‘The Immortalists’ is a portrait of two advanced biologists working with promising results on the problems of reversing aging. Your mileage may vary but to me spending so much time on their admittedly eccentric personal lives–time that could have been used to explain more of the science and their particular theories and approaches–was not the best choice. The film does show us interesting views of their research environment.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
First, let us talk a about the current biological model of aging as it appears to be related to telomeres. These are like caps at the ends of chromosomes that makes a nearly identical copy of itself when the chromosome duplicates. What is different is the telomere on the new chromosome is a little shorter. When the telomere is too short, the chromosome cannot duplicate properly. The resulting dysfunctions accumulate to be aging. If the telomeres were of sufficient length or if they replicated exactly the chromosome duplicated the new chromosome would be just as good and the organism would not have the effects of aging. The result would be that the creature inside which all this was going on would not age and also, in some cases, aging would actually reverse. The telomeres are repaired and extended by the enzyme telomerase (actually officially called ‘telomerase reverse transcriptase’). It would seem then that telomerase might be a useful tool in countering aging, but it might also promote cancer. That occurs when cells refuse to die, a dysfunction closely related to the aging process.
[Standard McCoy-esque Disclaimer: I am a film reviewer, not a biologist. Any of the above should be taken with some skepticism until verified with someone with proper training.]
There are at least two different approaches that are being considered for life extension. ‘The Immortalists’ is a new documentary looking at the scientific theories of aging and the men who support each of the two theories. Each approach has a champion introduced in this film. The coverage of the science is minimal and directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg and writer Sussberg more want to give the viewer an idea of what the people are like who lead each side. William H. Andrews, Ph.D. feels that there might exist a drug that would release telomerase. If such a drug can be found, he expects that it would extend the telomeres and help to extend life. Andrews is also an extreme marathon runner feeling that this sort of exercise also would extend his telomere length. The film strays from strictly the science to tell of Andrews running a very long very high altitude marathon that while helping to extend his life nearly itself killed him. Documented is his returning to the marathon after his brush with death previously and as an apparently reproducible result it nearly kills him a second time. The film looks at his motivations including his desire to prevent the death of his aging father.
The other major figure is Andrews’s friend and colleague, Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D. He opposes his friend and instead advocates Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). This is a seven- pronged approach to limit the amount of telomerase the chromosome is subjected to. This should decrease the possibility of cancer, but then using a diverse approach to pragmatically treat several different dysfunctions resulting from short telomeres. Where Andrews’s approach is to prevent certain age-related disorders, de Grey advocates curing the disorders individually. He sees a need to do repairs as things break rather than looking for one single drug. We are told he has this seven-fold approach, but we hear only about two or three of the prongs.
Alvarado and Sussberg present too little of the science, but spend more of their time giving us portraits of the two men and their life styles. We follow Andrews on his marathon. We also see de Grey’s life with his wife and his two girl-friends in what becomes a polyamorous relationship. He and his wife are followed on a nature hike that turns into a nude picnic complete with sex for the camera. This is not the most enlightening sequence that could have been filmed.
How is the search going? Well, in 2011, they apparently succeeded in reversing the aging of a mouse. How many mice will need to have their aging reversed before the same approach will be used on humans is still a question. Dr. Andrews thinks procedures may be possible in as little as three years. That seems very optimistic. But one cannot predict where breakthroughs will come in science. And funding problems are ubiquitous.
I rate ‘The Immortalists’ a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper
(c) Mark R. Leeper 2014