Can biotechnology conquer ageing?

Saturday 22 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Frobisher Auditorium 1 The Future Now: Science and Technology


We are living ever longer. In the past few decades, there have been significant advances in maximum life spans. The number of people worldwide reaching the age of 100 rose from 95,000 in 1990 to 451,000 in 2015 and is forecast to reach 3.7million by 2050.  Yet the rapid growth of the ageing population presents new challenges. The core issue is the disparity between lifespan and health span: extended life usually means extended frailty. The most common afflictions of our dotage – including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and arthritis - mean that nearly 40 per cent of those over 85 require daily assistance. Ageing itself is not a disease, but it is a risk factor. As drug research is organised around addressing specific maladies, can pharmacology realistically do anything to combat the functional decline caused by ageing itself? Some are hopeful that the biotechnology revolution holds the answers. The potential for new discoveries in cell and molecular biology to impact disease has led to increased commercial interest in longevity from the likes of Peter Thiel, Craig Venter and Google. The discovery of simple genetic interventions that have extended the lifespans of rodents without the usual degeneration of ageing could have implications for humans. Might advanced regenerative biotech, including stem-cell and tissue engineering, improve the quality of life for the ageing population? Might data from hundreds of thousands of human genome sequences and vast piles of published genomic data help us work out the differences between the tissues of young and old people to further understand and tackle the genetics of longevity? And might data gathered from fashionable wearable tech devices such as Fitbits be corralled to help? Then there are non-medical technologies, such as the new enthusiasm for biohacking. Memory implants are being developed to help people with Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and strokes. If we can’t arrest the decline of our own cells, perhaps we can give them a helping hand.

But before we all rush off to become human cyborgs or sign in to the hundreds of clinics around the world offering ‘treatments’ for the diseases of age, we need to untangle the hype from the reality. Which of these new developments offer real hope for extending healthy life and which are just fountain-of-youth quackery? Would anyone be prepared to enter a ‘moon-shot’ programme to extend life by all means necessary - 150 years, anyone? - at the expense of quality? And are we happy to give up our most intimate data in return for having our heart attack predicted? Then there are thorny ethical issues. Is our obsession with eternal youth a distraction from living a full human life? Getting older is about more than physical deterioration, after all. Traditionally, it also brought wisdom, experience and perspective. Could today’s Tech Gods make better use of the time they have than simply trying to prolong it indefinitely?