According to Aubrey de Grey’s predictions, the first person who will live to see their 150th birthday has already been born. And the first person to live for 1,000 years could be less than 20 years younger.
De Grey, a biomedical gerontologist and chief scientist of a foundation dedicated to longevity research, is sure that within his own lifetime doctors could have all the tools they need to “cure” aging — banishing diseases that come with it and extending life indefinitely.
De Grey said in an interview before delivering a lecture at Britain’s Royal Institution academy of science: “I’d say we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I’d call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so.”
“And what I mean by decisive is the same sort of medical control that we have over most infectious diseases today,” he added. De Grey thinks that soon people will go to their doctors for regular “maintenance,” which will include stem cell therapies, gene therapies, immune stimulation and a range of other advanced medical techniques to keep them in good shape.
De Grey his doctorate in Cambridge University in 2000 and is chief scientific officer of the non-profit California-based SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Foundation, which he co-founded in 2009. De Grey describes aging as the lifelong accumulation of various types of molecular and cellular damage throughout the body.
“The idea is to engage in what you might call preventative geriatrics, where you go in to periodically repair that molecular and cellular damage before it gets to the level of abundance that ispathogenic,” he explained in the interview.
It is actually not clear how far and how fast life expectancy will increase in the future. Now an average of three months is being added to life expectancy every year and according to the experts there could be a million centenarians across the world by 2030.
If de Grey is correct, this could have a profound impact on future healthcare and pensions provision. By the way, the world’s longest-living person on record lived to 122 and only in Japan there were more than 44,000 centenarians in 2010.
Currently 11,800 people in the UK are aged 100 or over and fewer than 100 are over 110. Some researchers say, however, that an epidemic of obesity which is now spilling over from rich nations into the developing world may spoil the trend toward longer lifespan.
Some people don’t find the idea of living for hundreds of years attractive, either, because it conjures up an image of generations of sick, weak old people and societies increasingly less able to cope. But de Grey explains that this is not his aim.
“This is absolutely not a matter of keeping people alive in a bad state of health,” he told Reuters. “This is about preventing people from getting sick as a result of old age. The particular therapies that we are working on will only deliver long life as a side effect of delivering better health,” he said.
Heart diseases that cause heart failure, strokes and heart attacks and are caused by the accumulation of certain types of “molecular garbage”, according to de Grey, which consists of byproducts of the body’s metabolic processes – which our bodies are not able to excrete or break down.
“The garbage accumulates inside the cell, and eventually it gets in the way of the cell’s workings,” he said. De Grey is working with his colleagues in the United States to identify enzymes in other species that can help excrete the garbage and clean out the cells. And then they are going to find the way to devise genetic therapies to give this capability to humans.
“If we could do that in the case of certain modified forms of cholesterol which accumulate in cells of the artery wall, then we simply would not get cardiovascular disease,” de Grey said. Cardiovascular diseases are the world’s biggest age-related killers and de Grey says there is a long way to go on these though researchers have figured out the path to follow.
De Grey divided the damage caused by aging into seven main categories. The appropriate repair techniques need to be developed for each of them if his prediction for continual maintenance is to come true. He notes that there already exist a lot of advanced techniques.
“Stem cell therapy is a big part of this. It’s designed to reverse one type of damage, namely the loss of cells when cells die and are not automatically replaced, and it’s already in clinical trials (in humans),” de Grey said. Stem cell therapies are used to cure people with spinal cord injuries, and de Grey and others say they may one day be used to find ways to repair disease-damaged brains and hearts.
De Grey doesn’t make firm predictions about how long people will be able to live in future. At the same time he says that with each major advance in longevity scientists will win more time to make more scientific progress. According to de Grey the first person who will live to 1,000 is likely to be born less than 20 years after the first person will reach 150.
“I call it longevity escape velocity — where we have a sufficiently comprehensive panel of therapies to enable us to push back the ill health of old age faster than time is passing. And that way, we buy ourselves enough time to develop more therapies further as time goes on,” he said.
“What we can actually predict in terms of how long people will live is absolutely nothing, because it will be determined by the risk of death from other causes like accidents,” he said. “But there really shouldn’t be any limit imposed by how long ago you were born. The whole point of maintenance is that it works indefinitely.”
De Grey’s ideas may seem far-fetched. But in 2005 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review journal offered $20,000 for any molecular biologist who proved that de Grey’s SENS theory was “so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate”. The money was never won.
At the same time nine leading scientists dismissed de Grey’s work as “pseudo science” and concluded that this label was not fair, arguing that SENS “exists in a middle ground of yet-to-be-tested ideas that some people may find intriguing but which others are free to doubt.” [via Yahoo! News]