12/07/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Defeating Death

Thousands of years ago it was written in Corinthians 15:26: "And the last enemy to be destroyed is death." Throughout history, we humans have vainly tried to defeat death in whatever way we could. We have created religions that promise an afterlife. We have, like Alexander the Great, conquered entire nations -- not for land but for eternal fame. We have searched for "fountains of life." The Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang even ingested mercury tablets in his attempt at immortality. When this backfired, islander Xu Fu convinced a desperate Huang that if only he lent him some treasure-laden ships he would find an elixir on the mythical island of Japan. Needless to say, Fu never returned, and today we are still headed toward the same destination as these men. It is a destination that is conceived as paradise by many and oblivion by few. It is a destination that has consumed billions.

The quest for immortality has not ended. Indeed, people who view death as oblivion are still trying hard to defeat it. Armed with modern science, they are making so much progress that Harvard-educated physicist Michio Kaku has even questioned whether he is a member of the last generation to die. Kaku believes that a toddler alive today may be the first physically immortal human.

The idea sounds crazy at first -- preposterous, even. But increasingly, more and more scientists are viewing death as less of an inevitability, as something that science can and will tackle. Though previously senescence research was promoted primarily by charlatans like Aubrey de Grey, credible scientists like Michio Kaku and Michael West are coming to see physical immortality as a very real possibility.

This is due to a few reasons. First, our understanding of where we age has increased, in large part because of our relatively novel ability to scan the human genome. "Think of a car," Kaku recently said, "Where does aging take place in a car? Well, the engine. Why? Because that's where combustion takes place, that's where we have the gum of deposits and soot buildup in the engine because that's where oxidation takes place. But where does oxidation take place in a cell? The mitochondria. The mitochondrion is the engine of the cell. So we now know where aging takes place."

Second, scientists now think it may be possible to reverse cellular damage. In his well-reviewed book, The Immortal Cell, Dr. Michael West talks about how the death of his father spurned him to discover the cellular "clock" telomerase (the mechanism that controls cell aging). Telomerase is referred to as a "clock" because every time a cell divides, the cell's telomere shortens, so the length of a telomere is correlated with how long one can expect to live. After this discovery, West founded a company with the ultimate purpose of using stem cells to repair tissue damage. West even faced criticism from Bush administration officials who found it unethical to "turn on immortality" through telomerase activation (an expensive therapy that purports to confer cellular immortality by activating telomerase). Interestingly, telomerase activation does hold some promise; for example, one study found that activating telomerase extends lifespan in cancer-resistant mice.

Third, our ability to grow organs in the lab is slowly but surely increasing due to tissue engineering research. Although currently we are limited to growing relatively simple organs such as the bladder, further research could enable us to grow new hearts or lungs. "Have a weak heart?" a future doctor might ask. "Not a problem. Just pop in a new one!"

Finally, we are no longer certain that death is a necessary condition of life. Some of you may have read "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?" in the New York Times recently. As the article states, a German marine-biology student "discovered eternal life in 1988" when he unwittingly scooped up Turritopsis dohrnii in his net. Today Turritopsis dohrnii is more commonly known as the "immortal jellyfish."

As the New York Times wrote: "Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner...Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew." Japanese scientist Shin Kubota is studying this "Benjamin Button" jellyfish in the hopes of uncovering which genes allow it to live forever -- and learning how we can harness them.

Do I think we will live forever? No. This research is still in its nascent stages, and there is a (very) long way to go. But the social consequences of immortality are interesting to contemplate, for they pose questions for religion as well as society. Would religions fight attempts at physical immortality? Given eternal life, how long would couples remain married? What would it mean to have a life-long career goal?

Whether you dread eternal life or welcome it, it seems possible that humans will eventually turn the dream, like spaceflight or nuclear fusion, into a reality. If this is true, the main questions are when -- and at what cost to our humanity.