Imagine if your doctor told you that you had an injured muscle but she had the technology to help it heal and strengthen within days, or that you had a damaged heart, but she had the ability to grow you a new one in the laboratory.
The fields of anti-aging and regenerative medicine are aiming to do just that. Regenerative medicine is an interdisciplinary field that brings together fundamentals from chemistry, biology and physics to generate a new paradigm designed to repair, replace or regenerate tissues and organs. Because regenerative medicine incorporates the possibility of producing tissues and organs in a laboratory, through the use of stem cells, it has the potential to eliminate problems such as organ shortage and organ transplant rejection.
Where do we currently stand within this vast area of medical technology? According to Aubrey de Grey, theoretician in the field of gerontology and the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, the science needed to develop effective anti-aging medicine exists, but the funding is seriously lagging behind.
De Grey’s interest in regenerative medicine stems from an early desire to change the quality of life for humanity. This led him into artificial intelligence research with the aim of developing machines that could take over menial activities, giving humans more time for leisure and pleasurable pursuits. At the age of 26, he met, and later married, fruit-fly geneticist Adelaide Carpenter. Through his relationship with Carpenter and other experts in the field of biology, de Grey began to notice a marked lack of interest in aging. This led him down a somewhat different theoretical pathway and he became fascinated with the search for a way to slow down or reverse the process.
What is the ‘Pro-Aging Trance’
De Grey coined the term “pro-aging trance” in reference to a psychological strategy that many people use to cope with aging; a strategy that leads them to accept it as inevitable.
“I have a lot more sympathy with the resistance that I encounter than you might think. I do basically understand why people have the view that they do, that this is something that they don’t want to think about. … It makes perfect sense that if you want to distract yourself from the issue of aging, then the right way to go about it is to convince yourself, in one way or another, that it’s not such a bad thing as it might seem,” says de Grey.
Moving Beyond the Trance
Many people who are prepared to look beyond the pro-aging trance foresee societal problems, such as over-population, if aging is to become a thing of the past. According to de Grey, these criticisms are unrealistic and there is a viable alternative.
“Most of what I do starts by forcing people into separating the feasibility and the desirability of anti-aging. … We don’t know how hard this is, but the only way to discover how hard it is, is to look at the details, look at where we are, and look at what strategies are available,” explains de Grey.
The Ultimate Obstacle for Anti-Aging Research
For de Grey, the prevalence, in both society and scientific fields, to regard anti-aging as unfeasible at best, presents a major obstacle for obtaining research funding.
“The ultimate issue here is funding,” he said. “We have a plan, we know what research needs to be done, we also have the right scientists. We have world leaders in medical research hot-to-trot (sic) they really want this to happen, and would be doing it if they had that money in place.”
Funding for this type of research generally comes from three sources: government, the private sector and philanthropy. As de Grey points out, because government funding is beholden to public opinion and the public is ambivalent about anti-aging research, there is a marked lack of funding from that source. Similarly, there is a reluctant for the private sector to provide funding because of the lack of public interest. Even in philanthropic circles, there is a tendency to follow public opinion rather than acting autonomously.
The Future of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine
While emphasizing the need to educate the public in the possibilities of anti-aging research, de Grey also points out that it holds the potential to eliminate many diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and this is just the very tip of the iceberg. With funding in place, we could soon see the eradication of many other diseases and humans living up to 1,000 years old.
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