Science Isn’t The Reason That Humans Can’t Live Forever
We could have radical life extension. Science isn't what's stopping us.
Leading the Charge
If humanity were to appoint a general in our war against aging, Aubrey de Grey would likely earn the honor. The British author and biomedical gerontologist has been on the front line for years, researching ways to free the world of age-related disease and, ultimately, extend human life indefinitely.
De Grey is the Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research and a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association. In 2009, he co-founded the SENS Research Foundation, a non-profit built around his Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).
From the SRF Research Center (SRF-RC) in Mountain View, CA, foundation scientists conduct proof-of-concept research with the goal of addressing the problems caused by aging. They focus on repairing damage to the body at the molecular level, and their work is helping advance the field of rejuvenation biotechnology.
SRF-RC teams are currently focusing on two equally complex-sounding research projects, one centered on allotopic expression (a way to bypass the harmful effects of age-caused mitochondrial mutations) and the other on telomerase-independent telomere elongation (a little-researched process by which some cancer cells overcome mortality).
Either project could lead to major breakthroughs in anti-aging treatments, but as de Grey explains to Futurism, the path to immortality doesn’t just run through the science lab.
No Money, Big Problems
While the research being conducted at the SRF-RC is far from simple, de Grey claims DNA mutations and cancer cells aren’t the biggest hurdles to anti-aging breakthroughs: “The most difficult aspect [of fighting age-related diseases] is raising the money to actually fund the research.”
The nature of most science research is exploratory. Researchers don’t know that what they’re working on is going to yield the results they expect, and even if it does, turning basic research into income is no easy task. To support their work, most have to rely on funding from outside sources, such as government grants, educational institutions, or private companies.
“[Aging] is a medical problem that needs to be addressed.”
The amount of funding a specific field receives varies wildly. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that it allocated $5.5 billion for cancer research in 2016, while amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research received a comparatively paltry $52 million. However, raising funds for anti-aging research has proven even more difficult, according to de Grey.
“It’s still an incredibly hard sell,” he claims. “We have very limited resources. We only have about 4 million dollars a year to spend, and so we spent it very judiciously.”
That money isn’t going to just the two in-house projects, either. The SENS Foundation funds anti-aging research at institutions across the globe and provides grants and internships for students, so raising money to support those endeavors is key to continued success in its fight against aging.
A Radical Disconnect
Essential to raising money for anti-aging research is ensuring that those with the funds understands why it’s worth the investment — a not-so-easy task given current misconceptions about aging.
In 2015, eight major aging-focused organizations, including AARP, the American Geriatrics Society, and the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), released a report detailing what they call the many “notable gaps” that exist between expert perspectives on aging and the public’s perception of the process. If the public isn’t well informed on aging, it’s even less knowledgeable about anti-aging.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents in a 2013 Pew Research study said they had never even heard of radical life extension before. When asked if they would undergo treatments that would allow them to live to the age of 120 or older, the majority of those surveyed said they would not, and 51 percent thought such treatments would be “bad for society.”
“There is still a huge amount of resistance to the logic that aging is bad for you and that it’s a medical problem that needs to be addressed,” explains de Grey. “It’s really, really extraordinary to me that it’s so hard to get this through to people, but that is the way it is.”
The SENS Foundation focuses a significant portion of its resources toward combatting this disconnect. In 2014, it dedicated more than $1 million to outreach and education, spreading the gospel of anti-aging research through speaking engagements, newsletters, press coverage, conferences, and other forms of community engagement.
Once the field is properly funded and supported, de Grey thinks researchers will have a clear path forward to “curing” the problem of aging:
Aging is not mysterious. We understand it pretty well. It’s not even a phenomenon of biology. It’s more a phenomenon of physics. Any machine with moving parts is going to damage itself…and the result is inevitably going to be that eventually the machine fails. It’s the same for the human body as it is for a car, for example, and if we think about it that way, it becomes pretty easy to actually see what to do about it.
The benefits of ending the problem of aging would be tremendous. Not only would we be living longer, we’d be living healthier for longer.
Without the debilitating diseases and disorders that have become synonymous with old age — vision loss, dementia, muscle weakness — we’d have extra years or even decades to do all the things we loved to do when were were younger: travel, play sports, spend time with our loved ones. We’d avoid the personal financial burden associated with treating the side effects of aging, and some argue that governments would even see a monetary benefit from radical life extension as two-thirds of Social Security expenditures for retirees currently go toward healthcare.
Anti-aging proponents like de Grey will be the people leading us toward that figurative fountain of youth, but you shouldn’t start living like you’re immortal just yet. “We have made very significant breakthroughs in some of the most difficult areas,” says de Grey. “I’m fairly proud of what we’ve achieved so far, though, of course, we still have a long way to go.”