Scientists Are Finding Ways to Reverse Ageing. Is It Worth It?
The short answer to this existential question, according to researchers, is that the science of anti-ageing is worth it. The wisdom seems to be that we must strive to expand the human lifespan, and thereby expand progress and unbridled scientific innovation.
This idea witnessed a breakthrough last week, when scientists were able to turn the clock back 30 years for human skin cells without losing any function. Published in eLife, the study enlisted regenerative technologies for their work. A process that “induces” stem cells turns normal cells into stem cells — or cells that don’t have a unique identity and can be turned into any kind of cell. While research hasn’t yet caught up sufficiently with the latter half of the equation, the new method in the current research shows another way.
Instead of waiting for the 50 days it usually takes to turn a normal cell into a stem cell, researchers at the Babraham Institute’s Epigenetics research center waited only 13 days — until the signs of ageing were lost and cells temporarily lost identity. They then kept the cells under normal conditions and waited for them to regain their functionality as skin cells — miraculously, it worked. “Our results represent a big step forward in our understanding of cell reprogramming…The fact that we also saw a reverse of ageing indicators in genes associated with diseases is particularly promising for the future of this work,” Diljeet Gill, author of the study, said.
Importantly, the cells didn’t just look younger, they also functioned like they were much younger. In essence, the cells were “reprogrammed” to behave as if they were much younger. This can help in regenerative medicine, whose functionality can range from healing wounds to Alzheimer’s treatment, according to the researchers.
This isn’t the first time research has been devoted to the question of anti-ageing. Fuelled by the all too human anxiety of death and decrepitude, science has always searched for the elusive fountain of youth — now potentially found in the form of stem cells.
But there is an understudied side to it all: who benefits from ageing slower, or halting ageing completely?
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If literature and fiction are anything to go by, immortality is usually the quest of the villainous. And just as art imitates life, in the real world the funding for much anti-ageing research can be traced directly back to the world’s foremost billionaires.
“…it’s about ensuring old age is enjoyed and not endured. Who wants to extend lifespan if all that means is another 30 years of ill health? This is about increasing healthspan, not lifespan,” Janet Lord, from the Institute for Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham told The Guardian. Lord is one of several pioneering researchers to have become interested in Altos: the richest Silicon-valley startup you’ve never heard of. Also a part of Altos? Wolf Reik, Gill’s supervisor and leading epigenetics researcher.
A nexus of big tech, government, and science seem to be at the helm of the race to extend the finish line, ad infinitum. The Methuselah Foundation is another such startup, backed by Peter Thiel — another billionaire who is hell-bent on anti-ageing tech. Their mission is to “make 90 the new 50 by 2030,” and they work on similar regenerative technologies. Unity Biotechnology, another Silicon-valley startup aims to flush out “senescent” cells — or a build-up of damaged cells that cause inflammation in the body. This method could potentially eliminate diseases associated with old age, according to the company that draws its reserves from funding from Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel.
To be sure, many of these companies have some compelling research; and the science itself is almost too good to be true. But while this may be the case, the idea is deeply troubling for how it individualizes medicine and ageing to a factor of optimizing the health of only those who can afford it. For everyone else, the usual stressors and imminent threats of the modern world threaten to cut their lives short at every turn: poverty, hunger, violence, and ecological collapse.
Moreover, the blind pursuit of this science overlooks systemic factors in age-related disease. “We can be healthy only when the entire community is also healthy,” wrote Rupa Marya and Raj Patel in Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. Marya and Patel argue that our bodies suffer from inflammation as a result of an onslaught of the injustices of the world: colonialism, capitalism, and environmental destruction that actively harms ecosystems. The key to living longer, then, may not be completely hidden in our cells — but in our surroundings.