The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is presently underway in St. Louis. One of the first panels was "The Outer Limits of Human Lifespan", featuring Aubrey de Grey, Steven Austad, Shripad Tuljapurkar (who needs a better grounding in economics) and other gerontologists and researchers. The AAAS is a weighty organization, and the meeting is well covered in the US press; a selection of excerpts of interest follows, starting with the report from the AAAS website:
De Grey is increasingly visible in the news media, and controversial among his colleagues. Many scientists believe that there are good reasons to doubt the imminent development of such therapies, and point out that there are potential drawbacks and side-effects to consider.
A panel of experts discussed the future of the human life span Friday 17 February at the 2006 AAAS Annual Meeting, and also examined the potential demographic and economic effects which such life-extension measures could have.
De Grey, a biomedical gerontologist who studies the biological and medical aspects of old age and the process of aging, believes aging may be postponed by repairing the "damage," or the cellular and molecular "side-effects" that accompany metabolism.
"My view is that it would be much easier to repair and reverse, or at least to make harmless, those molecular and cellular things that are happening with aging rather than to prevent them in the first place," he said. To that end he has developed a comprehensive plan, entitled "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" (SENS), which categorizes seven basic types of "damage" and groups each with a proposed repair method. Each type of damage becomes a target for a proposed therapy. For example, one category includes cell loss and cell atrophy, which de Grey proposes to repair or obviate by implementing stem cells, growth factors and exercise.
In animal studies over the past 15 years, scientists have found that restricting the caloric intake of animals and mutating certain genes slows the aging process and makes them live longer.
"We've been wildly successful in extending life and improving health of a variety of animals. It has made even those of us who are skeptical think it might pan out with humans," said Steven Austad
There is a considerable chance that, in the next two decades, anti-aging therapy could increase a middle-aged person's life by 20 years, said Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Likewise, between 2010 and 2030, the age of death may rise an average of 20 years if anti-aging therapies are applied.
Still, de Grey and anti-aging therapy has been met with stiff resistance.
De Grey told UPI that this resistance is symptomatic of a "pro-aging trance," and that Americans do not see aging for the ghastly process that it is.
"We're making ludicrous excuses for aging that we never use for heart disease," de Grey said. "But there are no reasons [against anti-aging] that can outweigh 100,000 people lost a day."
Living indefinitely, or at least hundreds of years, is not an outrageous scientific proposition, said Cambridge University scientist Aubrey de Grey.
Achieving what he called "life-span escape velocity" by always staying a couple of decades ahead of death is theoretically possible, although probably not for another half century.
"If you could give people alive now another 30 years," de Grey said, "that gives (scientists) another 30 years to get more advances."
University of Texas cell biologist Steven Austad called de Grey's 1,000-year vision science fiction. However, Austad said through genetic advances and by learning how to treat health problems at the molecular and cellular levels, people today could live to 150.
Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist at the University of Cambridge, England, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Friday that he feels science needs to make a more coordinated push toward anti-aging medicine.
He compared his approach to restoring storm damage to a house. "This means that an individual who is already middle-aged or even older can in principle be restored . . . to a biologically more youthful state."
The researcher said he feels there's a 50 percent chance that, within the next two decades, scientists could develop a line of therapies that would give middle-aged people an extra 25 years of healthy life. "Making 80 like 60 is a reasonable goal, but extending lifespan is really only a side effect to therapies that keep people healthy and robust as they grow older."
Aging occurs as the body becomes less able to cope with the byproducts of metabolism and other chemical processes that make life possible.
Exercise becomes harder; thinking gets slower. Eyesight dims. Bones grow frail.
Halting the aging process completely is far beyond the current understanding of science, de Grey said. Instead, researchers should act like engineers, repairing damage to the body's cells and tissues before it progresses to disease.
The techniques for doing that are within reach, according to de Grey.
"The engineering process is more realistic," de Grey said. "Repairing, reversing or in some cases making harmless the damage caused by metabolism."
Given enough financial resources, scientists have a 90 percent chance of doubling the life span of laboratory mice in 10 years, de Grey said. Given 15 more years, they have a 50 percent chance of doubling the remaining life span of a 55-year-old.
As the concepts of healthy life extension are increasingly widely dispersed through the mainstream media - and other, larger segments of our cultural conversation about medical technology and aging - the barriers to large-scale funding start to fall. It is vitally important that advocates within and without the scientific community continue to push hard on the topic, as the largest obstacles blocking the path to a future of far longer, healthier lives are almost all cultural - i.e. creating an environment in which it is possible to obtain sufficient funding to enable significant progress within our lifetimes.