Aging and cancer are conceptually similar in many ways, and by this I mean that they are both collections of processes that are fundamental to the way in which the biology of complex organisms works. They are not states that can be cured or eliminated through medicine as we presently understand it, but the aspiration is instead to bring these undesirable outcomes under control - to continually cut back the offshoots, to suppress the causes, and nip in the bud the results of those causes in their earliest stages. To actually cure either aging or cancer, to remove it from the human condition, would require a radical reworking of our cellular biochemistry, to the point at which it would cease to be biology in any meaningful sense and become a hybrid form of molecular nanotechnology. That sort of project lies far distant in the future. Today's concerns are entirely directed towards the control of aging and cancer, something that can be achieved through forms of medicine we can recognize and understand.
Regardless, we all use words carelessly. We search for cures for cancer. We call cancer a disease, though in reality this probably stretches that term as well. We choose not to call aging a disease, though not for any particularly rational reason. Having watched the progression of rejuvenation research since just after the turn of the century, it is both gratifying and interesting to see the changing tone in media coverage of the science, the message of the patient advocates, and the aspirations of those involved. Ten years ago, mockery was commonplace. Now journalists are taking it a lot more seriously; it is hard to do otherwise, given the earnest levels of funding and many scientific papers devoted to - to pick one example - the clearance of senescent cells, an actual, honest-to-goodness rejuvenation therapy now under development in various startup companies.
Nonetheless, journalistic habits of balance remain. Faced with a movement whose members want to prevent the majority of all death and suffering in the world by bringing an end to aging, and are mustering increasingly credible science to that cause, the authors of the old media still feel obliged to put in a word for the other side. After all, what about the view that everyone should just suffer and die? Why shouldn't that be presented with equal weight? After a certain point, balance becomes a caricature of itself - isn't this the sort of thing that would be put forth as satire in an earlier era? And yet here we are, death for everyone as the balance viewpoint in articles on the future rejuvenation biotechnology.
The list of diseases humankind has managed to defeat is impressive. But throughout history, humans have suffered from a condition that they have never been able to escape - ageing. As we get older, our cells stop working as well and can break down, leading to conditions like cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease. Together, ageing-related diseases are responsible for 100,000 deaths per day and billions are spent around the world trying to slow their steady march on our bodies.
Some researchers, however, believe we may be thinking about these conditions in the wrong way. They say we should start treating ageing itself as a disease - one that can be prevented and treated. Their hopes are founded on recent discoveries that suggest biological ageing may be entirely preventable and treatable. From a biological perspective, the body ages at different rates according to genetic and environmental factors. Tiny errors build up in our DNA and our cells begin developing faults that can accumulate into tissue damage. The extent of these changes over time can mean the difference between a healthy old age or one spent housebound and afflicted by chronic diseases.
The scientists who hope to do this sit on the fringes of the mainstream medical landscape. But there are now a number of research centres around the world that have made identifying ways of preventing biological ageing a priority. Studies in animals have shown that it is indeed possible to dramatically extend the lifespan of certain species, giving hope that it could also be possible in humans. One of the leading figures in human longevity research, Aubrey de Grey, is the chief science officer at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation, a California-based regenerative medicine research foundation focused on extending the healthy human lifespan. Their goal is to develop a suite of therapies for middle-aged and older people that will leave them physically and mentally equivalent to someone under the age of 30. They want "to fix the things we don't like about the changes that happen between the age of 30 and the age of 70". There are seven biological factors de Grey argues are predominantly responsible for cellular damage that accompanies ageing and underlies ageing-related diseases.
De Grey doesn't think that it will be possible stop ageing altogether with these types of approaches, but they may give patients an extra 30 years or so of life. He envisages a future where "rejuvenation technologies" can be administered to old people in order to revert their cells to what they were like when they were in their youth, buying them extra time. The idea is that someone who is treated at the age of 60 will be biologically reverted to 30. But because the therapies are not permanent fixes, their cells will end up becoming 60 years old again in another 30 years time. By then de Grey hopes the therapies could be reapplied as "version 2.0" to revert the same individuals once again to become younger in their cells. As a result, that person's cells wouldn't become 60 again until they're about 150 years old.
And he is not alone in believing ageing-related diseases can be solved. George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, told us that while some of his colleagues argue many age-related diseases are so complex that they simply can't be treated, he finds such thinking to be incorrect. "If you can control both the environment and the genetics, you can get people that live youthful healthy lives for exceptionally much longer than others. In industrialised nations, most of the diseases are due to age-related diseases and I think those too can be handled."
But regardless of how it is achieved, extending human lifespans by decades or even hundreds of years will present us with some difficult social realities. There could be major societal impacts if we all start living longer. There are some that fear greater longevity could lead to swelling populations and raise doubts that our planet could support such numbers. Aubrey de Grey has little time for such questions and believes that other technologies - such as artificial meat, desalination, solar energy and other renewables - will increase the carrying capacity of the planet, allowing more people to live longer lives. But this rationale suffers from a dependence on uncertain techno-fixes that may not alleviate suffering in an equally distributed manner. Yet, if concerns like these had paralysed the early pioneers of vaccination and antibiotics, it is unlikely many of us today could expect to live much beyond the age of 40-years-old. Advances in medicine over the last two centuries have taught us that we have the power to defeat the diseases that afflict us. Perhaps if we apply ourselves, then we can beat ageing too.