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28/07/2014

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Life without ageing?

Life without ageing?

by Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, who will be discussing whether a "cure" for ageing is within reach at the British Science Festival on Monday 9 September. He will be debating against Tom Kirkwood, Associate Dean for Ageing at Newcastle University, who argues that the goal of finding a "cure" distorts what the real research priorities are.

Here, Aubrey discusses why he thinks a cure for ageing is neither out-of-reach nor a hindrance to future research.

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The controversy about whether humanity should seek medicines against ageing divides into three distinct issues, which are too often conflated:

1) is ageing a medical problem?

2) if yes to (1), is modest progress likely within say, 30 years?

3) if yes to (2), is much greater progress likely soon thereafter?

Biologists of ageing, or biogerontologists as they are more formally known, almost all answer (1) in the affirmative, noting that postponing ageing would benefit public health far more than any other medical advance. But why doesn't society listen, given its demonstrated commitment to addressing age-related disease?

The main reason may be parochialisim: biogerontologists' insistence on distinguishing "ageing itself" from age-related disease and downplaying their connection, e.g. by calling ageing a "risk factor" for age-related disease rather than its cause.

Equally damaging is conflating questions (2) and (3). Media interest in gerontology derives hugely from the "dream" of defeating ageing, but biogerontologists haven't converted this to their funding advantage. That may be because modest postponement of ageing, which is all that most biogerontologists entertain publicly, is seen as less valuable than causes like sub-Saharan malaria. A true "life without ageing" would not be.

But clearly we must only say what we believe. Thus, question (3) is central to this field's prospects. All experts agree that the answer to question (2) is unclear: the task is formidable. But question (3) depends critically on how near-term progress occurs (if it does).

Slowing ageing, biogerontolgists' historic focus, probably won't presage dramatic subsequent progress. But reversing ageing (periodically repairing damage) is different. If, by (say) 2040, we can rejuvenate 60-year-olds well enough that they won't be biologically 60 again until they're chronologically 90, we've bought thirty years to figure out how to "re-rejuvenate" the same people so that they won't be biologically 60 for the third time until they're 120, and so on. Can we really dismiss that prospect? Or can we, in fact, more plausibly dismiss the prospect of not achieving that rate of progress?

Biogerontologists often reject this logic (and deprioritise educating themselves about damage-repair advances) because we can't say much about how those more distant advances would occur, and because they still fear that discussing real success would bring biogerontology into disrepute.

Those whose career has been entirely in biology might be forgiven such stark myopia, but those with mathematical training have no excuse, whether scientific or political.

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