TORONTO — Genetics researcher Gil Atzmon foresees a time when doctors will use existing nanotechnology to prolong life well beyond 120 years, by injecting patients with small replacement particles whenever they detect a cellular problem.
It may take 20, 30 or 40 years, he said, “but it will happen.”
“From a biblical standpoint, we were designed to live to 120,” Atzmon said in a telephone interview from his office at Yeshiva University (YU), where he is an associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “The question is how to do it.”
Average life expectancy, which is increasing by three months a year in western countries, was predicted to be 81.5 years in Canada (84 for females and 79 for males) this year.
Atzmon will be in Toronto next month for the launch of the fourth year of YU’s Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov. He will speak next month at a program at Beth Avraham Yoseph Synagogue of Toronto, titled “The Length of Our Days: Judaism & Immortality.”
He clarified that his research doesn’t deal with immortality, but rather with “trying to figure out what it is that distinguishes people” who live two or even three decades beyond the average life expectancy.
Part of the answer is genetic and part is epigenetic – related to other factors, such as environment – on top of the genetic factor, he believes.
However, he added, among the centenarians he and his colleagues have studied, “30 per cent are obese or overweight. They smoke like regular people. There are more couch potatoes than mountain runners… We don’t have any vegetarians. They eat meat, drink wine, they smoke and don’t do exercise.
“And still they live to 100. So they probably have some genetic shield. It doesn’t mean all those things that the doctor says to do won’t improve your life. They will. But if you have the gene, you live longer.”
The author of more than 60 scientific papers, with a PhD in population genetics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is trying to figure out what the shield is, he explained. “How can we develop this shield, so average people that didn’t get it from their parents might have a better [long-term] survival rate?”
Among the characteristics associated with longevity are higher HDL (good cholesterol) levels and a “happy” personality, Atzmon said. However, he added, there are thousands of pieces to the puzzle. “There is no one central mechanism.”
The 48-year-old native of Kibbutz Ein-Tzurim said he isn’t doing anything differently in his life as a result of his research. In his favour, however, he had one grandmother and two great-grandparents who lived to 100.
In another area of research, Atzmon is studying 16 groups of Jewish people worldwide to look for a common genetic background.
Results so far have shown Jews share the same percentage of their genome, which is higher than the percentage they share with non-Jews in their part of the world.
“[But] it doesn’t mean we found the Jewish gene,” Atzmon said. An earlier study of his indicates that the Jewish population split geographically some 2,500 years ago, “close to the destruction of the first Temple.”
As well, he added, he and his colleagues found a component of the genome indicating common roots in Israel or the Middle East. “You can see the migration of the Jewish population around the world through the genome.”
The Sept. 9 program will be hosted by the BAYT’s adult education committee. Torah Mitzion’s rosh beit midrash Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner and sgan rosh beit midrash Rabbi Baruch Weintraub will speak on related topics. For more information, call 416-783-6960 or send an email to [email protected]