Are you born to die? Perhaps, but Aubrey de Grey is working on treatments that could at least lengthen the gap in-between. De Grey is something of a maverick in the field of biogerontology, the field which studies the process of aging and how to eliminate problems of old age. Coming from a computer science background, de Grey approaches the problem of ageing as a problem that we should aim to fix, akin to fixing a time-worn machine. Hence de Grey’s his research focuses on regenerative medicine, namely fixing the consequences of cellular aging.
But first things first: why do we age? De Grey answers ‘mechanistically, dying from aging (as opposed to dying from being hit by a truck) is the result of the lifelong accumulation of molecular and cellular damage throughout the body. That damage occurs as a side-effect of the body’s normal operation, just as it does for any simple man-made machine like a car.’ De Grey divides the damage done by cellular aging into 7 separate damage ‘types’. Indeed, he describes overcoming the ageing problem as ‘a divide-and-conquer strategy.’ These damage types include mutations in chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA, cell death, cell junk and an accumulation of extracellular protein crosslinks. De Grey explains that ‘each of [the damage types] could probably kill us on its own at a currently normal age even if we completely fixed all the others. So we’re working on all seven’. This research -if it works- has potential to not only extend lifespan, but also significantly reduce the problems of old age.
. De Grey further argues that ageing is ‘the product of evolutionary neglect’ explaining that ‘in order to live longer, we would need to slow down the accumulation of damage, and that would take more sophistication in our automatic, built-in damage repair mechanisms. From the point of view of evolution, therefore, we age just slowly enough that most individuals (in the wild!) are killed off by those other causes before they suffer much decline from aging’
Thus De Grey believes that we age as a side-effect of normal cellular function, although there is no definitive consensus on why and how we age just yet. In line with De Grey’s thoughts, take the recent research published by Zhang et al. published in this week’s edition of Nature; the paper reported to have discovered a link between the levels of NF-Ҡb protein in the hypothalamus and aging. The researchers did this by simply lowering the levels of NF-Ҡb in the hypothalamus of a number of mice; these mice lived longer than their cagemates.
This discovery is interesting because the NF-Ҡb protein is a key part of the immune system; the protein is a transcription factor, which means that it can ‘switch on’ portions of DNA to be transcribed into actual proteins. Hence, NF-Ҡb is activated in response to certain ‘clues’ of a pathogen’s presence , and so NF-Ҡb acts as a kind of ‘first-responder’ to a very wide variety of pathogens and other types of cellular stress. The implication that the immune system somehow regulates the process of aging is at first thought rather confusing; however, it could be that there is a balance between the aging process and the activity of the immune system. That is, the activity of the immune system could somehow cause ageing, perhaps through the inflammation that NF-Ҡb causes. In the short-term, that damage leads to the repression of dangerous pathogens, but in the long-term it could cause the damage of tissues which we refer to as ‘aging’.
If we could solve the problem of aging, we could vastly improve the wellbeing of millions of people; why then have we not seen as much research into the problem of aging as we have into, say, cancer? According to De Grey this is because ‘disease is “in your face” and aging just creeps up on you’ he further explains that ‘people are quite resistant to preventative medicine in general for the same reason – until they are sick they don’t see the value – and intervention in aging is synonymoous with preventative medicine for the diseases and disabilities of old age.’
However, it is easy to imagine that delaying the aging process could have irreversible effects upon the population that may not be beneficial, the obvious one being overpopulation. De Grey disagrees; ‘current trends in that regard are clear – we’re having fewer kids, we’re having them later, and many technological advances are promising to increase the planet’s carrying capacity, notably by reducing the average person’s carbon footprint. As more and more countries achieve a respectable level of female education and emancipation, these trends will accelerate – not least because one aspect of the elimination of aging will be the elimination of menopause, allowing safe childbirth at any age.’
Is this convincing? I’m not sure. Whilst it may be true that we have the technology to at least reduce the impact of a considerable number of ‘extra’ humans on the planet, it is difficult to argue that the average quality of life would not be affected. It also seems possible that the halting-ageing technology would only be available to the richest nations, enforcing the gap between the richest and poorest people. Then again, De Grey would argue that the positive effects from delaying ageing -the reduction in suffering due to old age, the possibility for people to be active in the workforce for longer and so on- would outweigh these potential negative effects. Perhaps it is immoral not to use this technology, if it can be developed. Nonetheless, it is a difficult ethical question; as people who are currently alive, do we have a right to dramatically extend our lifespan at the potential cost of those who are not born yet?
Some people have also argued that a person’s mentality may be adversely affected if they knew they would live for a longer would people value each day less? De Grey remains unconvinced by these skeptics; ‘consider: in your early adulthood, does your remaining longevity really determine your priorities? The first time you got laid, were you thinking “Omigod omigod I totally need to get this person into bed right now because I only have another 60years to live”? Not as such.’
It sounds frustrating, being a biogerontologist. On the one hand, this research has a massive potential to alleviate human suffering. However it doesn’t sound as sexy as trying to cure cancer, or trying to form a cure for HIV, even if the potential benefits are just as great.
‘There are many interlinked frustrations… but I’d say that the worst is the ubiquitous unwillingness of my senior colleagues in biogerontology to see the big picture… biogerontologists moan constantly about how underfunded their work is relative to its potential humanitarian value, but in truth they are the main culprits in perpetuating society’s failure to share their enthusiasm for this work.’
Biogerontology seems to be a pretty underrated field. In De Grey’s words, ‘people think aging is immutable because they’ve yearned for it to be eliminated since the dawn of civilisation and nothing has really been achieved. As a result, people don’t want to get their hopes up. But of course that is now a huge part of the problem, because it’s only by believing that progress might be possible that one becomes enthusiastic about trying.’