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Scientists aim to solve the problem of aging

Many Doctor Who fans will remember the somewhat strange image of The Face of Boe who, and I hope I am not revealing any spoilers for readers, is revealed to be the visage of Captain Jack Harkness after living for over 1000 years.

While the Doctor himself can regenerate, the Captain simply cannot die and is at the full mercy of the ravages of time. This is one of the first images of a 1000 year old human that Science Fiction has been able to conjure up, something beyond the realms of reality.

However, Dr. Joon Yun, a hedge fund manager in Silicon Valley, believes this not to be the case. The Palo Alto Investors President has set up the Palo Alto Longevity Prize in order to “solve aging”. In fact, one of the scientists involved has speculated that the first person to live for 1000 years may already be alive.

Although that prospect is somewhat fanciful, the aim is apparently to get humans to live to more than 120 years old, yet this seemingly simple problem is slightly more complex once we analyse the question itself.

The aim of the project is to find the root cause of aging and it is currently believed there are four major factors that contribute to this process. They are the problem of telomeres, oxidative stress, glycation and a process termed ‘chronological aging’ each of which we shall look at in turn.

A telomere is the term for the end of a molecule of DNA which is included to stop the ends of this molecule from being cut short when the DNA in a cell is replicated. The problem being that the addition of these short DNA sequences is reliant on another molecule known as telomerase. As the production of telomerase decreases over time, the telomeres themselves shorten and eventually the DNA molecule itself is shortened and cannot perform its functions and dies.

Many believe this to be an unavoidable imperfection of the process of DNA replication. On the other hand, there is also a case to say that it is a well placed one. Telomerase is one factor in the uncontrolled growth of tumours and it is not yet known as to how a degradation resistant form of this enzyme might affect the body negatively.

Oxidative stress is the damage to DNA and other molecules by the reactions of oxygen. Whilst oxygen is of course vital to our survival, it is also harmful to many processes in the body and brain. Its reactions will on a few occasions leave residual damage to DNA, fats and proteins among other molecules in the body. Although this damage is rare, over time it accumulates, affecting bodily functions.

Thirdly, we take a brief look at glycation. This is another unfortunate side effect of an essential molecule for us. Glucose can very occasionally bind to DNA molecules and other important molecules in the body. This can change their shape and severely inhibit their function. Although individually, the effect of this damage is unnoticeable, again the accumulation is what eventually causes the effects of aging.

The fourth factor mentioned is ambiguously known as ‘chronological aging’ and is the umbrella term for all minor effects of damage primarily to our DNA, but also to other molecules in the body that, like the afore mentioned processes, accumulates over time.

Things such as UV radiation from the environment, mishaps in DNA replication and even many foodstuffs we eat have what is known as ‘mutagenic potential’.

Far from meaning they can grant you super powers, unfortunately this only refers to their ability to cause minor alterations to DNA molecules. As alarming as this could appear, the damage goes on to billions of people and organisms across the globe and only in the vast minority of cases, 1.1×10-8%, does a mutation occur.

It would appear that the initial effort by Dr. Aubrey de Gray is focussing on the genetic level to analyse the differences between older and younger people, however on current projections it does seem difficult.

It would also be worth noting the impact on the species of such a scientific breakthrough. With the current advances in medicine, over the past 200 years our global population has grown from 1bn to roughly 7bn. This has had a huge drain on global resources and however, wonderful an effect of extending lifespan would have on countless microcosms of society, it is worrying to think of what an effect a further decreased death rate would have.

We have seen in China how rapid growth of population has an effect and their choice of control was to limit birth rates. The few choices to limit population growth in this case should this be available en masse would seem to be totalitarian at best. It is a harsh but nonetheless true fact that the Earth has a limit of physical resources, the most rigidly limited being actual space!

On the other hand should the technology be exclusive, it poses a more difficult philosophical question of how could it ever be fairly decided who should receive it? This prize shows the need of the individual over the need of the species under the guise of the opposite. As a species this would appear to pose more problems than it actually solves. Unfortunately, however amazing the benefits would be in the short term, the long term would show this to be more fantastical than fantastic.

Daniel Stuart

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