The science of immortality
French woman Jeanne Calment cycled, smoked, drank wine and ate a kilo of chocolate every week, right up until the Guiness World Record breaking age of 122. In 1897 when Jeanne was born, life expectancy in France was around just under 50 years. However people born in France now will have an average life expectancy of 82. Even in the short period between 2002 to 2009 the EU saw an increase in life expectancy of 1.7 years for women and 2.1 years for men. Whilst life expectancy varies dependant on a range of factors including where you live, on the whole we are all living longer.
The longer we live and older we get, the more we become aware of the effects of ageing. In 2009 the market for anti-ageing products was worth $50 billion in the US alone. Whilst these products can help to support health and have some effect to reduce the visible signs of ageing, the is no scientific evidence to support that they significantly increase a users lifespan.
As ageing advances many will start to consider not only their own mortality but also the mortality of those around them, such as their parents. How much precious time do we have left and is there anything we can do to gain a little more? Not only how much time, but also what quality of time? How many snowboarding seasons or partying years do we still have? How will life change for us as we age within cultures that often see the elderly as surplus?
The concept of immortality is something most commonly explored in mythology and science fiction. However, this concept may not be so fantastic after all. Species of lobster and jellyfish already have the ability to regenerate and do not die as a result of ageing but rather by factors like disease and predation. In the human world, a growing number of scientists are taking a radically new perspective on our relationship with ageing and exploring the possibility of finding its cure. Life extension science is the study of slowing down and even reversing the effects of ageing. Researchers within the field believe that through their work we will see future breakthroughs in areas such as tissue rejuvenation with stem cells, molecular repair and organ replacement that will enable humans to extend their lives for an indefinite period.
Aubrey de Grey on current ‘fatalist’ geriatric medicine
One of the leading voices in the science is Professor Aubrey de Grey, an author and theoretician in the field of gerontology, and the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation. Beginning his career as a software engineer before moving onto genetic research De Grey was able, in the absence of the preconceived notions of a medical background, to take a far more technical perspective on biology and make enquiries as to how and why we couldn’t potentially repair a human as we do a machine. Aubrey de Grey defines ageing as the lifelong process of accumulating changes within the body which lead to ageing and death. To be more specific; that over the course of an organism’s lifetime it accumulates damage to macromolecules, cells, tissues and organs as a result of oxidation damage caused by free radicals and other factors. Aubrey sees ageing as a disease that causes incalculable suffering and believes that by adopting a ‘fatalist’ stance society has done far too little to prevent it. Current medicine having adopted a ‘fatalist’ stance takes a geriatric approach to ageing, attempting to manage age related damage and patch it up as best as it can as we approach death. Not only does this approach fail to save lives but it is also very expensive.
The gerontologist approach to life extension
Rather than just slowing down the effect of ageing, regenerative medicine proposes that it might in fact be easier to reverse the effect. Instead of patching up a body that has already suffered prolonged age damage, it might be possible in future to intervene at a much early stage (around 40) to perform maintenance and repair a body to extend its life-span indefinitely in the same way we do vintage cars. The SENS approach to ageing looks to tackle 6 deadly things that cause ageing and death:
- Cell atrophy: Replacing the cells that die off and are not naturally replaced such as those in the heart and brain using stem cell therapy
- Unwanted cells: The proliferation of unwanted cells. Using what is known as ‘suicide therapy’ these genes can be tricked into destroying themselves
- Protein cross-links: The formation of links between proteins which reduce the elasticity in tissue walls (such as in arteries), resulting in high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health. Medicines could be developed to break these links
- Cell ‘junk’: The build up of stuff in the space outside of cells which prevents normal function, and inside cells causing hardening arteries and heart disease. This ‘junk’ could be digested by injecting a living person with genes and corpse eating enzymes.
- Mitochondrial mutation: Aging damages the cell’s power generators. This could be prevented by swapping around the mitochondrial DNA.
- Chomosomal mutations: Cancers which could be eliminated through stem cell technology that replaces the vulnerable cancer replicating cells with new stem cells.
In order to tackle the killer 6 requires the further development of a number of medical technologies. Many have been in development for several years with some having already been practised, whilst others are based upon currently emerging technologies. These proposed strategies include:
- Genetic modification: Artificial genes are used to replace mutated or otherwise deficient genes. Dr Richard Dawkins describes an approach to life-extension that involves “fooling genes” into thinking the body is young thereby shutting down the genes that perpetuate the ageing processes.
- Nano technology: Author Raymond Kurzweil theorises that nano-robots could be deployed within the human body to repair damage. IEEE member Antonio Espingardeiro supports this view through his own work (view)
- Growing replacement parts: Techniques including cloning and stem cell research could be employed to generate replacement parts, just as stem cells were reenty cutivated to create an artificial beef burger (view). Similarly the controversial research of xenotransplantation, which involves the transplant of cells and even organs between species, has been underway for some time. One of the earliest being a baboon to human heart transplant in 1984. Recent reports suggest that heart valve transplants from pigs could soon provide a solution to organ donor shortages.
The ethical issue
In 1800 the world’s population was 1 billion. It now stands at over 7 billion with a birth rate more than double that of the death rate. Every second around 5 people are born and 2 die. Because of this, as well as a number of other reasons, many oppose the idea of life extension. Counter arguments can be made that those choosing to extend would thereby have to forfeit having children, or that the eventual colonisation of other planets will provide solutions. However is it the view of Aubrey de Grey and many others within the field of life extension research that regardless of these arguments, living people have a fundamental right to live and that denying the people of the future an indefinite lifespan is ethically wrong.