The invisible revolution
Discover the science behind aging; why it’s likely we’ll beat it eventually, and why some people alive today may be the first to see it happen. A revolution has quietly begun in the last 12 years. Four major hurdles have been crossed.
In 1996 we couldn’t grow stem cells in a lab, and we didn’t think cloning was possible. We hadn’t even reached the half way mark in the human genome, and we couldn’t turn ‘back the clock’ in living cells. These were all breakthroughs in the true sense of the word, building on decades of work, and all of them were accomplished by 2001.
“There are no laws of physics that say we have to die. (Unfortunately the laws of thermodynamics make it very likely).”
A self repairing system can keep entropy at bay, and we appear to do this for the first 20 years of our lives. The same genes that repaired skin without wrinkles at 18 are still within us at 88, but many are inactive. Our livers regenerate every six weeks, our entire blood supply and skin, roughly every month. If we can figure out how to switch on the younger healthier genes (and solve the issues that raises) it’s not impossible for a biological system to regenerate indefinitely. A tortoise can live to be nearly 200 years old, (and all that without health insurance).
Two eminent researchers have bet that the first 150 year old person is already alive. Even S.J. Olshansky, who bet against the idea believes research to prolong lives will achieve results:
“In our lifetime, I think you and I are going to be taking a pill to slow our aging.”
In developed countries almost every major affliction gets worse as we age, so if we can slow the aging process we also delay the onset of cancer, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s…
The crucial question for us mere mortals is how long will it take to develop a meaningful clinical option (ie. will it happen in time for me?). A few experts with reputations to guard are willing to make an estimate.
“the actual timeline for achieving the first real healthy life extension breakthroughs could be anything from 15 to 100 years… My personal research goal is to achieve an indefinite lifespan for human beings, and I think we have a fair chance of doing it in about 25 years with the right funding.”
Dr Aubrey De Grey
Normally predictions take longer than we expect, but some things in medical science are coming true ahead of time. In 1990, researchers boldly predicted that it would take 15 to 20 years to decode the human genome. Instead it only took ten and it came in under budget.
The hardest factor to predict, and possibly most important, is public interest and hence funding for research. When will the idea capture the interest of voters?
The speed of research is escalating
At the end of the eighties, the whole sum of human knowledge on gene therapy was covered in about 250 scientific papers. But by the year 2000, ten times that number of papers were being released in a single year, and the number is still growing.