03 January 2008

Do You Want To Live a Really Long Time?

Most readers of Al Fin blog want to live long, happy, prosperous lives. Otherwise, why read this blog? I consider Aubrey de Grey's SENS program for radical life extension to be the best ongoing approach to significant improvement in human lifespan. Now the mainstream periodical, The Economist, takes a look at de Grey's regimen:
Dr de Grey, who is an independent researcher working in Cambridge, England, is a man who provokes strong opinions. He is undoubtedly a visionary, but many biologists think that his visions are not so much insights as mischievous mirages, for he believes that anti-ageing technology could come about in a future that many now alive might live to see.

Vision or mirage, Dr de Grey has defined the problem precisely. Unlike most workers in the field, he has an engineering background, and is thus ideally placed to look into the biological repair shop. As he sees things, ageing has seven components; deal with all seven, and you stop the process in its tracks. He refers to this approach as strategies for engineered negligible senescence (SENS).

The seven sisters that Dr de Grey wishes to slaughter with SENS are cell loss, apoptosis-resistance (the tendency of cells to refuse to die when they are supposed to), gene mutations in the cell nucleus, gene mutations in the mitochondria (the cell's power-packs), the accumulation of junk inside cells, the accumulation of junk outside cells and the accumulation of inappropriate chemical links in the material that supports cells.

It is quite a shopping list. But it does, at least, break the problem into manageable parts. It also suggests that multiple approaches to the question may be needed. Broadly, these are of two sorts: to manage the process of wear and tear to slow it down and mask its consequences, or to accept its inevitability and bring the body in for servicing at regular intervals to replace the worn-out parts.

The writers at The Economist seem to understand that the key to getting anywhere in science is to "break a problem into manageable parts". Then define hypotheses which are falsifiable. Then test your hypotheses, one by one.

Because this is the approach that de Grey and his program are taking--and since no one else has attempted anything else nearly so ambitious or logical--it is to de Grey, SENS, the Methuselah Foundation etc. that most interested parties look for advances in this area. Of course, breakthroughs can occur at unexpected times and places. The radar scope must still sweep a broad circle. But reading de Grey's book, Ending Aging, and following the progress of SENS, is a good place to start.

Hat tip Brian Wang

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