A decade ago, biomedical researchers and investors were gung-ho about cracking the problem of human ageing. Armed with the first draft of the Human Genome and the new tools of cloning, genetic engineering and stem cell technologies, it wouldn’t be long before humans would be regularly living for a century and then some.
In 2001, a pair of publicity conscious American gerontologists had a $150 bet about what age the oldest person would have reached in 2150. Professor Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois said 130 and Dr Steven Austad of the University of Idaho went for 150. Olshansky estimated the $300 paid into a trust fund would be worth $500 million to the descendants of the winner in 2150.
The bet itself wasn’t that interesting; what were a couple of decades either way? But unintentionally, it raised a much more interesting question: what was going to be the most effective way of ageing healthily? The two scientists set out the options very clearly.
“We are closing in on the fundamental process of ageing,” declared Austad. “We will live longer because of cloning technology combined with stem cell research, which will allow the growth of replacement parts in the not too distant future.” So that’s the hi-tech road.
Olshansky was not quite as gung-ho as Austad, and spelled out the low-tech alternative, but only to specifically exclude it from the race. He said he didn’t believe that exercise, a better diet and more vitamins would increase longevity. “They won’t do anything to stave of the diseases of old age, such as arthritis, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s,” he said.
In fact, he went further and declared in a journal article, along with other top academics, that the low-tech option was not only unscientific but fraudulent. It declared that: “Products that claim to be able to slow, stop or reverse human ageing … have no scientifically demonstrated efficacy and in some cases they may be harmful.” 1
For a few years, Olshansky backed up his assaults with an award cleverly called the Silver Fleece presented, in their absence, to the hucksters who had made the most outrageous anti-ageing claim that year.
Anti-ageing pioneers were experimenting with a range of apparently extreme options. These included high doses of lipoic acid (a popular food supplement) and other exotic antioxidants; calorie restricted diets, known to reverse ageing in lab animals; compounds such as resveratrol, found in grape skins, that seemed to have the same effect; and various intense muscle-building regimes - all, it is true, without the benefit of controlled trials, but this was very new territory.
Curiously, as this was after all America, a major complaint was that companies were making money from selling these anti-ageing potions, even though as the grand old man of ageing research Leonard Hayflick remarked: “I would be surprised if any legitimate bio-gerontologist did not have some commercial affiliation.”2
So with the knives out for anyone suggesting diets and supplements might be useful, what could you expect if the scientific hi-tech route came up with the goods?
The high priest of this approach is Dr Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist from Cambridge University, who confidently talks about abolishing death altogether, and this is where Olshansky and Austed have put their money.
Dr de Grey, originally a software engineer, is instantly identifiable because of his voluminous brown beard. His approach, known as SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence), aims to combine such biotechnologies as stem cell transplants and genetic engineering to reverse ageing in mice “within ten years” and in humans “rapidly thereafter”.
His approach is theoretical but under active research at a number of labs in Europe and America.
He’s particularly concerned about accumulated ‘junk’ like damaged lipids and proteins that build up in the brain and arteries as our ageing disposal system increasingly fails to cope.
His solution is to boost the garbage units in our cells, known as lysosomes, with new powerful ones that he expects to find in soil bacteria. “By the time we have identified the enzymes in bacteria that are capable of degrading lysomal junk, gene therapy will be sufficiently advanced to allow their use in humans,” he says. But it is a forecast that should be approached with some caution…
Next week: read de Grey’s shocking solution to cancer, and how low-tech interventions may yet hold some promise and the secret to long, long life.
- 1. Olshansky SJ, Hayflick L, Carnes BA, Position statement of human aging, The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 57 (*): B292-B297
- 2. Constance Holden, The quest to reverse time’s toll, Science-Holden 295 (5557):1032