THE FIRST PERSON TO LIVE TO 1000 YEARS OLD MAY HAVE ALREADY BEEN BORN, says gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey.
According to de Grey, age itself is a disease. And the cure is close.
“We are working to develop medicines that will bring ageing under true medical control,” says de Grey, former professor at Cambridge University and frontman of the SENS Research Foundation.
The SENS Research Foundation has a goal to end degenerative disease. Things like Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and certain cancers—they emerge “naturally,” says de Grey, as an inevitable consequence of our ageing human bodies.
In the developed world, age-related diseases account for roughly two-thirds of all death, and generally it’s unpleasant. For many of us the final years of life are marked by weakness and suffering—for the individual and their loved ones.
As de Grey puts it, these are the side effects of being alive in the first place. The damning consequences of a healthy, normal metabolism.
This is where SENS differs in its medical approach; they’re aiming to remedy age itself. To stop the damage before it happens. And this is where the implications get big—where journalists, scientists and potential shareholders get very worked up. Remove ageing and we have a future where a person looks, feels and functions like a 25 year-old, but they will live for hundreds of years. The implication is immortality.
De Grey believes that this future may be as near as 2030.
“Many things go wrong with ageing bodies, but at the root of them all is the burden of decades of unrepaired damage to the cellular and molecular structures that make up the functional units of our tissues,” says de Grey.
With age, the tissue of the human body slowly decays. Hair turns grey, skin withers and miscellaneous bits fall off. Your muscles and bones lose their strength, and faculties of perception begin to deteriorate: vision, hearing, touch, even thought.
On the fiercer end of this spectrum lies degenerative disease—the painful and debilitating tipping point after years of steady decay.
It is de Grey’s view that instead of waiting for old age pathologies to emerge, medicine should be “rejuvenating” the deterioration that causes them in the first place.
“The only reason that risk of death goes up as we get older is because we are accumulating damage in our bodies. That eventually causes our bodies not to work so well, and then not work at all. If that damage did not accumulate, there’s absolutely no reason why our remaining lifespan should go down.”
Treatment could start as early as twenty. Periodically, you visit a special clinic: you have your old cells replaced, cellular rust scraped off, the debris squeezed out. Our terminology here is hardly technical, but in principle that’s the idea. Keep up with your appointments and you can live young and healthy for centuries. (Save for being hit by a bus, or falling into a nest of snakes).
De Grey says that scientific breakthroughs in the 90s, as well as the research over the last two decades, have lead some to believe that this future may be as near as 2030, if we really applied ourselves.
But there’s the jam. If research, commitment and importantly, money, were really pushed into this, then de Grey believes it’s possible. Procuring investors has thus become a major part of SENS’s activities.
So just what is he selling?
— The Science —
“Geriatrics is the attempt to stop damage from causing pathology; traditional gerontology is the attempt to stop metabolism from causing damage; and the SENS approach is to eliminate the damage periodically, so keeping its abundance below the level that causes any pathology.”
SENS, or ‘Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence,’ gets its name from a phenomenon in nature. Certain organisms, such as lobsters, do not show symptoms of ageing. With age they have no measurable loss in function, no loss in their reproductive capabilities, and they are statistically no more likely to die at any given age after maturity.
Certain species of turtle, tortoise, flounder and rougheye rock fish are all said to be “negligibly senescent”—to note the vertebrates.
You may have heard of the ‘Benjamin Button Jellyfish’.
And there was once a clam named Ming who lived to 507.
Some of these organism could, theoretically, live forever—if it weren’t for larger organisms trying to eat them.
Gerontologists like de Grey are working on ways to bestow this negligible senescence unto humans. Not explicitly for longevity, but rather as a means to combat the degenerative diseases that come with human ageing.
The first step is getting specific with what ageing actually is. SENS cut it up in to seven categories of cellular ‘damage’—the seven signs of ageing:
- Cell loss or atrophy (cells dying without replacement).
- Oncogenic nuclear mutations and epimutations (the beginnings of cancer).
- Cell senescence (bad cells that hang around, resistant to death).
- Mitochondrial mutations (a vulnerable and important organelle inside cells).
- Intracellular junk—or lysosomal aggregates (a buildup of junk inside your cells).
- Extracellular junk—or extracellular aggregates (a buildup of junk outside your cells).
- Random extracellular cross-linking (adjacent cells forming too many connections, with tissue losing elasticity, becoming weak and brittle).
Reversal of these seven plights would, theoretically, constitute our own negligible senescence. Or at least that’s the idea. SENS has its research divided into various fields, generally corresponding with the seven areas. Some areas have seen more progress than others. (For a recent sciency rundown, check out page 15 of the SENS annual report).
2030 is close, but it’s not that close. By no means is the cure for ageing just about ready. As SENS put it, much of their work remains “proof-of-concept” research; a sort of preliminary, preliminary step to applying science that may actually begin to make test subjects stop ageing. Not to imply they’re chasing wild geese—this is often how science goes.
Nevertheless, as you may suspect, de Grey and the whole SENS movement are not without their critics.
— The Controversy —
“Journalists with papers to sell or air-time to fill too often fall for the idea of a Cambridge scientist who knows how to help us live forever… …To explain to a layman why de Grey’s programme falls into the realm of fantasy rather than science requires time, attention and the presentation of detailed background information. In addition, anyone who is tempted to do so is easily cast as a Luddite, an enemy of creativity and noble ambition, and someone whose prissy reluctance to confront de Grey’s ideas might prevent us from living forever.”
That’s Dr. Huber Warner, another gerontologist, writing in 2005 (back then the heat was relatively on). Generally displeased with, in his view, de Grey’s unrealistic optimism and dubious charisma, Warner’s stab at SENS was festooned with the signatures of 28 other similarly irritated gerontologists.
De Grey swung back a few pages later, in the very same issue of Science and Society. Such was the rumble in the mid 2000’s: scientists (mostly gerontologists) firing pinhole or swooping critiques at de Grey’s science, often scented with the allusion that his incentives were less scientific than their own. To each, de Grey’s retort carried similar themes: he attacks the logic of their arguments, he paints colourful, palatable (and perhaps ironic) analogies, and always he attributes their resistance to the conservative, knee-jerk dogma of scientists who can’t think outside the box and don’t know genius when they see it.
“Warner et al accuse me of “treating arguments and proposals that are not backed up by scientific evidence as though they were scientific ideas,” but they are wrong in both fact and logic. Regarding logic, they stress my failure to note that no SENS intervention—in isolation—has ever been shown to extend any organism’s lifespan. I do not recall Henry Ford alerting potential customers that the components of a car—in isolation—remain obstinately stationary when burning petrol is poured on them, nor do I recall his being castigated for this omission.”
For now, the heat from the last decade appears to have since simmered down. Perhaps it’s as those 28 geronologists signed to:
“…We are concerned when we see scientific journals and meetings give space and attention to empty fantasies of immortality, artfully camouflaged under the guise of research proposals.”
Warner and the rest of the gang warned that if de Grey were given room to make noise and play up his “empty fantasies” as a legitimate topic of debate, it would be counterproductive to the gerontology cause. Gerontology is a field that continues to claw itself away from a wobbly reputation (as is often the case for emerging sciences). And de Grey was a computer scientist most of his life, jumping into gerontology only after his epiphany that medicine had been doing it wrong all these years. They weren’t going to let this bearded temptress move in on their turf. So since then perhaps the strategy has been to ignore de Grey and hope that this whole thing just goes away.
Or perhaps they’ve run out of criticism.
Back in 2005, a US$20,000 prize was offered by the Methuselah Foundation (co-founded by de Grey) to any team of molecular biologists who could prove that the alleged benefits of SENS were “so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate.”
A panel of esteemed and impartial scientists judged three of the five best entries. And in the end, nobody won.
Since then, SENS have swelled their numbers and it seems they’re still going strong, but the movement is yet to truly catch on—not to the levels that de Grey would like.
Why not? Well, living forever would be a big change. Ask de Grey and he’s likely to call on the general public’s fear and uncertainty as the cause of resistance. SENS doesn’t present itself as a pedlar of eternal youth (not overtly, at least)—their banner is of eradicating degenerative disease. But naturally, for many of us it’s hard not to get caught up in the ‘I’ word.
— The Immortality —
“I do not work on longevity,” says de Grey.
“I work on health. I work on cancer and Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. I just recognise that in order to actually succeed against those diseases, we need to tackle the original foundations, which are the metabolic side-effects of being alive in the first place.”
Yet, the big wind-up is of course living forever. News reports lace themselves with the headline sensation of a 1000-year-old human. Interviews (like this one) comb their teeth over the implications of de Grey’s ‘brave new world,’ wherein death and dying have faded into the novelties of history. Often, immediate critics won’t bother with science; they jump straight to the social implications. It’s the immortality spectacle, for the large part, that blots up discussion.
As you’d expect, really. If de Grey’s future truly is just around the corner, this is a big deal. Immortality pokes at the very essence of what it means to be alive, to be human. Generally quite a contentious topic.
For some of us immortality sounds great. There’d be much less guilt attached to procrastination—always time to do it later. That, and the boundless promise of self-actualisation: travelling to all the cities, the forests, all strange lands of planet Earth, learning languages, reading books, listening to music, friendships and lovers strung like coloured baubles across the boughs and branches of time unlimited, for hundreds of years. Do whatever you like.
For others, the idea is difficult to accept. Death, in a sense, has long been a sacred part of life. The mystery and the utter spectacle that your consciousness, the one you’re feeling right now, could one day halt or transcend to some higher plane. For a long time death has captivated art, culture and philosophy. Ageing and dying are romantic, by some regards. To grow, love, create, and then walk peacefully out into the sunset of life.
But to this, de Grey says no. He ardently contends that ageing and dying, by their very essence, are not romantic—it’s a “misconception” to think so. De Grey explains like this: instead of asking yourself, “what age would I like to die,” try asking, “what age would I like to get Alzheimer’s?”
The answer is very different, but in the context of degenerative disease, the question is the same. Ageing is decay. Ageing is brittle bones, it is bedridden weakness and it is the final amnesia that erases your entire life.
You can’t have ageing without degeneration.
After the romance, the next worry is sociological. When the cure arrives, is it happily ever after from then on?
No doubt, treatment will be expensive. Even today society stratifies medicine to the index of your bank balance. Is it difficult to imagine a future where eternal youth is reserved for the rich and powerful? And these positions of authority—like CEOs and politicians—they’d be safeguarded against ever having their power flushed out with age. While beneath, the rest of us are left to grovel and expire, lips parted at the bowl of the fountain of youth.
Or maybe, regardless of wealth, we’d all get a drink. Universal health care is generally something people are fond of. But then, if nobody dies, what happens to our increasingly crowded and hungry population? And on that, how many years of consciousness could the individual really endure? What happens to the mind? How many of these long, crowded centuries until life breaks you.
For now, this is just dreary contemplation. The future could be fantastic! Who knows.
De Grey points out that many things will change in the future. Even if negligible senescence were achieved today, it would still be at least another 100 years before anyone were 200 years old. Even without SENS, Earth’s population is beginning to get too big and the resources too few. Climate change is also catching up with us. And artificial intelligence, for example, is likely to prompt just as big of a cultural shift as immortality. A.I. draws nearer every day—what do the obsolete (and potentially immortal) humans do when machines can work and think far better than we can? Plenty of stuff to think about.
The point of medicine is to make badness better. Right now, our frontier is the suffering that comes with degenerative disease. Whichever way this is conquered, perhaps it’s someone else’s job to pick up the philosophical pieces.
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