Ageing and eventual death have long been considered the only absolute inevitabilities of life. A morbid thought, perhaps, but up until recent years, it has been broadly accepted as an accurate one. Recent research into regenerative medicine has begun to lace such conviction with doubt, however, and if experts are accurate, the prospect of living for several centuries could become realistic in the foreseeable future.
SENS Foundation is a non-profit organisation that was founded in California in 2009 and they are at the forefront of such pioneering research. The name is an acronym for “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”: a term, which was coined by co-founder, Aubrey de Grey. In layman’s terms, engineered negligible senescence refers to eradicating the symptoms of aging. A number of animals, including giant tortoises and lobsters, are believed to be naturally negligibly senescent, hence their apparently extended life spans (around 250 years and 100 years respectively). One species of freshwater animal, the hydra, is actually considered “biologically immortal” due to the fact its stem cells have the capacity to regenerate themselves indefinitely.
The existence of such an elongated ageing process is a factor that has spurred researchers to consider the prospect of similar qualities being achievable in humans via medical or technological enhancement. What SENS proposes, is that if extensive research and testing were to continue at full force, the lifespan of somebody undergoing regenerative therapy could be extended by 30 years within a decade.
In a TED talk, which took place in 2005, Aubrey de Grey smartly notes that, “aging is a side-effect of being alive.” He continues to explain that the sophisticated network of internal processes that enable us to live (i.e. metabolism) has a number of side effects that eventually cause the degenerative processes that result in aging and, eventually, death. The damaging side effects of metabolism are not actually part of metabolism itself, however, so if they were treated effectively, ageing would be extensively minimised.
Every metabolic development is relevant to ageing, but SENS believe that they have narrowed down the most consequential to a list of seven reversible processes. These include obvious issues, such as the literal degeneration and loss of important tissue and cells, and some, which are more complex, like damaged proteins, which impede the function of cells from both inside and outside cellular walls.
These currently unavoidable symptoms can apparently be sidestepped with numerous innovative methods. One example is mutated mitochondria, another of the seven harmful results of metabolic processes. This could be eradicated by administering missing proteins to the damaged cells in question. Once mitochondria are formed in the cell, the pores of the membrane become blocked, which is why the necessary proteins aren’t naturally relocated. SENS have discovered that inserting inteins (described on their website as a kind of molecular “brace”) into protein sequences, would allow them to pass through this membrane, effectively reversing the mutation.
SENS are currently experimenting with mice. If the preferred timeframe is retained, within a few short years, the mice in question may live to the seasoned age of five – more than twice the average two-year expectancy. The foundation remains ambitious that the eventual longevity for humans undergoing regenerative treatment could be anything up to 1,000 years, with minimal mental or aesthetic consequences. For the time being, the certainty of death remains unflinching, but if this research is successful, the process of aging could soon cease to impede our extended mortality at all.