SARASOTA, Fla. (Jan. 28, 2016) – Biomedical gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey says he isn’t spouting science fiction when he claims aging is a disease that can be cured.
Bio-technological advances a generation from now may extend life by 30 years, and similar advances down the road might go beyond even that, Dr. de Grey told about 170 at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Selby Auditorium Tuesday night.
“Five years from now Oprah Winfrey’s going to be giving you what I’m telling you, and then you’re going to believe it,” he said, spurring laughs.
Chief science officer at SENS Research Foundation, a California-based research charity focused on fighting the aging process, Dr. de Grey said he expects lifespans to reach 120 in the next 25 years. Thanks to advances in stem cell therapy and research into therapies involving cellular repair and DNA, human beings may someday be able to turn back the clock biologically speaking even though they’re generations older chronologically.
“Number one, we’re not talking science. We’re talking about technology,” he said. “Science is about understanding nature. Technology is about manipulating nature.”
Dr. de Grey addressed the crowd as part of USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Knowledge-A-Bull Speaker Series. The British-born scientist received his bachelor’s degree and PhD from the University of Cambridge. His theories have attracted attention from numerous media outlets and journals, including 60 Minutes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time and Fortune magazine.
The lanky, bearded professor spoke for about 45 minutes, interrupted by occasional laughter as he wove wry humor into at times a dry, technical subject.
His research focuses on tackling aging at the cellular level. He identified seven main causes of aging, but said that generally aging is the side effect of metabolism, the physical and chemical processes that occur within the cell.
Cells break down as they age, stop dividing and otherwise function less effectively. Mutations in DNA and mitochondrial material can speed up cellular breakdown. Proteins can accumulate inside and outside cells, also proving harmful. One example is the plaque seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
The body can tolerate some cellular breakdown, but we begin to “suffer from the accumulation of that damage” by middle age. However, just as a car undergoes periodic tune-ups and other maintenance as it gets older, medical technology may someday intervene to rejuvenate damaged cells and organs to restore the body.
He fielded audience questions for 15 minutes after the talk. He acknowledged the consequences of societies comprised of swaths of vastly older populations. However, he said, those societal “side-effects” will become sorted out over time. Meanwhile, he cautioned against restricting life-extending medical advances saying, “We would be condemning a cohort of descendants to the same sort of painful death that our ancestors experienced.”
After the lecture, students and faculty mingled at a reception. Some were skeptical about living hundreds of years or even 150 years – though it seemed like a tantalizing prospect.
“I like that it might be possible in the foreseeable future, but I don’t see this happening in 10 years,” USFSM gerontology student Joni Kalinowski, 57, said.
Another student, Jennifer Almeyda Soto, 21, a biology major, questioned the moral implications of science providing vastly longer lives. “We’re not meant to live that long,” she said.
Others seemed to take the wait-and-see approach.
“I think that Dr. de Grey’s work and ideas hold tremendous promise at the level of preventing cellular damage at the biological level,” said USFSM gerontologist Dr. Kathy Black, who introduced Dr. de Grey. “His contention that the lifespan can be expanded is questionable because all species have a finite lifespan.
“And of course the implications of radical longevity would cause reverberations throughout society – social, economic, ethical and more. We are at the brink of insolvency in our Social Security system with just 15 years greater life expectancy from when the program was created. Can you imagine decades more? I think the scientific inquiry should continue, but more attention should be paid to the implications of the work as well,” she said.