In Time and Immortality: Is It Only a Matter of Time?

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Time is money, so the saying goes, but in Andrew Niccol’s latest film In Time, time is money. A bus ride home will cost you 2 hours, a cup of coffee is 4 minutes, and a car could cost you years. Time is the currency, and you are given only a year. In the future, In Time posits, humans stop aging at 25. After that each person receives 365 more days to live, which they watch countdown on a clock glowing bright green on their arm. The poor work each day for more time, dying as the cost of living rises. (As Justin Timberlake’s character remarks, “For one day, I’d like to wake up with more hours on my arm than there are in the day.”) The rich are immortal.

Aging until 25 years is explained in In Time as the result of genetic altering. The clock and one extra year are a means of population control, but how time is defined is left a mystery. Time is transferred through arm contact or from a storage container, so it appears computerized. The film is iffy on how this occurs but it seems to be a mystery left better unsolved – an explanation would bring the movement of this fast-paced film to a screeching halt.

Still, In Time is not without its science. Did you know the human life expectancy in developed countries has been steadily increasing at a rate of 2.5 years per decade since the 19th century? Scientists have also recently slowed aging in fruit flies by activating a specific gene, and rejuvenated age-degraded stem cells from elderly donors. But despite these breakthroughs, immortality is not quite within our reach.

Science of Aging

Why we age and how we age are still a mystery to the scientific community. The aging process differs from human to human. Take, for instance, a 90-year-old man with the health of a 60-year-old man versus a 40-year-old man with the same health. It is a principle of aging noted in In Time, chronological age (how old you are) versus biological age (how old your body is). All the characters in In Time are biologically age 25, but chronologically, a person could be more than 100 years old. Other factors influence aging as well, such as exercise, eating habits, and genetics. You can see why there is no straight answer on why or how we age; it is a complex process.

Research on aging has produced two theories on the how and why of aging. The first theory is that aging is due to wear and tear. Aging is accumulated damage over time, until the point that the cells break down and die. The second theory is that aging is a genetic, pre-programmed process. In this case, genes are the key to the aging process. But since aging is a complex process, it likely cannot be explain by one theory alone. A combination of theories is probable, and scientists are working to find out which theories hold up.

Altered Genes for Longevity

Similar to the genetic altering in In Time, biologists at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) discovered a gene that could be altered to extend the lifespan of fruit flies. The gene, called PGC-1, increases the activity of the fruit flies’ mitochondria, and when activated in the intestine of the flies, extended their lifespan by up to 50%. “Our study shows that increasing PGC-1 gene activity in the intestine can slow aging, both at the cellular level and at the level of the whole animal,” said David Walker, an assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and a senior author of the study. So, does that mean that increased mitochondrial activity could be a treatment to delay aging? Maybe, but Walker stressed more research is needed. 

Right now though, the study presents some exciting implications for human aging. Imagine being able to protect individual organs by activating specific genes. Aging is the #1 risk factor for diseases and illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. A breakthrough in understanding aging at a cellular level could provide new treatment options for aging adults. The research will not provide you with immortality but it could be the key to healthy aging. 

From Old to Young

Age-related diseases are a thing of the past for In Time’s society. Cells are regenerated continually after age 25, and do not break down over time. Obviously, this is not the case in the real world. But scientists are working toward rejuvenating aging cells as a means of aging treatment. Imagine being able to replace aging heart cells with younger ones – turning back the clock, so to speak, on an aging heart.

Recently, researchers at the Functional Genomics Institute were able to rejuvenate cells from elderly patients (ages 74 to 101). The rejuvenated cells were reprogrammed with a “cocktail” of six genetic factors (OCT4, SOX2, C MYC, KLF4, NANOG, and LIN28) into functional induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). The iPSC cells are similar to human embryonic stem cells, so the rejuvenated cells are able to reform all types of human cells. “This research paves the way for the therapeutic use of iPSC, insofar as an ideal source of adult cells is provided, which are tolerated by the immune system and can repair organs or tissues in elderly patients,” said Jean-Marc Lemaitre, the study’s lead researcher.

So, there you have it. The possible future of aging might include repairing aging organs. (It brings a whole new meaning to the term “body shop.”) But when that future arrives, we cannot say, but we do hope it is not filled with 4-minute coffees – that’s pricey.





The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.