‘Forever is nonsense’

In his second book, Venki Ramakrishnan examines recent scientific breakthroughs in longevity and ageing and raises uncomfortable questions about the ethical aspects of the research as well as the biological purpose of death.
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 22:37 IST
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 22:37 IST

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Venki Ramakrishnan’s is the real-deal ‘pivot story’ — ‘pivoting’ being quite the fancy thing to do today. Born in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu in 1952, Venki wanted to be a physicist, and by the time he decided to do something about his passion for Biology, he was already a PhD in Physics from Ohio University, USA. He then ‘pivoted’ and studied Biology at the University of California, San Diego, before he began his post-doctoral work at Yale University.

He went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for his work on cellular particles called ribosomes. His first book, Gene Machine, captures this journey with the kind of honesty and self-deprecation one does not expect from an award-winning scientist.

With similar candour, in his second book, he examines recent scientific breakthroughs in longevity and ageing and raises uncomfortable questions about the ethical aspects of the research as well as the biological purpose of death. 

Excerpts from an interview

Would you say longevity is the hottest topic in scientific research today with fantastical claims being made by some, if not many? Is this why you wrote this book? Is this not, in a sense, a departure from your core specialisation?

Ageing research is not very far from my field of molecular biology. In reality, protein synthesis is at the heart of a lot of biology, including ageing. Since I am reasonably familiar with the methodology of ageing research and am not an ageing researcher, I am perfectly positioned to look at what’s going on without preconceived biases. I do not have any vested interests, I own no companies working on anti-ageing, I am not selling nutritional supplements nor do my grants depend on my views on ageing. So, in that sense, I can afford to be completely objective about what’s working and what’s not.

There’s an explosion of interest certainly, but the discerning observer can sense a discordant note. With both billionaires and some well-known names in the scientific community lending credence to the immortality dream, how do you view this marriage of start-up sensibilities and deep science?

There are more than 700 start-ups in the field of longevity today and many tens of billions of dollars are being pumped in even as we speak. In every sense of the word, attacking ageing is a huge enterprise but immortality is only one extreme end of the spectrum. A lot of the research is concentrated on solving or at least treating many diseases of old age, especially dementia, but also inflammation, osteoarthritis, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer where the risk goes up with age. The problem is that nearly all developed countries are facing an ageing population combined with a loss of fertility. This combination means the age distribution of the population is changing — we cannot have a smaller cohort of younger people working to support an increasing cohort of retired workers who may need a lot of care. This is why governments are concerned and why there is so much interest.

However, the real conundrum is, are you talking about increasing health or increasing lifespan? Will you still live the same amount of time and simply compress the period of decline to a very short period or are you talking about extending lifespan and thus postponing the decline to much later, which wouldn’t be such a great solution after all! 

How can the average person sift reality from the hype surrounding ageing research?

Ever since humans became aware of mortality, they have wondered why we age and why we die. You can see that some animals and species live for a few days while others live for hundreds of years. You may think that this is because a biological program in each species specifies how long it can live, but this isn’t so. On average, the larger the animal, the longer its lifespan. This is because it makes no sense for a small animal to age slowly if it is going to be eaten or starve to death fairly quickly. It is also why animals like bats and birds that can fly, and thus escape predators, generally live much longer than animals of similar size and weight that are landbound. We are a curious exception! Humans live almost twice as long as would be expected given our weight. Of course, there are many factors responsible for the increase in our life expectancy.

The purpose of writing this book is exactly this — to satisfy people’s curiosity about what is actually happening and give them the tools to interpret what’s going on so that the next time they read an article about the next big cure for ageing, they have a mental framework to understand if there is promise in the research or it is merely hype.

In the book, you explore the worrying implications of longevity research, be it the unequal distribution of the fruits of research or the economics of an ageing population. Do you feel conflicted as a scientist when you think of the vast possibilities of research versus the ethics of it?

All scientific advances are double-edged. Energy production dramatically improved standards of living but it eventually led to global warming. My goal is to spur debate on ageing because, eventually, it will have its consequences. This may not be akin to the scientists working to develop the first atomic bomb — the consequences were immediate and horrible. Scientists are in the business of discovering stuff and you cannot un-discover what has been discovered. Ageing research has many legitimate and worthy reasons — you do not want old people to be decrepit and dependent...you want them to be healthy, and more importantly, productive. But when you make them that, you are also creating an increasingly ageing society and eventually all of us have to figure out how to deal with one.

There’s nothing overnight about longevity research though. It will happen gradually but if we do not anticipate the challenges, we may face unexpected and unintended problems. Some argue it is obstructionism to question ageing research. They ask if you were living around 150 years ago when life expectancy at birth was under 40, would you have said it is a problematic thing to extend lifespan? They do have a point. However, an increase in life expectancy was achieved by tackling infant mortality through better sanitation, vaccination and public health measures. This, on the other hand, is really interfering with the natural process of ageing that happens to all species.

Improving health in old age is a valid and laudable goal. Ask an ageing researcher and that’s what he will tell you he is doing. With billionaires who are funding research, one gets the feeling that many of them simply don’t like the idea of getting old — they cannot buy youth like they can a yacht but they can buy ageing research and so they do! Currently, the absolute limit is 120 and to push beyond that would require fundamental breakthroughs in ageing and this is where things start getting grey. I personally do not think we can go very far and if you live that very long, you may die of accidents, pandemics and even climate change. Just the fact that you treat ageing does not mean you will live forever. Forever is a nonsense word!

It is curious that while there is much interest in scientific research, there is great distrust as well, what with anti-science movements, conspiracy theories and a perceptible shift to mythical beliefs, especially in India. How do you explain this?

India is in a category of its own — we have all sorts of crackpots who distort science, mix religious traditions and scientific theories and end up making bizarre claims. Science is empirical and evidence-based. If you cannot repeat the experiment today, there is no logic in pointing to something written 2,000 years ago and saying that was science — it is not if you cannot reproduce the experiment; it is as simple as that.

On social media, some people deliberately distort information for their own ulterior purposes. It is very hard for the average person because science is complex — for a non-scientist, it is difficult to separate what is true, what is pseudo-science and what is outright nonsense. This is why scientists ought to engage with the government as well as the society more.

Do you advocate a deeper collaboration between scientists and governments to prevent the spread of such misinformation?

Scientists must always be involved in providing advice to the government, but remember, no one elected scientists and they cannot decide policy. It is up to the elected officials to decide priorities but the implementation must be left to scientists. For instance, Britain works on the Haldane Principle, which is the idea that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians. That said, a sensible government will set aside a good fraction of its science budget for basic science. In almost any field, including ageing, great discoveries have come out of fundamental research. For instance, early 20th-century physicists had no idea about atomic bombs when they were studying the structure of atoms.

The connections between cancer and ageing are fascinating. Can you elaborate?

Evolution does not care about how long you live; it only cares about your ‘fitness’ — the term biologists use for the efficiency with which you pass on your genes. One consequence of evolution trying to optimise this efficiency is that the same things that help us grow and survive when we are young cause us to age later in life. For instance, scientists have discovered that many processes that prevent cancer early in life are the same ones that cause ageing later on, once our reproductive window has closed. Thus there is a complex interplay between cancer and ageing. Just like ageing, cancer also has multiple causes and the idea that we can cure cancer is similar to the idea that we can cure ageing — there is no single magic bullet that will cure either of these.

Apart from this quest for immortality and cancer cure— are there any other great puzzles remaining for science to solve?

Oh, there are many things we do not know about yet. For instance, we still do not fully understand the causes and the sequences that lead to dementia. Even how our brains work, how they store and retrieve information, how decisions are made...these remain exciting areas of research as do questions about the origin of life.

Finally, if you have to put it simply, how can we increase our chances of living a longer (and healthier) life?

Some areas of research are more promising than others, such as finding compounds that mimic the effect of a low-calorie diet, reprogramming cells to take them back to an earlier state, destroying aged cells that cause inflammation, etc. While all this research is on, there are things we can do immediately. As I say in the book, age-old advice still works better than any anti-ageing medicine available in the market. Regular exercise, healthy and moderate eating and adequate sleep — these are your secrets to a long life. What’s more, ageing researchers are now also working on understanding why this age-old advice works so well!

‘Why We Die’ by Venki Ramakrishnan was published recently by Hachette India/Hodder & Stoughton. 

Published 20 April 2024, 22:37 IST

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