What a legendary Greek isle and a gene tech startup can teach us about the quest for immortality

Author Chip Walter

Everyone has read, at one time or another, the story in their local newspaper about “Pearl,” the 110-year-old who was still as spry as a sapling. When asked the inevitable question about her secret to such a long life, she would say with a wizened grin, “Cigarettes, chocolate, and a shot of whiskey every day. And all the sex you can get!” Some funny bon mots like that. Well, scientists, too, wanted to know why the world’s 316,000 centenarians were still drawing breath.

In 2011, author Dan Buettner had come across an extraordinary story when updating his book “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer.” “Blue Zones” are areas of the world where Buettner noticed that people seem to live an unusually long time. One was the Greek island of Ikaria, located in the Aegean Sea not far off the coast of Turkey.

According to Greek myth, Ikaria was the place where Icarus had plummeted to the sea when he flew too close to the sun, thus the name of the island. According to the legend, Icarus’s father Daedalus was considered the greatest inventor and scientist of his day, and so he was summoned by King Minos of Crete to create a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, a beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man. After Daedalus dutifully built the labyrinth, Minos trapped him and his son inside to protect its secret. But Daedalus, being the clever inventor that he was, fashioned magnificent wings made of feathers and wax for him and his son, and together they made their escape from death and the labyrinth.

Daedalus cautioned his son not to fly too close to the sun, because its heat would melt his newly constructed wings. But during the flight, Icarus was so overcome with the joy and pride of flying that he disobeyed his father and flew too high. His wings melted and he plunged helplessly into the Aegean.

More recently, Ikaria has become famous for something else. As Buettner found, many Ikarians are unusually long- lived, routinely reaching ages beyond 80, 90, or 100, strong and healthy until the end with their morbidity seriously compressed. I visited the island to see for myself. At local cemeteries, I found tiny plots festooned with flowers and pictures of those who had passed, but not before they had lived long lives: ΒΑΕΙΛΙΚΗ ΛΕΡΙΑΛΗ 1920 to 2014; ΕΥΑΓΓΕΛΙΑ ΚΑΡΝΑΒΑ, died April 21, 2015, age 99; ΕΛΕΝΗ ΚΟΥΡΑΚΗ, 1910 to 2008.

One of Buettner’s more fascinating discoveries was a dark- haired, bowling ball of a man named Stamatis Moraitis. Stamatis had emigrated from Ikaria to the United States after World War II. He moved to Port Jefferson, New York, where he married, built a painting business, and raised a nice family with three kids. All was well until he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in his early 60s. His prognosis was six to nine months.

Immortality, Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever

Doctors recommended that Moraitis undergo aggressive cancer treatment, but he decided instead to return to Ikaria, where he could pass his final days among its peaceful hills. So off he went, planning to enjoy time with his parents (who were still alive and healthy) and live out his last days in their little whitewashed cottage on the north side of the island.

But after several weeks of lying in bed waiting to die, nothing happened. In fact, Moraitis started to feel better. He began sipping a little local wine and spending time with his friends. Soon he began to plant a few vegetables in the garden. Still he didn’t die. Instead he grew stronger, built a vineyard, and made 400 gallons of wine a year. He expanded the house so his kids could visit, and lived 35 more years, utterly cancer-free. No drugs. No treatments. Just the sun, clean air, and good vibrations of Ikaria.

The media loved this story, and so did readers of Buettner’s Blue Zones books. Clearly, this place delivered some sort of elixir that fortified the bones and blood, and laid disease to waste. At least that seemed to be the headline.

But the idea of a longevity elixir was not Buettner’s take-away. Moraitis’s story was a fine yarn that helped reveal the joys of Blue Zone living, but he knew there weren’t any magic potions. Mostly the reasons Ikarians lived so long (especially those who were born in the early 1900s) had to do with their lifestyle: walking for miles up and down the island’s high hills, eating fresh, organic food from their own gardens, imbibing healthy herbal teas, living by the sea with very little stress, and spending lots of quality time with their family and good friends. No one worried about time, or the stress that came with it. Of course, the occasional glass of local wine might not have hurt either.

The truth was, nearly anyone would do pretty well this way. Except then, they would actually have to live in a relatively stress-free Blue Zone. And that would be difficult, because most people do not settle down in small Greek islands where anxiety is low and the food is local and fresh. Buettner knew better than most that Ikarians didn’t actively try to live exceptionally long lives; it was simply a natural side effect of how they went about their business. Still, there had to be some way to bottle all of this vitality, didn’t there? Sure enough, after the publication of Buettner’s book, people from all over started coming to places like Thea’s Inn in Ikaria to get their proper doses of longevity.

Buettner had met Thea Parikos during one of his research trips to the island. Later, I met her too, because her appearances in Blue Zones books had made her a celebrity of sorts. Thea loved people coming to visit her little inn. But did they have to be so obsessed with long life? Travelers would show up at her place in the tiny village of Nas (population 90), and after spending some time eating the food and breathing the bracing Aegean air, head back to America or Sweden or Germany or England, figuring they would soon emerge as healthy as the gods themselves. Of course, it didn’t work that way. Life was good if you lived there, but leave and all the benefits disappeared. Kind of like Shangri-la.

The desire for quick longevity fixes was understandable. Why not hope that people like Pearl and Stamatis possessed some sort of ambrosia that made living and dying more bearable? This was precisely why Craig Venter and the company he founded, Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI), had wondered if some people had specialized genes the rest of the human race had been deprived of: little bundled proteins that acted as microscopic Fountains of Youth. And if they did have them, wouldn’t it be nice to find them, and learn to swap them into the rest of us so that everyone could live long and prosper?

However, as HLI mined its growing reservoir of genomes, it found no such fountain. At least not so far, and probably never. The analysis of the company’s first round of 30,000 to 40,000 genomes showed that people who lived to a hundred didn’t have supergenes that bequeathed long life; they simply had fewer frail ones. Later, researcher Graham Ruby and his team at Alphabet subsidiary Calico found pretty much the same thing based on the millions of Ancestry.com records they tabulated and analyzed. It seems centenarians aren’t blessed with any genetic silver bullets. They’re dealt the equivalent of a full house: terrific genetic cards in all the right combinations. If you happen to live a Blue Zones lifestyle, all the better; you might live even longer. But in the end, no matter how well you live, no matter how many colonics you try or heaps of kale you eat, the degradations of your genes will still get you. It wasn’t just Blue Zone living or Pearl’s whisky and cigarettes that kept centenarians going. It was the absence of lousy genes.

After all of HLI’s thousands of genomes were compiled, and after the machine-learning algorithms had done their work, this meant the company was getting a ringside view of what unraveled human youth. The deterioration was so common that based on the way the average genome changed over time, Venter’s team actually could see, within a couple of years one way or another, how old a person was! That’s how precisely the damage was built into the human system. HLI also found that the genes of some people were falling apart faster than usual. Maybe they had been dealt crappy cards; maybe they might personally have damaged their body in other ways (stress, alcohol, obesity). But one way or another, some people were aging faster than others—and that was valuable information.

Generally speaking, scientists had known for a long time that healthy genes meant a healthy body, and vice versa. The difference with HLI’s findings was that now, specific genes (or combinations of them) were being revealed, genome by genome. This was making it increasingly clear where the frailty genes hid themselves, as well as how and why genes fall apart in general. As more and more of these were discovered, the next step would be to create drugs that could slow the damage, or go in and repair the battered genes themselves. That was the long- term goal.

This was, of course, exactly what Venter had hoped for, and precisely what he wanted HLI to deliver: the aggregation and analysis of massive amounts of data. Even at this early stage, the process was proving to be an excellent way to decipher the specific ways the human body shuffled down the road to perdition. And by 2016, Venter was just getting started.

He wasn’t alone though. Others were also now seeing the potential of eliminating aging, and fresh resources were beginning to flow in from—where else?—Silicon Valley. With a little help from Hollywood.

Excerpted from the book “Immortality, Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever.” Copyright © 2020 The Human Light and Power Co., Inc. and William J. Walter, Jr. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with National Geographic Partners. Available January 2020 wherever books are sold.

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