Friday, April 4, 2014

The Immortalists: "There's no glory in dying"

It is a subject that has fascinated, confused and frustrated generations of scientists. The aging process and man's desire to slow down or even turn back the biological clock is complex and nuanced. But inch by inch - or cell by cell - researchers are beginning to piece together the mechanisms at work when we get old and ultimately die. That elusive dream of eternal life remains a lofty goal and inconceivable to most scholars of gerontology.   But there are a few - arguably eccentric souls - who believe that we are on the verge of discovering the secret to never-ending life.

I do not belong to that exclusive club. But I do have an insatiable desire to learn more about the science behind aging.  More specifically I believe that there is much we can do now to extend our healthy years. I was therefore keen to see the new documentary, The Immortalists.  

According to the promotional blurb, the film is:

The story of two eccentric scientists struggling to create eternal youth with medical breakthroughs in a world they call “blind to the tragedy of old age." Bill Andrews is a lab biologist and famed long-distance runner racing against the ultimate clock. Aubrey de Grey is a genius theoretical biologist who conducts his research with a beer in hand. They differ in style and substance, but are united in their common crusade: cure aging or die trying. They publicly brawl with the old guard of biology who argue that curing aging is neither possible nor desirable. As Andrews and de Grey battle their own aging and suffer the losses of loved ones, their journeys toward life without end ultimately become personal.

The documentary treads a fine line between the extreme and unconventional personal lives of the featured scientists - and their professional work. 

Aubrey de Grey is a well known and controversial figure in the longevity field.  He is best known for claiming that the first person to reach 1000 is alive today.

His passion for his work is undeniable although his unconventional lifestyle - involving a wife, girlfriends, a penchant for nudity and beer-swilling - somewhat overshadows de Gray's academic and scientific standing. The documentary follows the British scientist in both worlds and manages not to sensationalize de Gray's lifestyle choices. It also features strong and respected opposing voices to the scientist's more extreme claims about the potential for never-ending life. It includes a segment covering an Oxford University debate on the question of defeating aging completely.  de Gray is pitted against Prof. Colin Blakemore, the distinguished British neuroscientist and former head of the UK's Medical Research Council. 

"What Aubrey de Gray is offering you is snakeoil - and dangerous snake oil," Blakemore tells the audience.

Without revealing the outcome to some of the documentary's character-driven vignettes, the film is entertaining but it also takes the science seriously.  This is an extremely difficult topic - defying the aging process involves a myriad of biological processes and is not be easily simplified for a TV or theater audience. 

It left me wanting to know more about the daily lives of the central characters. Both extremists,  dedicated to their cause, I was curious to hear more detail about their personal regimes.  Such different approaches - could they both be right? 

The film focusses, for much of the time, on the science of telomere lifespan. Increasingly acknowledged as a key factor in the aging process, but what about diet and exercise?  We learned much about Bill Andrews' extreme endurance achievements, but it was unclear whether they were helping or hindering his quest for eternal life. 

I enjoyed the film because it was provocative and inspiring - and the cinematography was superb.

The Immortalists, directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, premiered at the SXSW festival in Austin Texas, on March 9th, 2014.