Increased budgets and higher financial returns in the battle to stave off the ageing process mean that Regenerative Medicine is becoming the new darling of the US ‘transhumanist’ movement.
The US population is ageing. In 2030, 20% of all US Americans will be over 65 years old. Billionaire Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal and a key Silicon Valley player, strongly believes in the need to support work on regenerative biology and has donated millions of dollars to the SENS (‘Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence’) Foundation established by the controversial English biologist Aubrey de Grey. Meanwhile the anti-ageing biotechnology market has been seeing huge growth, both in terms of rising turnover – currently amounting to some $2 billion according to investment and advisory firm Proteus Venture Partners – and the enthusiasm it has aroused among many scientists, manufacturers and politicians. However, reactions in the scientific community have been mixed, with some experts expressing scepticism about anti-ageing efforts. Given our current ignorance of the subject, the promises made for this new approach to medicine are at best speculation.
The immortality industry?
In 2013 Google dipped its toe into the waters of the anti-ageing therapy business when it founded the California Life Company (Calico), an independent biotech R&D firm whose stated aim is to extend the natural lifespan of human beings. However, research in this field has been somewhat hampered by popular association with upstart companies offering rather fanciful cryopreservation services (i.e. storing the bodies of recently deceased people at very low temperatures in the hope of future cure and resuscitation) to people about to die. Thus the image of the relatively new field of Regenerative Medicine has been tarnished among the scientific community by the rise of a brash ‘anti-death industry’. It was probably largely to counter this negative image that radiologist and investor Joon Yun recently inaugurated the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, a $1 million life science competition dedicated to ending ageing in humans. Joon Yun explains that the purpose of the competition is to provide a way to urge researchers to “hack the ageing code”, taking up the torch from James Watson and Francis Crick, the UK-based scientists who first revealed the three-dimensional double helix structure of the DNA molecule. In fact, back in 2011, when the anti-ageing ecosystem was far less advanced than it is today, the United States Congress got into step with the new thinking when it passed the ‘The Regenerative Medicine Promotion Act’, designed to provide funding for this new avenue of research and foster its development. However, the scientific community has not been unanimously behind this drive and much controversy is raging over current anti-ageing initiatives. Criticism usually centres on the over-optimistic tone of many researchers backed by the SENS Foundation, which some experts say is not justified by actual progress to date.
Biotech versus Regenerative Medicine
Much current research into the ageing process takes a rather utilitarian approach to mortality – defining ageing as the gradual deterioration of an organism and arguing that it should be perfectly possible to make repairs fast enough to keep ahead of the ongoing decline. The general hypothesis is that if death is the result of organism deterioration then it follows that repairing the deteriorating cells should delay death. However, the anti-ageing battle is being fought on two separate fronts, in terms of the basic objectives and means applied. On the one hand there are the well-established biotech processes, including 3D bio-printers, ranging from the CRISPR gene editing system to the Regenovo cell-printer, which already enable living organisms, from sequenced genomes to complete organs, to be ‘manufactured’. The journal Rejuvenation Research first appeared as long ago as 1998, spearheaded by Editor-in-Chief Aubrey de Grey, whose career has ranged from computer programming to applied biology. Aubrey de Grey also co-founded The Methuselah Foundation in 2003, before setting up SENS in 2009. Their credo is that bio-medicine must be rooted in the living organism’s metabolism in order to treat the pathological condition, the aim being to act specifically to repair the damage done to the organism by using rejuvenating engineering techniques. Aubrey de Grey and his colleagues argue that the answer to ageing is Regenerative Medicine at the cellular level, providing appropriate treatment for the cells whether they are mutating to become cancerous or simply ageing.