What Price Immortality? Privately Funded Projects and the Prolongation of Life

By Richard Koo, Bioethics Program Alum (MS Bioethics 2011) and Adjunct Faculty

Seemingly ripped from the covers of comic books, no less than three privately funded projects seeking the prolongation of human life have been publicized in the past year.

The 2045 Initiative, dubbed “the Avatar Project”, is arguably the most futuristic and non-traditional of the three projects.  Founded by Russian media entrepreneur, Dmitry Itskov, and featured at a conference in New York last summer, the Avatar Project seeks to create technologies that enable the transfer of human “personalities” to a non-biological avatar, thereby extending life to the point of immortality.

Plans are for the project to be divided into four stages with corresponding developmental time-frames.  Stage 1 (2015-2025) contemplates the improvement of technologies that will allow for the control of prosthetics and robotic components through a brain-computer interface.  Stage 2 (2025-2035) calls for the creation of a full-functioning robot, an avatar, with which the human brain can be linked.  Stage 3 (2030-2035) envisions the achievement of technological capabilities that allow for the transfer or uploading of human consciousness into the avatar.  Stage 4 (2045 and beyond) involves endowing the “humanized avatars” with capabilities that exceed what humans are now capable of doing.

This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, movies (think, “Avatar”, “Surrogates”, “Transcendence”) and wishful thinking. But Itskov’s commitment to financially support  the underlying research is very real (he has net worth of over a billion dollars). He also has the public support of the Russian government as well as several notable visionaries, including roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, futurists Raymond Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, founders of Singularity University (an unaccredited educational institution whose stated purpose is to “utilize accelerating technologies to address humanity’s hardest problems”), and the Dalai Lama (whose support for this project begs to be the subject of another blog!).

Last month, J. Craig Venter announced the formation of a new company, Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI), whose purpose is to develop technologies to allow people to live longer and healthier lives.  Venter is perhaps best known as the head of the private industry effort to be the first to sequence the human genome.  Scientists have speculated that the longevity of centenarians is driven in large part by their having genetic variations that protect them from the effects of aging. Venter plans to have HLI acquire the capability of processing 40,000 human genomes or more a year in a quest to identify the human genetic variations that promote longevity.  Along the way, HLI will collect genetic data on the human microbiome (microbes that inhabit the human body) to develop advanced probiotics, and on the human metabolome (various metabolites, biochemical and fats), with a view to improving human health.  In that connection, HLI will initially target treatment of age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart and liver diseases and dementia.  HLI’s business plan sounds awfully ambitious, but then again Venter has an established track record in the field of genomics of making things happen, as well as $70 million of privately funded capital for HLI starting out of the gate.  There is apparently more than one billionaire (apart from Itskov) who is interested in living a longer life.  HLI’s co-founders include Robert Hariri, a stem cell pioneer affiliated with Celgene, and Peter Diamandis, who also supports the Avatar Project.

Last fall, Google, Inc., which needs no introduction, announced that it had made a major investment in California Life Co. (or Calico for short), a biotech start-up whose focus will be on combating aging and age-related diseases.  Thus far, Google has declined to provide details on how Calico would operate or what it would do, but it did publicize the recruitment of several biomed rockstars on Calico’s team in addition to Ray Kurzweil, who also supports the Avatar Project.  It’s worth noting that Google’s two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both attended Singularity University.

Here’s what comes to my mind:

  • Should we humans being going down this road at all to seek immortality or longer life?

Some folks would even argue that it’s just plain wrong to play God or to mess with what it means to be human.  Philosophy and religion aside, on the one hand, it’s hard to argue that finding a cure to disease and suffering and helping people overcome disabilities (e.g., with the use of prosthetics) are not worthwhile goals.  On the other hand, the potential for abuse and unexpected developments along the way are frightening.

  • Do these three projects, announced within the span of a year, portend the privatization of the quest for immortality or longer life?

It sure seems like it.  Governments don’t have the motivation to make a long-term investment in prolongevity R&D and wait for the return on investment to the extent that wealthy individuals do.  We can expect announcements of new private prolongevity projects or the additional funding of the ones presently off the ground in the near future.

  • Can privatizing the quest for immortality and long life become problematic?

When we speak of private parties cutting the keys to open the door to changing the course of human evolution, I think the answer is yes.  For one thing, private parties do not have to act for the greater good, each project presumably having to be held accountable to obtain a return on investment for the investors first.  Furthermore, depending on the structure of the organization and how it is capitalized, a project does not even have to share any details of what it is doing (see Calico).  There also exists the concern that in the hands of private parties, benefits to be gained from the technological advances from the project will be reserved for the wealthy few.  Finally but not exhaustively, undertaking to address the socio-economic fall-out that comes with longer human life on average…e.g., how to provide for the social security, feeding, housing, health care and employment in societies where people live significantly longer on average…is undoubtedly not within the scope of any such project.

  • How about regulating it?

Right now, the path between getting these prolongevity projects off the ground and the realization of their goals seems far too remote for there to be any political will to try to regulate their activity.  In fact, governments are probably glad to see private money fund these projects that might spin-off health dividends because those funds need not come out of the public coffers.  At some point if and when any of these projects get closer to realizing their stated goals, the pressure to impose regulation will rise so that we can better understand and prepare for the ramifications of such success.

What do you think?

[The contents of this blog are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

Why Is Brain Death Death? A Thought Experiment

This guest post is part of The Bioethics Program’s Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.

by James Zisfein, M.D.
Chief, Division of Neurology, and Chair, Ethics Committee, Lincoln Medical Center

The Munoz case in Texas demonstrates that, with aggressive medical treatment, vital functions in some brain-dead patients can be maintained for weeks or months. Shewmon documented similar cases and coined the term “chronic brain death”. Is it still reasonable to continue using the brain death standard as a criterion of death if the rest of the body can maintain somatic integrative functions, including cardiovascular homeostasis, for a prolonged period without the brain? Some commentators question whether the “enduring utilitarian legal fiction of whole brain death as death has passed its sell by date.”

Notwithstanding those concerns, I must remind the reader that, as a practical matter, the brain death standard usually works well. Families understand the finality of death. The brain death standard allows for unilateral removal of medical support in what many of us feel is an extreme example of futility. It also provides the major source of vital organs for transplant, of which I will have more to say later. I’m happy with justifying brain death on utilitarian grounds alone.

But if we insist on philosophical underpinnings, it’s time for a thought experiment. In this experiment, I will dismember Michelle (virtually, of course, and with her permission). Let’s start by removing relatively unimportant parts, say the appendix, some lymph nodes, maybe the spleen. After doing that, we can agree (I hope) that Michelle is still Michelle.

Then we go for more important stuff. Arms and legs? No problem. Kidneys? We can substitute for their function with dialysis or a transplant. Michelle is still 100% Michelle. The removed parts are therefore irrelevant to Michelle’s personhood.

We’re not finished yet. Michelle’s heart can be removed and replaced with a donor heart, or a mechanical pump. (So much for the cardiac definition of death.)

You know where I’m going with this. The only body part that can’t be removed or replaced without changing its owner is the brain.

If we could remove Michelle’s brain and replace it (horrors!) with my brain, the resultant person would be me, with body parts that used to belong to Michelle. If we replaced Michelle’s brain with a computer, we would have a robot (albeit a rather fleshy and bloody one). In either case, Michelle would be gone.

It’s a short leap from this thought experiment to the realization that the irreversible loss of the brain, or its functions, is the irreversible loss (i.e., death) of the brain’s owner.

A less grisly argument, also based on personhood, would begin with a stipulation that all human beings are mortal. We are not allowed — by definition or otherwise — to convey immortality. That means we must always have some way of determining death.

With improving medical technology, that could become impossible. Absent a brain death standard, we could — at least in theory — keep someone alive indefinitely by continuing to change parts as they fail. Everything (other than the brain) that is vital could be substituted for, including the heart. Dr. Jarvik (of the Utah/Humana artificial heart project) boasted that his artificial heart could keep working for 300 years. After that? Put in another one, presumably an improved model. Voila, immortality. Not acceptable. The risk of “chronic brain death” that Shewmon cited, is, paradoxically, a good reason for having a brain death standard.

And we must consider the utilitarian importance of brain death for organ donation. Whistling past the graveyard: that’s how I would characterize ending the brain death standard of determining death, without (1) prior abolition of the “dead donor rule” (which states that vital organs can be taken only post-mortem) and (2) seeing how many pre-mortem donors that yields. I believe there would be strong resistance to ending the dead donor rule anywhere, let alone all 50 states, and that the number of pre-mortem vital organ donations would be small even if it were permitted.

Removal of the brain death standard, in the absence of legal and widely practiced pre-mortem organ donation, would likely cause thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of deaths on the organ waiting list. Allowing that calamity for the sake of ethical purity would place one’s ethics on a par with the Khmer Rouge.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, brain death is a criterion of death. It’s up to those of us who work in health care, ethics, and law to speak with clarity when communicating on this topic to the media, to courts, to bereaved families, and to our colleagues.