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How Google’s Calico aims to fight aging and ‘solve death’

Exploratory disciplines including cryonics, cloning and nanotechnology hope to extend human life

CNN News Wire | 10/4/2013, midnight
It is an age-old question: will humankind ever defeat old age? Plenty of skin care companies would like us to ...
The premise behind "mind uploading" is that if you can't keep your body, at least you can keep your brain. Some might even see this as the ideal. Extensive research is underway: The process would involve the precise mapping of a conscious mind onto a computer, allowing it to be reused, either in a humanoid robot or biological body. The Brain Preservation Foundation is offering a prize to promote exploration in this field. It calls for scientists to try and fully map a mouse brain and then a larger animal brain in such a way that could be used to "reboot" a mind in virtual space.

So where might Calico’s focus lie? A broad range of technologies and therapies that promise life extension through different means are currently being researched and tested. CNN Labs takes a look across the scientific landscape to bring you the view from the front line of the war against aging.

Cryonics

Cryonics is a process where the body — or occasionally just the head — is suspended in liquid nitrogen to ‘preserve’ it indefinitely. The idea is that in the future the body will be able to be resuscitated and brought back to life.

Once the preserve of celebrities and multimillionaires, cryonics is now gaining traction among the broader public. Several months ago, The Sunday Times reported that three senior staff at Oxford University have signed up to have their bodies frozen with two U.S.-based cyonics organizations: the Cryonics Institute and the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

The cost of cryonics can vary wildly. The lowest price at the Cryonics Institute is reportedly $28,000 for ‘cryopreservation’; Alcor Life charges customers up to $200,000 for similar services. But does it work?

The Cryonics Institute underline on their website that, as yet, their treatments are based on projections of technology to come rather than present day science: “We firmly believe that with the incredible advances being made in nanotechnology, medicine and science today, cryonics has the same potential to become an everyday reality in the not-so-distant future ... The goal of cryonics is to halt (the ‘dying’) process as quickly as possible after legal death, giving future doctors the best possible chance of reviving the patient by repairing or replacing damaged tissues, or even entire organs using advanced computer, nanotech and medical equipment and procedures”.

Cryotherapy

The related field of cryotherapy has gained currency in some quarters of athletics, with coaches immersing their athletes in cryotherapy chambers during or after exercise in a bid to aid training and heal injuries. The French soccer team used cryotherapy during the European Cup in 2012, and the Wales rugby union squad use it as well. Cryotherapeutic chambers expose players to very low temperatures — around minus 256 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 160 Celsius) — for short periods. Some theorists believe that doing so can help speed the body’s recovery, but others say that the evidence is incomplete.

Self-healing worms and telomeres

In 2012 a group of scientists at Nottingham University discovered that a species of flatworm — the Planarian worm —can divide ‘potentially forever’ and thus heal itself. Some researchers hope that the discovery will provide fresh insight into how it may be possible to alleviate aging in human cells.

Dr Aziz Aboobaker from Nottingham University’s School of Biology, said: “Usually when stem cells divide — to heal wounds, or during reproduction or for growth — they start to show signs of aging. This means that the stem cells are no longer able to divide and so become less able to replace exhausted specialized cells in the tissues of our bodies. Our aging skin is perhaps the most visible example of this effect. Planarian worms and their stem cells are somehow able to avoid the aging process and to keep their cells dividing.”