Can We Live Forever?
||01 July 2012 07:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
This man, punting on the river Cam in Cambridge, has startled the scientific world with claims about the ageing process that could affect the life span of the human race.
Dr Aubrey de Grey (Biomedical gerontologist): "I think that the first people who could live to as much as a thousand are already alive today."
Dr Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist and he's turning most of what we believe about ageing and longevity on its head. We caught up with him at Cambridge University, where some of the world's greatest minds did their thinking.
It's where Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon formulated their theories and where Steven Hawking still explores the Universe.
Cambridge is also where the Big Bang theory was first mooted, where DNA was discovered, and where Dolly the sheep was cloned.
And this is also where Aubrey de Grey lives. Although considered one of the world's leading experts in the field of longevity and ageing, his early days were spent exploring a relatively "young" science.
Dr De Grey: "In those days I was actually not a biologist; I worked on computer science."
Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): "Aubrey worked as IT specialist in the biology department at Cambridge. There he helped to develop software to study the DNA of fruit flies."
At the time, Aubrey imagined that the development of artificial intelligence would be his life's work and crucial to humanity's future, but soon biology, DNA structures and the ageing process began to fascinate him.
Dr De Grey: "During that time, over the next couple of years, I realised that ageing was actually an even more important problem to work on and, furthermore, that it wasn't being worked on by biologists... not very much, anyway. So, I decided that this was something that was even more important for me to work on, so I switched fields."
He continued working as computer programmer, but studied biology and ageing on his own. He concluded that ageing is a disease that can be combated.
Dr De Grey: "People often say this, you know: 'Ageing is natural. Why should we try to combat it?' You know, that is like saying: 'Tuberculoses is natural, why should we do anything about it?' Or it is like saying: 'Standing on the ground and not flying is natural, why should we do anything about it?' The whole of civilisation is about changing the way that things naturally are, so that we have a higher quality of life than what we were born with. And it seems extraordinary to me that we have this fixation that ageing is somehow an exception to that generalisation, and that we should accept ageing even though we don't accept anything else that we find that we don't like."
Aubrey decided to look at ageing, not as something that is inevitable, but as a curable disease.
Dr De Grey: "My approach to combating ageing essentially ended up revolving around the identification and classification of the things that go wrong throughout life that eventually contribute to age-related ill health."
During the lives of all humans, says Aubrey, seven types of damage occur in our bodies on a cellular and molecular level. This damage eventually results in ageing and the diseases that come with it.
Dr De Grey: "Out of these seven categories that I am talking about, three of them are on the cellular level and four of them are at the molecular level. One of them is simply having too few cells, where cells are dying and are not being automatically replaced by the division of other cells."
Dr De Grey: "The other two involve having too many cells, and that is all about either cells dividing when they are not supposed to, or cells not dying when they are supposed to."
Dr De Grey: 'At the molecular level it is a bit more complicated. Two of the things that go wrong are inside cells. The accumulation of molecular garbage or the accumulation of changes, mutations in a special part of the cell called the mitochondrion. And the other two are outside the cell, in the spaces between the cells. Again there is molecular garbage and there is also something called cross-linking, which causes stiffening - loss of elasticity of material outside the cell. So, those are the seven things."
So if these seven types of damage can be prevented or repaired, human beings wouldn't age, and could easily live to a thousand years, according to Aubrey's theory, called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence or SENS.
When published, this theory caused quite a stir among academics because it didn't come from a trained biologist.
Dr De Grey: "I think it is fair to say that I am a self-taught biologist. I certainly haven't had any formal courses in biology since I was like 15 years old."
But this work was so extraordinary that Cambridge awarded him a doctorate in biology.
Worldwide, biologists began taking note of this maverick and his off-the-wall theories. But he also came under attack.
Then, a scientific journal, the MIT Technology Review, joined the fray and put up a cash prize for any scientist who could prove Aubrey wrong.
Dr De Grey: "So, I was very pleased that actually some of my critics did in fact take up this challenge. They tried to write criticisms that would win a prize. And off course they were unsuccessful. They were very unsuccessful."
To this day no scientist has been able to disprove Aubrey's theories on ageing.
Current therapies and treatments for ageing are aimed at postponing the inevitable, but he has a different take on the matter.
Derek: "Aubrey is adamant that what he proposes is not to make old people look young like we try to do today. Nor is it aimed at extending the lifespan of old people. What he is talking about is actually reversing the ageing process."
Dr De Grey: "SENS is the idea of applying regenerative medicine to ageing. Of not combating ageing by slowing down the accumulation of these various types of damage, but actually combating it by repairing that damage after it has been created. Whereas people before me [were] mainly focusing, or entirely focusing, on preventing that damage from being created in the first place."
Aubrey has set up two organisations. The SENS Foundation is a research facility where anti-ageing strategies and medicines are being developed.
The Methuselah Foundation promotes the idea of longevity and rejuvenation and awards prizes to stimulate further research.
Derek: "The first prize they created was a multimillion dollar longevity prize awarded to any scientist who can extend the life of an ordinary laboratory mouse. It is called the M-prize or Mouse prize."
The prize has already been awarded twice, and the oldest mouse created lived to nearly five years.
That's the equivalent of extending a human's life to 250 years.
The Methuselah Foundation's latest venture is the New Organ Prize - awarded to scientists who can create fully functioning organs made from a patient's own cells.
But despite these advances, Aubrey says people are generally hesitant to see ageing as a curable disease. He calls this the "pro-ageing trance".
Dr De Grey: "Now people like me have to spend most of our time actually battling this irrationality in getting people to understand that this is just another medical problem that can, in principle, and, very probably in practice, be addressed by actual medicine in the relatively foreseeable future."
Aubrey is convinced it's not merely a distant dream and that humans will, in the lifetimes of those currently in their 40s and 50s, attain amazing and youthful longevity.
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