Under 44? Get ready to live forever!

I found some UK statistics from the UK government’s Office for National Statistics recently – they were prepared for the Department of Work and Pensions to determine how much the government needs to put by in pensions. (If you want to skip the statistics and just want to know when you might live forever, feel free to jump to the last paragraph now!) These statistics are particularly interesting as they look at life expectancy when a person is already aged 65 – so they avoid the big impacts on life expectancy “at birth” statistics from the 20th century including better child birth care, antibiotics and the world wars.

Up until the last few years not only has there been a steady increase in life expectancy at 65, but also a steady increase in the rate it is increasing. To make it easier to see, I’ve not plotted the life expectancy but the year-on-year increase in life expectancy when aged 65. That’s the red line on the graph, smoothed out with a 10 year trailing average (of average male & female life expectancy).

Annual Increase in Life Expectancy Age 65

Using a standard linear trend line (in black) you can see a steady increase.  Now what happens when the black line reaches 1.0? At that point people about to retire will start having their life expectancy increase by one year for every year they live*. So when will that be? Continuing the trend line shows indefinite life extension being reached in 2136.

But what about all the talk about exponential growth in medical technology? Oh yes! Don’t think I’d forgotten about that. Look at the green curve – this is a best fit exponential curve for the same data. Even with the recent trail off it still shows exponential growth. So when does this line reach 1.0? Much sooner – using the formula for the trend line Excel chucked back at me, this curve hits jackpot in 2036, a whole century sooner. So if you’re currently under 44 (in 2015) you’ll reach 65 just as life expectancy is increasing as fast as you’re living – welcome to immortality!

*OK in a year’s time you’re now 66 so not quite at the same point on the graph, but a couple of years later life expectancy will be increasing faster that time passes so this seems as good a point as any to say on average people will be living forever.

Data source: Cohort Estimates of Life Expectancy at Age 65

Virtual Bodies are Accelerating Research and Diagnostics

Technology accelerates rapidly because it’s growing exponentially, but does this apply to medical technology? One place it certainly does is in virtual organisms – 3D digital models of cells, individual organs and even whole bodies.

Virtual Bodies are Accelerating Research and Diagnostics

Lots of medical research is initially based on animal models – that is, studying non-human organisms such as worms, mice or monkeys, to see what affect drugs, gene therapy and physical procedures have on them. One advantage of these models is ethics  – people are less concerned if 1000 worms die in the course of science than a single human, though of course there are many that would prefer to ban animal testing especially on our closest relatives such as other primates. Another advantage is timescales, and this is particularly important when looking at longevity treatments. Even if we had a drug that we were confident did no harm, and signed up 1000 willing human volunteers to test it, it would take decades before we would know if it was an effective anti-aging treatment. However, using worms with lifespans of weeks, or mice who only live for 1-2 years, the effectiveness can be seen quickly, enabling different types and dosages of drugs to be tested before considering human trials. But as well as the animal rights considerations, this still takes years of research and a lot of manual (and expensive) handling of the creatures under test.

So what if we could create a virtual model of an entire worm, mouse or even human. If this was accurate enough to respond to physical and chemical factors, taking into account the complex interactions within the body, we could test as many different drug candidates as we could feed into the computer. And as computing power continues to grow exponentially we can then turn up the speed and see the results overnight that even with worms might take several weeks.

We’re already getting close to this scenario. Research teams around the world are working on individual organs and also linking these up together to demonstrate how the entire body would react. Here are just a few examples:

  • University of California-Davis School of Medicine’s ion channel based heart model predicted adverse effects of 2 drugs used to treat abnormal heart rhythm.
  • The mechanics of the complex geometry of the skeletal system has been modelled by the University of Jyväskylä  to determine how different exercises induce bone strain and strain rates and to research the causes of degenerative arthritis.
  • Living Heart Project has developed a physics-based digital 3D model of the heart that can be used to virtually test new physical devices and aid heart disease research, and allows surgeons to walk inside a massive heart projection to really understand how the organ works.
  • Virtual worm brain (OpenWorm project) simulates all the connections between the c. elegans worm’s 302 neurons and is able to control a Lego robot without a single line of code.
  • The EU’s Human Brain Project has developed a simplified virtual mouse brain mapped to different parts of a virtual mouse body, including spinal cord, whiskers, eyes and skin.
  • Virtual Physiological Human programme aims to create a computer simulated replica of the human body (“in silico”).

This last project also is also applicable at the treatment end of healthcare. Once a detailed and accurate virtual model of a “standard” human has been developed, this could then be configured with the physiological parameters to match an individual. Their personal data could be input into their virtual avatar to predict how their specific body would react to drugs and other treatments. Already, for example, the University of Pittsburgh has modelled the complex interaction of multiple inflammation markers in blood enabling trauma patients’ risk of multi-organ dysfunction to be calculated and appropriate intensive care allocated.

Personalised medicine is mainly trying to predict how individuals will respond to pharmaceuticals based on their genes – which given the efficacy of most drugs is better than blindly working down a list of potential treatments; but what if you could then try that drug in a personalised virtual body and see how it really reacted given a multitude of individual factors? That could save time finding the best available option, save money in the wasted time of healthcare professionals and drug costs, and most importantly save lives.

Links to research mentioned in this blog post are available on the Digital Modeling page.

Medical technology meets Moore’s Law equals in vivo diagnostics

We live in a high tech society, yes? Moore’s Law has seen computer power grow so fast that most of us carry more computing power around on our phone than was used to send people to the moon only a few decades ago. So why is it that the basic measurements for health are still a thermometer under the tongue and blood pressure based on a cuff round your arm at a specific time?

There are so many areas that rapidly improving technology can help in healthcare from drug discovery to laboratory automation, however here I’m going to focus on diagnostics.

There are already a few recently launched swallowable capsules that take images of a patients digestive tract as they pass through, reaching places its generally not possible to examine from the top or bottom (so to speak!) – these are known as capsule endoscopies and are typically quite a mouthful with dimensions of 1 to 2 centimetres. Give or take this is about the size of commercially available transistors in the 1950s compared to the 2014 fabrication technology of 14nm – that’s a million fold improvement in 60 years or a halving of size every 3 years (sorry Mr Moore, not your usual 18 months but this is back of an envelope maths so close enough).

So what happens when medical technology meets Moore’s Law? To allow sensors to monitor the bloodstream from within they’ll need to be about the size of a typical red blood cell, say 6 µm, so a two thousand fold improvement – easy, we should have that 33 years. Which means in the 2040s we could all have swarms of sensors monitoring every part of our bodies – checking blood pressure constantly at thousands of points in our circulatory system providing early warning of any constrictions that would indicate damage or plaque build up. And many years before that you’ll be able to take a daily capsule – not another vitamin but a daily cheap diagnostic for any digestive tract problems. No doctors will need to be involved unless something unusual is detected – maybe results sent to your smartphone, but already that sounds a bit dated – more likely sent to your personal health centre which all homes will have that monitors your every move, breath and perspiration to check you’re in the best possible condition.