Do you want to live forever?
Well, we’ve got some bad news.
Researchers in the departments of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona developed a mathematical model of cellular competition in humans and have one simple conclusion.
You can’t beat death.
Cellular competition is, in general, a good thing.
Inside our bodies at any moment, weak cells die and are replaced with healthier ones. Individual cells die for the sake of the organism as a whole.
As cellular health declines over time, it leads to the symptoms we know as aging.
The equation for death
Traditional thinking regarding life extension has been that intercellular competition creates the potential for immortality through the body’s ability to eliminate damaged cells.
If the body could just keep doing this indefinitely, then, in theory, so does the life of the organism.
Therein lies the problem, say researchers.
Cellular competition creates a new set of dangers.
A cell may, for lack of a better term, go rogue — the authors refer to these cells as “cheater” or “defector” cells.
These cells fight for their own survival rather than the holistic survival of the organism.
Through cellular competition, cells either work together (“cooperating” cells) or for themselves.
When “cheater” cells proliferate and multiply, they lead to, you may have guessed, cancer.
“As soon as there’s an opportunity for some cells to do better than others, there’s an opportunity for them to game that system and become cancer,” Joanna Masel, a study author and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, told Inverse.
It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
“What you get out of that is this double bind where, if your cells are competing, then those fast-growing, nonfunctional cells are proliferating and can eventually cause death. If your cells aren’t competing, then those slow-growing, nonfunctional cells will proliferate and cause death,” Paul Nelson, a study author and professor in the University of Arizona’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, told Healthline.
It’s this “double bind” that makes death inevitable.
“If you hear the term ‘cell-competing,’ then that’s a big red flag because that’s what cancer is. It is cells that proliferate and outcompete regular cells,” said Nelson.
We can still live longer
The researchers made their conclusions by creating a mathematical model of cell competition in humans over time.
“The two basic things that we know are true are, one: things tend to get worse over time, and, two: some cells can grow faster than other cells,” said Nelson.
He also reassured that their work doesn’t mean that research to make humans live longer is in vain.
“We’re not saying that you can’t extend life. We’re just saying that the general trend has to be down,” he said. “It could be down really, really slowly, but it’s down.”
However, Nelson noted that certain theories on life extension could prove problematic with their theory in mind.
In cases where stem cells are used to regenerate and grow cells, he cautioned, “We’d have to be very careful when we do that, such that we don’t cause increased rates of cancer.”
The importance of this research, said Nelson, is that it helps to form a better understanding of aging on a cellular level.
“Just because we are not going to live forever doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and make the time that we can live as long as possible,” he said. “In doing any endeavor, you will be more successful if you know what you’re getting into. This is another piece of that puzzle.”