Publicly stating as a scientist that you’re working on defeating aging or even that you consider it a desirable goal has historically been career suicide. Very few scientists have been able to challenge the orthodoxies around aging research and not end up ostracized from the community.
There are, however, a few yet growing number of pioneers and mavericks who are changing the goals of aging research and are willing to stand up publicly for the desirability of a transhumanist vision (even if they don’t call themselves transhumanists) of completely defeating biological aging.
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is probably the most prominent and consistent advocate for the defeat of aging. Dr. de Grey believes that the first person to live to 150 has probably already been born and that achieving perpetual youth via continual removal of cellular and molecular damage is potentially possible within our lifetimes given adequate research and funding.
In the early 2000s de Grey almost single handedly kicked off the current interest in the repair and maintenance approach to defeating aging which he calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, or SENS for short. Aubrey de Grey founded the non-profit SENS Research Foundation in 2009 in order to hasten the research in areas that are underfunded and to educate the general public and academia about the feasibility and importance of ending aging.
Aubrey de Grey’s work is no longer on the fringes of biogerontology as it was in the early 2000s, today his ideas are verging on mainstream with the SENS Research Foundation having papers published in the most prestigious journals including Nature and Science.
Prof. George Church is another world-renowned scientist who believes therapies to reverse aging are within our grasp. He is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and he sits on the research advisory board of Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research Foundation. Prof. Church has been called the father of synthetic biology for his early contributions to the field. Today he hopes to use CRISPR and other gene editing tools to cure diseases and reverse aging. He’s not interested in pausing aging or slowing its damage but actually reversing the genetic mutations associated with causing aging.
Prof. Church has recently founded a company called Editas Medicine to bring these therapies to market, their first clinical trial is planned for later this year against Leber’s congenital amaurosis. Prof. Church’s next target are the genes associated with aging and he hopes to see clinical trials in 2018.
Dr. Anthony Atala is a pioneering scientist and surgeon in the field of tissue engineering and he runs the worlds largest tissue engineering lab the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University. Along with Prof. Chruch, Dr. Atala also sits on the research advisory board of Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research Foundation and has endorsed Aubrey’s SENS vision in the fight against aging.
Dr. Atala has for years been leading the way in growing organs in the laboratory for implant. In 2004 he and his team successfully carried out the first implantation of a lab-grown organ, a bladder, into a human patient. The bladder was created by seeding the patient’s own bladder cells onto a bladder shaped biodegradable scaffold. Once the patient’s cells grow and take the shape of the scaffold it’s ready to be implanted.
Dr. Atala and his lab are now working on over 20 different tissues and organs including skin, bones, hearts, kidneys and lungs. With continued research and funding almost every organ looks like it will be able to be bio-printed or grown for implantation in the coming decades.
His work points to a future where aging organs could simply be replaced off-the-shelf when needed by the patient, akin to replacing the parts of a vintage car. Thousands of patients who currently die every year worldwide while sitting on wait lists for organ transplants could be a thing of the past.
Anti-aging research still has a long way to go for the public and policy makers to fully understand its potential but the zeitgeist is changing and the pace of progress is accelerating thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists like de Grey, Church and Atala. Replacing our aged organs with lab-grown organs, editing our genomes to reverse aging and repairing the cellular and molecular damage caused by metabolism are no longer fringe fantasies but are serious well-reasoned research paths that have the potential to revolutionize aging in our lifetimes.