In his non-fiction Amazon bestseller, Ending Aging, Aubrey de Grey, champions recent progress in genetics and calorie-restricted diets in laboratory animals that hold forth the promise that someday science will enable us to exert total control over our own biological aging and substantially slow down the aging process.
Aubrey de Grey is convinced that he has formulated the theoretical means by which human beings might live thousands of years -- indefinitely, in fact.
Like Francis Bacon, de Grey has never stationed himself at a laboratory bench to attempt a single hands-on experiment, at least not in human biology. He is a computer scientist who has taught himself natural science, and has set himself toward the goal of transforming the basis of what it means to be human.
Dr. de Grey, who holds a rare University of Cambridge degree on this
basis of publications rather than classwork, believes that the key
biomedical technology required to eliminate aging-derived debilitation
and death entirely is now within reach —technology that would not only
slow but periodically reverse age-related physiological decay, leaving
us biologically young into an indefinite future—is now within reach.
In Ending Aging, Dr. de Grey and his research assistant Michael Rae describe the details of this biotechnology. They explain that the aging of the human body, similar to the aging of man-made machines, results from an accumulation of various types of damage. And, as with machines, this damage can periodically be repaired, leading to indefinite extension of the machine’s fully functional lifetime.
By demystifying aging and its postponement for the nonspecialist
reader, de Grey and Rae systematically dismantle the fatalist
presumption that aging will forever defeat the efforts of medical
The most realistic way to combat aging, de Gray suggests, is to rejuvenate the body at the molecular and cellular level, removing accumulated damage and restoring us to a biologically younger state. Comprehensive rejuvenation therapies can feasibly postpone age-related frailty and disease indefinitely, greatly extending our lives while eliminating, rather than lengthening, the period of late-life frailty and debilitation.
"The real issue," de Grey writes, "surely, was not which metabolic processes cause aging damage in the body, but the damage itself. Forty-year-olds have fewer healthy years to look forward to than twenty-year-olds because of differences in their molecular and cellular composition, not because of the mechanisms that gave rise to those differences. How far could I narrow down the field of candidate causes of aging by focusing on the molecular damage itself?"
Removing the causes of aging-related deaths will also eliminate all the suffering that aging inflicts on most people in the last years of their lives. Aging kills 100,000 people a day. Social concerns about the effects of defeating aging are legitimate but don’t outweigh the merits of saving so many lives and alleviating so much suffering.
"There are mutations in our chromosomes, of course, which cause cancer," de Grey muses.
"There is glycation, the warping of proteins by glucose. There are the
various kinds of junk that accumulate outside the cell (“extracellular
aggregates”): beta-amyloid, the lesser-known transthyretin, and
possibly other substances of the same general sort. There is also the
unwholesome goo that builds up within the cell (“intracellular
aggregates”), such as lipofuscin. There’s cellular senescence, the
“aging” of individual cells, which puts them into a state of arrested
growth and causes them to produce chemical signals dangerous to their
neighbors. And there’s the depletion of the stem cell pools essential
to healing and maintenance of tissue.
"And of course, there are mitochondrial mutations, which seem to disrupt cellular biochemistry by increasing oxidative stress. I had for a few years felt optimistic that scientists could solve this problem by copying mitochondrial DNA from its vulnerable spot at “ground zero,” within the free-radical generating mitochondria, into the bomb shelter of the cell nucleus, where damage to DNA is vastly rarer.
"Now, if only we had solutions like that for all of this other stuff, I mused, we could forget about the “butterfly effect” of interfering with basic metabolic processes, and just take the damage ITSELF out of the picture."
De Grey's call to action, writes Dr.
Sherwin Nuland, clinical professor of surgery at Yale University School
of Medicine and author of How We Die and The Art of Aging,
"is the message neither of a madman nor a bad
man, but of a brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for
civilization to fulfill the highest hopes he has for its future.” An
opinion darkly countered by Dr. Martin Raff, emeritus professor of
biology at University College London and coauthor of Molecular Biology of the Cell: “Seems to me this man could be put in jail with reasonable cause.”
De Grey has formulated a wide-ranging plan for the comprehensive and eventually indefinite postponement of age-related physical and mental decline, named SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). He is the organizer of an ongoing series of conferences and workshops that focus on the key biomedical research relevant to SENS, and he also oversees the Methuselah Foundation’s growing sponsorship of SENS research worldwide.
"For decades," de grey summarized, "my colleagues and I had been earnestly investigating aging in the same way that historians might “investigate” World War I: as an almost hopelessly complex historical tragedy about which everyone could theorize and argue, but about which nothing could fundamentally be done. Perhaps inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was “natural” and “inevitable,” biogerontologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.
"To intervene in aging, I realized, didn’t require a complete understanding of all the myriad interacting processes that contribute to aging damage. To design therapies, all you have to understand is aging damage itself: the molecular and cellular lesions that impair the structure and function of the body’s tissues. Once I realized that simple truth, it became clear that we are far closer to real solutions to treating aging as a biomedical problem, amenable to therapy and healing, than it might otherwise seem."
Leon Kass, the former head of Bush's Council on Bioethics, insists that “the finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual”. Bioethicist Daniel Callahan of the Garrison, New York-based Hastings Centre, agrees: “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.”
Maybe they’re right, but then why do we as humans strive so hard to prolong our lives in the first place? Maybe growing old, getting sick and dying is just a natural, inevitable part of the circle of life, and we may as well accept it.
"But it's not inevitable, that's the point," de Grey says. "At the moment, we're stuck with this awful fatalism that we're all going to get old and sick and die painful deaths. There are a 100,000 people dying each day from age-related diseases. We can stop this carnage. It's simply a matter of deciding that's what we should be doing."
Posted by Casey Kazan.
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Video: Aubrey de Grey -Defeat of Aging