When British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey talks about radical life extension for humans - decades, even centuries more of existence - he is not imagining us slogging by with brain plaque, loose dentures and walking frames. Rather, we would be in rude health, with all the hallmarks of age in abeyance, even retreat. No wrinkles, fraying organs, leaky bladders or aching joints. And not much need for aged care or pensions. ... In a world where life expectancy has already dramatically increased over the past century or two, we now face the likelihood of being able to custom-order fresh organs and body parts on 3D-printers, and to treating the basic causes of ageing with the likes of stem-cell therapy and nanotechnology.
De Grey and [Natasha] Vita-More, in Melbourne for this weekend's Humanity+ conference, are in the vanguard of futurists who believe that looking great or designing our bodies to suit (blue skin and magenta eyes anyone?) will be fringe benefits. That is because, in a fast-approaching era of living longer, healthier lives, it is expected we will have time to enjoy the wisdom and opportunities of getting older - we won't be so focused on all the medical appointments, decrepitude and fragility associated with old age. ... de Grey, who once said some of today's infants might live to 1000 years old, and who not so long ago was viewed sceptically by other scientists for his insistence that ageing is a preventable, treatable medical condition, now sees much broader acceptance of his ideas among scientists.
''Attitudes have changed enormously,'' he says. ''The feasibility of what I have been proposing is now generally accepted. It took a long time, because essentially ... people who were expert in regenerative medicine didn't know about ageing; and people expert in ageing didn't know about regenerative medicine.''
A bigger battle has been with the attitudes of the general population, who view ageing as natural and inevitable and who, asked if they would like to have much longer lifespans, deliver predictable objections, often saying they would get bored (so much for the human imagination). De Grey says these responses are because people don't think of ageing in the same category as other diseases: if they understood they could live much longer without medical problems or signs of ageing, they would be enthusiastic. ''They just don't think of [ageing] as a plausible target for medicine.''
Convincing at least a sizable minority of the public is absolutely necessary for the future growth of funding and the research community. On the large scale and over decades of time, the goals that are accomplished are generally those that are talked about, desired, debated, and looked forward to - the possibilities that are present in the great ongoing cultural conversation to a significant degree, in other words. That has a lot to do with the ease of raising funds and the influence upon career choices for up-and-coming scientists and technologists, amongst other factors. The first phase of producing working rejuvenation medicine by following the SENS approach - to fully rejuvenate mice in the laboratory - is a billion dollar program, something that will require a supportive and vocal community of at least tens of millions of supporters in the wider public.
Aubrey de Grey is right in saying that attitudes have changed enormously over the past decade - it's a whole different world in the scientific community when it comes to talking about aging and longevity, and more importantly when it comes to the respectability of doing something about extending healthy human life. We can hope that over the next decade much the same happens for the public at large, as the newfound respect and interest for longevity science spreads from researchers to be absorbed into the common wisdom.