With the elixir of life on the horizon, when do we need to draw the line?
The first human trials are underway for a new class of drugs, known as senolytics, that may slow the process of ageing.
The new drug eliminates senescent cells – those that are active but not dividing – effectively stalling the ageing process and increasing the human ‘health span’. In animal experiments, it has even been shown to restore youthful characteristics.
“I am optimistic that we’re on the cusp of understanding enough about that process to be able to intervene,” said senescence expert Judith Campisi in conversation with MIT Technology Review. Campisi is a professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, and co-founder of Unity Biotechnology, the company behind the senolytic drug trial.
According to Campisi, the drug can greatly extend the health span and median lifespan of humans, without affecting the maximum lifespan. That means humans will retain their maximum age limit (about 115 years) but will reach that limit in better health. Potentially, many more people will reach that upper limit.
If senolytics work, more of the population will grow old, but our old folks will be in ship-shape. That’s great for those of us with loved ones reaching their twilight years and those heading there eventually (all of us), so on an individual level, it sounds like a great idea.
Having a cohort of healthy elderly folks could also take a huge financial burden off the health system.
“Eighty per cent of patients in the hospital receiving acute medical attention are over the age of 65,” said Campisi. “So the idea is that senolytics would be one weapon that geriatricians will have in their arsenal of weapons to treat ageing holistically as opposed to one disease at a time.”
We could also look at raising the retirement age and keeping people in the workforce longer, which has economic benefits, but is objectionable on an individual level.
Beyond finances and families, however, the benefits of anti-ageing drugs aren’t so clear-cut. There are questions to be raised about how much we can intervene with nature. Crafting babies to be more athletic or genetically modifying species beyond recognition sits uneasily with most of us. Unleashing our nuclear weaponry does too.
Despite the fact that we can do these things, we feel inherently uncertain that we should. In the same way, the ability to extend our lives may not give us the right to do so. After all, what right do we have to fiddle with nature?
“Evolution doesn’t care what happens to you after you’ve had your babies,” says Campisi. This, she claims, is why the body hasn’t developed a mechanism to discard the eventually deadly senescent cells.
In the evolutionary sense, by middle age we have completed our job and can begin the process of dying to clear the planet for subsequent generations.
Once you consider that Earth is already severely overpopulated, it becomes clear that there’s not much wiggle room for its citizens to start living longer. Seeing that human overpopulation is cited as a key element of climate change, the idea of extending our lives becomes ethically questionable.
But we already treat cancer. We transplant shoddy hearts, craft new limbs and cure many other “natural” ailments. If age is looked upon as a sickness to be solved, then stopping ageing through senolytics should be celebrated as a fantastic achievement rather than a crime against nature.
The question then becomes: when do we stop? At increased life spans, or, though it may seem ridiculous now, at the prevention of death altogether?
A line needs to be drawn in the evolutionary sand. It’s that old “with great power comes great responsibility” problem, revisited.
With this technology very much within reach, we must decide whether harnessing such power is simply another step in our evolution or a dangerous deviation outside what makes us fundamentally human.