entered cryonic suspension in 1967.

Another fascinating idea, which has been the subject of many science fiction novels, is that everything in a person’s mind, including all his memories, feelings, emotions, doubts, fears and desires can be downloaded onto a computer or introduced into a new body when cybernetics is advanced enough to achieve such a thing.

Likewise, some novels and scientific articles have discussed the development of cyborg prototypes whereby human minds can be implanted into a kind of robot with exactly the same personality by the middle of this century.

We could also consider the creation of so-called ‘mechanical dolls’, so different today from the film by the Spanish filmmaker Berlanga, in which the French actor Michael Piccoli falls for a mannequin.

We will continue looking at this subject and expand on some of the ideas discussed here. We will reveal more about ideas that can prolong active existence and how science is making them possible.