Money Can’t Buy Time… Yet

Genetic techniques to delay ageing may one day be available to the world’s wealthy 

Writer: Flo Cornsih
Editor: Sophie Chan
Artist: Patrick Marenda

The number of billionaires that walk the earth seems to be ever-increasing. The exceedingly wealthy continue to live vastly different experiences than the majority of the world. Despite this, every human being, rich or poor, is bound by one universal constraint that even wealth cannot defy: the great equaliser of death. It is undeniable that money contributes to a long life; housing, food and medical care being notable examples. But ultimately, the process of ageing is inevitable for all of us…or is it?

The physiological study of ageing is far from novel. Research has been able to uncover numerous genetic mutations in non-human animals that significantly extend lifespan. As our understanding of ageing continues to develop, the potential for human application seems more likely. Genetic treatments that extend a human life beyond its natural length are well within the realm of possibility – DNA could be modified in such a way that slows ageing or even prohibits the process altogether. 

Drosophila, colloquially known as fruit flies, are a popular model used by scientists to study ageing. Not only are they small with quick life cycles, but their DNA shares much similarity with that of a human. By inducing several genetic mutations in the DNA of fruit flies, a study by Rogina et al., was able to uncover two specific mutations that resulted in a near-doubling of the average lifespan (37 days vs 70 days). In other words, flies that carried one of these mutations could be expected to live almost twice as long as flies who did not. 

Using a laboratory technique known as “chromosomal in situ hybridization,” in which chromosomes become tagged with fluorescent markers, the researchers were able to identify that these two anti-aging mutations affected the same gene. This gene was rather aptly named by the researchers as Indy, short for “I’m not dead yet”.

The Indy gene appears to have direct links to the process of metabolism, and thus may reveal useful insights into how the ageing process naturally occurs. The precise mechanisms behind ageing or age-delaying may not have been identified as of yet, although with interest remaining abundant, research in this area will likely continue. 

Despite Indy and several other genes that have been discovered to relate to ageing, the prospect of buying life still seems like an idea of fiction. However, there is an interesting dimension to ageing research that makes the possibility of commercial age-delaying treatment all the more plausible.

The World Health Organisation does not classify ageing as a disease. This limits both funding and development opportunities for age-delaying treatment because the Food and Drug Administration will only approve drugs that aid specific pathologies. To get around this hurdle, studies can be presented under the narrative of age-related diseases, such as cancer. Or, alternatively, they may seek sponsorship from elsewhere…

The value of life is arguably impossible to assign a number to, and not for lack of trying. So, what better candidate to sponsor ageing research than those wealthy enough to buy everything apart from life itself?

Jeff Bezos is just one example of how the world’s most elite and powerful are pouring huge sums of money into the hope of cheating death. This may seem like an exciting prospect at first, however, upon deeper consideration, it is difficult to argue that the distribution of benefits here will be even.

In the face of increased investment into ageing research, one might remember the unfortunate truth that, as the richest attempt to prolong their lavish lives, many across the globe will never reach adulthood. Prime causes of child mortality are so often underfunded, making for a difficult conversation surrounding where the focus of life-extending research should actually be.

The human desire for an elixir of life means that innovation here is unlikely to cease, and there is no saying what the impact will be. However, it seems safe to assume that a newfound ability for the rich to buy life will represent a huge step for mankind, one way or another.

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