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Startup trek, episode 15: Too Short a Season

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

Season 1, episode 15, "Too Short a Season"

Lesson: the secret to aging reversal may lie in our DNA

This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.

Let's break down what we had in this episode:

1. Really terrible old man makeup.

How did they let this on screen?

Distraction level: 10/10. I realize it was 1988 but how did they let this on screen? For comparison, did you know that they used aging makeup on the priest in The Exorcist to instantly add 20+ years to him? Max Von Sydow was 46 when he played this role, and they made this movie in 1973. So NO EXCUSES.

I bet you never even realized the actor who played the priest in The Exorcist was 46 at filming.

2. Extreme overacting.

Such intensity. Such sweat.

Both Mark Jameson (the guy who reverse ages) and his wife were unwatchable. And that's not factoring in the makeup situation.

3. Some hostage negotiation plotline that didn't matter at all.

Let's get to the part in the show where Riker grows a beard. I've been told it's coming.

4. The aforementioned old man actor getting to rip off 30 pounds of makeup in a reverse aging "twist" that we all knew was coming by virtue of him wearing 30 pounds of makeup.

He's young! Who saw this coming?!?!

As fun as it would be to rip into points 1-3 further, #4 is the key for this lesson. Even in the future depicted in Star Trek, it's still rare to achieve successful reverse aging. Jameson says something about some species having an herbal medication that works on your DNA to age you backwards and apparently cure all ailments as well. But instead of taking one dose over two years, he took two doses at once...and then died in a heap of sweat at the end.

Cut to today, where slowing, stopping, or even reversing the aging process is the subject of billions of dollars of research and investment. Google's Calico Labs alone has raised $2.5B to take on lifespan research. Many in the field call it "healthspan" to emphasize the goal of extending healthy and enjoyable life, not years for the sake of numbers. Biogerontology, the scientific discipline dedicated to the biology of aging, is a broad field that investigates the influence of key aging traits including stem cell exhaustion and pluripotency, mitochondrial dysfunction, telomere shortening, gene expression, and senescent cells.

At its most basic, the anti-aging theory is this: as long as you replace all the parts of a car often enough and provide routine maintenance, there's no reason why it can't run forever. If human bodies are just the sum of our parts, and those parts can be replaced or serviced to be like new, why couldn't we work forever too? If aging is a bug in our systems, why can't we rewrite the code?

Jameson's anti-aging drug had something to do with DNA, so I'll quickly mention two DNA-related areas of anti-aging research that show promise. First, telomeres: these are the caps on the end of strands of DNA. Whenever a cell divides, its telomeres shrink. Our bodies are made up of between 50 and 75 trillion cells and we're replacing millions of old cells each second. When your cells have divided too many times, perhaps due to excessive damage or age (or even psychological stress, as some studies suggest), the telomeres reach a shortness level where they can't divide any more. Then these cells become inactive, or senescent, and die. Shorter telomeres are tied to cancer, aging, and death. In contrast, extending telomeres has shown promise for aging reversal and lifespan extension in mice. Now we just have to try it out in people. Easy 💁🏻‍♀️

Fixing mitochondrial dysfunction is another anti-aging approach that shows high potential. As many of you may remember from high school biology, the mitochondrion is the "powerhouse of the cell."

It's important that we all have this fact at the ready.

It's a cellular organelle that contains its own DNA, separate from the nucleus, and it's where most cellular energy is generated. Fewer mitochondria, or less efficient function, is associated with aging, disease, and death. In one fascinating 2018 study, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham induced a mutation in mice that suppressed replication of their mitochondria. As a result, their hair fell out and went gray, they moved far less, and they developed wrinkles. But turning off the mutation reversed all of these changes, and the mice looked as healthy and furry as ever.

Left: a control mouse whose mitochondria were left alone. Center: a mouse with induced mitochondrial dysfunction. Right: the same mouse as the middle one, two months after scientists disabled the dysfunction.

Reversing aging has been the stuff of science fiction forever, but with advances like these, we're closer than ever. Hopefully it'll look better for the people of the future than it did for poor Jameson. RIP.


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