If you’ve seen the movie Jupiter Ascending, you may have noticed that the plot revolved around obtaining the resources to create elixirs that restored a body to a more youthful state - basically it reversed aging. The fight against aging is an age-old one, dating back to the conquistadors searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth, but one that is still relevant today. The field of gerontology - the study of aging - has expanded drastically in the last decade as people look at the all the new things we can do with current technology and wonder how we haven’t found a way to extend our lifespans yet.
One scientist may have a new solution. At the very least, he’s come up with a whole new way to approach the problem.
Traditionally, aging has been defined as the process of growing older. But consider this new perspective: aging as the accumulated side effects of metabolism that eventually kill us. Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist, founded SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) with this new definition in mind. He has identified seven necessary metabolic functions that contribute to aging. His goal is develop therapies to reverse these types of cellular damage and thereby reverse aging.
So what are these seven main types of damage?
Nuclear Mutations / Epimutations: basically small changes in your DNA or proteins that bind to your DNA - considering how complicated your DNA is, it's actually very impressive how few mistakes are normally made. However, mistakes do happen, and while some of these mutations are completely harmless, others can cause cancer.
Mitochondrial Mutations: Mitochondria are organelles inside your cells that are responsible for energy production. Interestingly, your mitochondria have their own genetic material which is identical to your mother’s mitochondrial DNA. DNA mutations in the mitochondria can have severe effects on energy production, resulting in cells being unable to function properly.
Intracellular Junk: Your cells are constantly breaking down proteins that have served their purpose. However, some of these proteins can’t be fully degraded and accumulate inside your cells.
Extracellular Junk: Same thing, except outside of your cells. One example is the plaque seen in the brains of alzheimer's patients.
Cell Loss: Some cells - like skin cells - regenerate extremely quickly, and some cells - like neurons - divide rarely, if ever. The ones that divide rarely do so at a rate slower than that by which they die off - leading to a decreasing amount of cells. This can lead to heart problems and neurodegenerative as less and less cells have to do the amount of work (ie, pumping blood) that was intended for a greater number of cells.
Cell Senescence: This is when cells lose the ability to divide but still remain alive.
Extracellular Cross-links: Cells are held together by proteins, and our cells are constantly forming new connections. Eventually there are just too many links and tissues will lose some of their elasticity.
These seven causes of aging are thought to be either preventable, treatable, or both. And while science currently unable to fully understand each of these processes, we know enough to work on treating their end results.
The long-term goals of his war on aging? There would be nothing to stop humans from living longer lives - maybe even endless existence. Why is this a good thing? Biologically, humans peak in their mid-twenties, and with technology that could be developed in the next few decades, we might be able to keep human bodies functioning as twenty-five year olds forever! And while at first the treatments involved will likely be expensive and lengthy, eventually we could end up having a treatment similar to a vaccine in effect and convenience.
To those who might think that aging is a part of life, and that it’s wrong to try to evade it - de Grey responds that so was tuberculosis, until we prevented it.