Windows into the Imagination

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Science Fiction or Science Fact: Aging as a Disease?

                What if we could pop an immortality pill that ‘cures’ the ageing process?


Ponce de Leon hunted for the Fountain of Youth. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest literary works, was about the hero on the quest for immortality. In China, they ingested jade, gold, cinnabar, mercury, sulfur and arsenic under the mistaken belief that they would prolong their lives—and which ironically, ended quite a few since many of the solutions were toxic.

The search for immortality has a long and checkered history, but now, it may be a lot closer than it has been since the beginning of human history—at least outside of religious beliefs.

Leading scientists are calling for ageing to be classified as a ‘disease’ in the expectation that treatments to increase human lifespans by hundreds of years will become reality in the near future.

“60 is the new 40” because of advances in modern medicine and improved standards of living. In the UK there are 10,000 people over the age of 100 and this number is expected to soar to over half a million by the middle of this century.

Until the 1980s, it was assumed that the process of ageing was very complicated but research has thrown that out the window when it was discovered that a mutation in a single gene, rather than hundreds of genes, could bring about an increased lifespan in animals.

Much of the story of the last 20 or so years has been trying to ‘unlock’ the how these ‘mutants’ work and some of the approaches are amenable to the development of drugs. So, the idea of an immortality pill isn’t that far-fetched.

One of the greatest difficulties to ‘solving’ the ageing process is the lack of investment in research. If ageing was classified as a disease, it could encourage more investment in research for it.

Richard Faragher, professor of biological gerontology at the University of Brighton and chairman of the British Society for Research on Ageing, said "I think there is a longstanding idea that ageing is a natural process and we shouldn't interfere in natural processes. It is a mindset, but it is one that is enshrined in the law – normally what happens is the law around medicine allows claims that this [drug] will be beneficial for the treatment of specific diseases. To take a silly example, even if you had genuine immortality tablets you couldn't legally sell them as such because ageing does not exist as a clinical condition in law."

Dr Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of the California-based SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Foundation, which focuses on research into regenerative medicine to treat the diseases and disabilities of ageing, said, “There is no reason to suppose there would be any kind of limit on how long people can live if we can develop regenerative medicine for age.

"It is likely to be a very sophisticated multi-component treatment, involving many different stem cell therapies, gene therapies to manipulate the DNA in the body, and also more traditional things like vaccines. And there may very well be surgery involved, at least in the early stage in the development of these therapies, to replace whole organs with artificial ones that have been created in a laboratory using tissue engineering.

“…there is a 50/50 chance at least of developing all of this within the next 20 or 25 years.”

Of course, the issue of ageing and immortality isn’t just a scientific one; there are sociological and societal concerns, not to mention a Pandora’s boxful of religious ones.

Humanity may have been searching for immortality since the beginning of time, but should we have it? What are the implications if no one dies due to age?