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Another Giant Step?

Do you want to live forever? Some interesting news is coming out of the scientific community these days. UK scientist Aubrey de Grey has come up with an approach to combatting aging called Negligible Engineered Senescence. Unlike many researchers who view aging from a medical or biological perspective, de Grey views it as an engineering problem. He contends that, in the future, we will be able to use nanotechnology or biotechnology to repair the changes that result from our getting older. He believes that, given enough funding to support the research, we may within ten years of being able to stop or even reverse aging in mice and that we may be able bring similar therapies to humans within 20 to 100 years.

This is all very exciting. However, I must confess that my first reaction was: so much for planning to retire any time soon.

Nevertheless, work beats death all to heck, so I poked around at various sites on the Web to see what kinds of longevity research projects were in the works. The whole topic of longevity seems to attract two types of people. One is the visionary, scientifically-inclined individual who views aging as a 'disease' and refuses to accept it as the proper fate of mankind. The second is the crackpot who is bursting with enthusiasm and schemes but who lacks any grasp of scientific realities. These two groups are united by the contempt with which the average person views them. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of people believe that death is natural fate of all living things and that we ought to keep our hands off. They believe that trying to avoid death is unnatural and immoral, and they point to various cautionary tales about what happens when we meddle in things we shouldn't. Frankenstein, anyone?1

Needless to say, the arguments between the two groups generally make for depressing reading, with mutual incomprehension and much nonsense posing as 'fact' dominating the discussions.

The visionary scientist has a tough row to hoe. Arrayed against him are an uninformed public, religious leaders who believe he's doing the Devil's bidding, political leaders who basically agree with the two previous groups and who are in a position to make their views stick, and other scientists who are often surprisingly resistant to new ideas. You would think this last group would revel in intellectual ferment, but a lot of them don't. Human nature, I guess.

The big problem, of course, is money. Scientific inquiry takes money, lots of it, and the scientist who is aiming to make a career for himself is wise to choose research topics that are likely to receive funding from the government or other organisations. While there is a lot of worthwhile investigation going on, mankind's big leaps often come about from the notions of visionaries who can be indistinguishable from crackpots in the early going. The question is: do we want to fund the slower, methodical steps to better understanding of our world, or do we want to risk funding the wild leaps that may or may not turn out to be pratfalls?

Enter the World Wide Web. The average person is now in a position to find out about new and exciting ideas and to contribute his or her money toward making them reality. The days in which interesting projects depend on governmental support are coming to an end. Witness last summer's first civilian space flight. And now a number of researchers are hoping that enough people are excited by the possibility of radically lengthening the human lifespan and will help fund the research that will make the possibility a reality. The Methuselah Mouse Prize is modelled on the X-Prize that funded last summer's historic flight and helps to provide incentives to scientists to develop anti-aging technologies. Let's hope that it meets with the same resounding success as its predecessor.

In the meantime, it's smart to bear in mind the words of an American comedian — George Burns? Jack Benny? — who noted that if he'd known he was going to live that long, he'd have taken better care of himself. So it's fresh veggies and green tea for this girl. Better fund that retirement account, too...


For more information on longevity research, check out the following links:

Running With Scissors Archive


17.02.05 Front Page

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1I suppose I should also mention the charlatans who peddle various anti-aging lotions and potions and whose main interest is making money off of gullible souls.

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