Nobel Prize Awarded for Contributions to the Quest for Immortality

Three U.S. geneticists claim a 2009 Nobel Prize for discovering the genetic code of cell aging

Three pioneers for the better understanding of aging Gerbil, Licensed by Attribution Share Alike 3.0/Harvard Medical School

Military leaders throughout history have supposedly goaded on their troops with the phrase, “You wanna live forever?” In 2009, the answer for many people is “Yes, please,” and the Nobel Committee has today honored three U.S. scientists for discovering the genetic code that regulates aging in cells.

The announcement comes as researchers race to develop anti-aging medicine or technology that can make humans immortal. PopSci recently covered the Singularity Summit 2009 where none other than visionary Ray Kurzweil spoke of a future when a computer could simulate the human brain.

Merging humans with artificial intelligence remains some ways off, but there’s also plenty of focus on extending the natural human lifespan. The latest Nobel Prize winners helped illuminate the aging process by discovering the repetitive genetic sequences on the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres. The telomeres serve as protective caps that gradually shorten as genetic material is copied many times over during cell division — a process that parallels human aging, even if other factors also come into play.

The researchers who will receive this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and share $1.4 million are: Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California in San Francisco; Carol Greider, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; and Jack Szostak, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This is the first time that the Nobel Prize in medicine has gone to more than one woman in a single year.

Scientific American notes that the prize-winning work has proven invaluable in studies of aging, cancer and stem cells. The researchers also showed the existence of telomerase, the “immortality enzyme” behind the formation of telomeres.

Scientists have since begun investigating possible anti-aging factors, such as a compound known as resveratrol that’s found in red wine. That chemical activates proteins called sirtuins that boost the body’s defenses against common diseases of aging, as part of a process that typically helps humans survive famines. The New York Times recently reported that Sirtris Pharmaceuticals has begun developing a drug that can activate sirtuins and hopefully mimic the life extension seen in lab rats, who lived up to 40 percent longer on a famine-style diet.

A different study in the journal Science found how to mimic the famine-style benefits of longer life and better health in mice, when researchers disabled a certain gene in a biochemical signaling pathway. Technology Review explains that the pathway typically helps guide the body’s response to food, and may now serve as a target for future drugs.

People may also continue to live longer even without radical new technologies. A study in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that more than half of babies born in wealthy nations will live to 100 years, according to an Agence France-Presse report. That assumes the current rise in life expectancy continues, but still falls short of one controversial theorist’s prediction that the average human lifespan could reach 5,000 years within the next century.