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Biotech Technology

Harvard Prof. Says Cure For Aging Could Emerge Within 5 Years (washingtonpost.com) 385

trbdavies writes: Reporting from the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing summit in D.C., the Washington Post quotes Harvard genetics professor George Church as expressing "confidence that in just five or six years he will be able to reverse the aging process in human beings." He says: "A scenario is, everyone takes gene therapy — not just curing rare diseases like cystic fibrosis, but diseases that everyone has, like aging," CRISPR is a powerful technology, but many at the summit have expressed caution about both the ethics and the feasibility of using it to cure disease. The story quotes Klaus Rajewsky, of the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine saying "We have become masters in the art of manipulating genes, but our understanding of their function and interaction is far more limited."
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Harvard Prof. Says Cure For Aging Could Emerge Within 5 Years

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  • Fantastic! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 03, 2015 @09:57AM (#51048775)

    That should coincide with the perfection of nuclear fusion reactors and the release of Hurd 1.0.

  • by jdavidb ( 449077 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:00AM (#51048795) Homepage Journal

    That would certainly be wonderful, and I'm sure it's theoretically possible at one point, but I wonder if it's a bit overoptimistic. I mean a lot overoptimistic.

    If they are going to solve this problem in five years I don't need to worry at all about diet and exercise, right? What an excuse for not taking good care of myself....

    • Well, I can believe that in 5 or 6 years we will have some manner of gene therapy that will counter some aging effects but I also expect it to be prohibitively expensive for anyone who is not a billionaire and have severe, unforeseen side effects in the first few rounds.

      Personally, I am not a huge fan of the idea of living effectively forever if it just means that I am only working for my next gene therapy.

    • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:45AM (#51049133)

      That would certainly be wonderful, and I'm sure it's theoretically possible at one point, but I wonder if it's a bit overoptimistic. I mean a lot overoptimistic.

      If they are going to solve this problem in five years I don't need to worry at all about diet and exercise, right? What an excuse for not taking good care of myself....

      Now that is a very interesting comment. I think it speaks to the odd puritanical streak in some folks, that somehow being healthy without sacrifice is bad. Certainly I'd like a way to not have to got to extremes for physical fitness. At my physical height, I bicycled 30 miles per day, ran 3 miles per day, and did weights every other day. Top it off with three Ice Hockey games a week.

      Now whether or not that would make me live longer - which I doubt - it did give me some wicked CV stamina. Ruined my legs though. But in the end, and in retrospect. It was just about all I did for many years outside of work. That Calvanistic streak coupled with the idea that all we have to do is "take care of ourselves" simply ain't all that.

      • Do you feel like the running is what did leg damage? I have hypothesized this myself. When I am only cycling and not even walking long distances, my legs and feet feel great. But I always regret hiking or running too much.

        • Do you feel like the running is what did leg damage? I have hypothesized this myself. When I am only cycling and not even walking long distances, my legs and feet feel great. But I always regret hiking or running too much.

          Running had a lot to do with the knees. Ice hockey was nasty to the ankles and hips oddly enough.

          I suspect also that some folks are more amenable to running than others. I don't think I was one of them.

          Anyhow, cycling is still fine and hiking hiking still okay as long as I wear an articulated brace on the knees and good boots. It hurts, but so does aging, and the world is beautiful - so it's ibuprofen and tahellwidit.

      • by jdavidb ( 449077 )

        Interesting observations. I'd love to be in good health without having to work for it. For that matter, I should probably start working for it...

    • That would certainly be wonderful

      Are you sure? I've always found it ironic that people who can't find anything to do on a Sunday afternoon, still want to live forever.

      If they are going to solve this problem in five years I don't need to worry at all about diet and exercise, right? What an excuse for not taking good care of myself....

      On the contrary - note they talk about 'a cure for aging', not a cure for everything else that afflicts us. We are beginning to narrow down what senescence actually is, thus becoming more able to think about counteracting it. And we still don't really know if we will be able to live forever, or whether we will just be able to live healthily for longer. And even if we could, w

      • by jdavidb ( 449077 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @12:39PM (#51050203) Homepage Journal

        Are you sure? I've always found it ironic that people who can't find anything to do on a Sunday afternoon, still want to live forever.

        I am not the kind of person who can't find anything to do on a Sunday afternoon. I have an extremely full and happy life and would love to add 10, 20, 100, 500 years to that.

        Sundays afternoons are actually when I frequently nap because I'm so exhausted from the rest of the week!

        And we still don't really know if we will be able to live forever, or whether we will just be able to live healthily for longer

        As a practical matter it's always about getting past the next obstacle rather than living forever. Defeat one cause of death and you are on to the next, which may not even be discovered yet.

        And even if we could, would it be desirable to live forever? Would anybody want to go on after 200 years? How about 500? 1000? 10000? 1 million? 1 billion?

        Those who don't desire it certainly wouldn't have to do it. And those who want to keep going are certainly welcome to, assuming of course that they aren't doing it at the expense of others.

  • by Flavianoep ( 1404029 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:02AM (#51048811)
    Toot late! I will be already old in five years.
  • Aging is one of the main drivers for many incurable diseases like Alzheimer, Parkinson but anyway I find it difficult to "cure" aging before solving riddles like cancer.

  • Thirty years from now we'll read about Bill Gates dying of old age. Then, days later, all his money will be given to a mysterious heir who looks just like he did when he was twenty years old.
  • Longer living people in retirement will doom the economics that the whole country requires to operate. The existing Social Security system is already insolvent actuarially. A "Cure for Aging" would just make it collapse sooner.

    To maintain the economics of US society, it would become mandatory to work until you are 85 or 90 years old.

    • Our problem isn't that people get older. That could be fixed by letting people work longer. Our problem is that people get older but do not age in a healthy way. Yes, people to their 80s routinely today. But more and more of them are by no means able to do any meaningful work anymore by the time they hit 60. You can't have people work 'til they're 80 because they are in no condition anymore to do any sensible work long before they even get close to 80.

      THAT is the problem. If we can age AND stay healthy, all

      • But more and more of them are by no means able to do any meaningful work anymore by the time they hit 60.

        Say what? Look, I've been defending retirement at 65 for a long time because there are too many jobs (think roofers and miners) that are too physically demanding to keep up. On the other hand, I have professors who are past 70 and still scary sharp. One who gets around with a walker but can reason rings around people half his age in his field (materials physics.)

        The thing is, it depends

    • Yep, this would certainly have the potential to be the most disruptive technology ever... if it comes to pass it will certainly have the potential to topple the status quo...

    • To maintain the economics of US society, it would become mandatory to work until you are 85 or 90 years old.

      Why stop at 90? Eternal life means eternal life, you're not going to get to a stopping point.

      What pisses me off BTW is that this treatment will end up being mandatory. You're not going to get a choice, because if you refuse it it means you must want to die, and that - according to psychiatrists - means you're mentally ill.

      I cannot imagine a greater hell than having to live forever. And yeah, I'm

    • If we were a rational society the age to receive social security would have already been raised to 70 or 72,

      This Kurzweilian future shows that Social Security should not be the ponzi scheme it is now but instead be pooled individual retirement accounts.
  • Bullshit (Score:4, Informative)

    by Wootery ( 1087023 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:17AM (#51048921)

    Conveniently in time to enable the professor to live forever, right?

    Bullshit. There's even a name for this idiocy: the Maes–Garreau law. [wikipedia.org]

    So far, medical science has done essentially nothing whatsoever to stop ageing from killing us. Instead, current medicine stops us dying prematurely of other causes. I see no reason at all to think we're just going 'solve' ageing overnight, as the professor seems to think.

    The entire argument seems to be something something gene editing. Not good enough.

    These things tend to improve incrementally, and if we're lucky, medical science may soon take the first step in combating ageing.

    • So far, medical science has done essentially nothing whatsoever to stop ageing from killing us. Instead, current medicine stops us dying prematurely of other causes. I see no reason at all to think we're just going 'solve' ageing overnight, as the professor seems to think.

      More specifically, medicine has been able to extend life on average by reducing death from causes other than aging, but it hasn't been able to increase maximum life span.

      These things tend to improve incrementally, and if we're lucky, medic

    • Re:Bullshit (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mothlos ( 832302 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @11:12AM (#51049393)

      So far, medical science has done essentially nothing whatsoever to stop ageing from killing us. Instead, current medicine stops us dying prematurely of other causes.

      This is in no small part due to a moving of the goal-posts. Medicine has done quite a bit to address many problems with aging. People are able to live much longer lives despite the aging of the cardio-vascular system. As medicine has improved in these areas, the bits that they are good at have their own names and are removed from the 'aging' bucket. Now, with those items removed, 'aging' is only left with things that medicine hasn't yet figured out.

      I see no reason at all to think we're just going 'solve' ageing overnight, as the professor seems to think.

      Admittedly, the claim being made here is rather optimistic, but it isn't entirely without merit. There is an open question about how difficult the aging problem really is. Aging *could* be surprisingly simple, with just a few genes needing to be tweaked to stop chemical timers that kill cells and inhibit healing. We have many examples of creatures which effectively don't age or even reverse aging during certain events, so we may just need to find analogues in humans, turn them on, and bam, we stop aging. It could be that the only reason we haven't done this previously is we didn't have the right tools for analyzing and altering genes until the last decade or so.

      Of course, we probably don't have enough information to know how difficult a problem aging is going to be. Even if this claim is accurate, it is likely that anything it creates will just uncover new problems which will, in turn, need addressing. On the other hand, we thought that gastric ulcers were a hard problem and when a researcher suggested that treatment for most could be as simple as taking a course of antibiotics, he was laughed out of the room.

      • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

        This is in no small part due to a moving of the goal-posts.

        No it isn't moving the goal posts. Unless you are literal believer in the story of Methuselah, we have never observed any human living longer than 125 years or so. Plenty of people have lived into their 100s before most of what we consider modern medicine was available. They just had to be incredibly lucky to live that long without something else coming along to kill them first.

        Now more and more people are living to that age, they don't have to be as lucky because many of the things that would have kille

        • Re:Bullshit (Score:4, Insightful)

          by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @03:40PM (#51051911)

          This is in no small part due to a moving of the goal-posts.

          No it isn't moving the goal posts.

          It depends on what you think the "goal posts" are. I would argue that the opposite of "aging" isn't "living forever." It's, well, NOT AGING.

          What is "aging"? Most of it associate it with the kind of stuff you and GP both bring up, i.e., gradual degradation in various parts of the body and mind. One can cure "aging" partially by reducing that sort of degradation.

          Unless you are literal believer in the story of Methuselah, we have never observed any human living longer than 125 years or so. Plenty of people have lived into their 100s before most of what we consider modern medicine was available. They just had to be incredibly lucky to live that long without something else coming along to kill them first.

          Again, stopping aging is a separate issue from life extension. Suppose you had a car whose engine was just going to die around 200,000 miles no matter what -- it was just part of the design. But the other parts would gradually degrade, meaning that the best part of the lifespan of the car was the first 50,000 miles, followed by random repairs and problems for the next 50,000, and at that point you'd be better off just selling the car because after 100,000 miles the thing just required repair after repair to just keep it going. The engine was still good, but it had "aged" and become useless.

          But what if you could "cure" that aging for all the other car parts and have a car that ran great for all 200,000 miles of the engine's lifespan? I think almost everyone would agree that that would be fantastic and would be a significant advance in "reducing the aging" of the vehicle. Even though it completely "died" at the same time, curing "aging" is still a significant improvement and benefit.

          And in that sense, we ARE moving the goalposts, because many of those traditional elements of aging can be delayed or halted for a while -- which allows more and more people to make use of those "extra miles" getting up toward 100 years.

          So here is the question: if you can give me some gene therapy that will prevent me from just sorta shutting down in my middle 90s, as so many of my relatives have great, but how does that mean I die ultimately. Does it mean I am going stroke out or something. Does it mean I am going to live for years with conditions that are debilitating? Is that even what I want.

          Again, you're confusing aging with life extension. The very definition of "curing aging" has to do with keeping you in a state where you aren't debilitated by the problems of "old age." If you just extend life, you haven't actually cured aging.

          For my own anecdote, the sister of one of my great-grandparents lived to 106. I remember going to visit her when she was 102 and finding her in the garden vigorously digging and turning over the soil. Even when she was 100 years old, she probably looked (and apparently felt) like somebody who was typically 70 or 75, maybe younger.

          Figuring out how to do THAT sort of thing would actually be working toward a cure for aging. Personally, I don't know whether I'd want to live much more than 100 years (if that). But if you told me I could live those full 100 years in great health, I'd commend you for curing aging and raise a toast to you.

          The people seeking immortality are the crazier ones. The ones who just want to stop aging are pursuing a more useful goal.

  • Then it will happen eventually. Humans are just that persistent. If this is flat out not possible, then it just won't happen. Either way we will rightfully scoff at any such radical claim until it is demonstrated to work and is proven safe. If it is possible, I would not mind if this really is it.

    As it stands my own continued existence is a product of gene therapy, and it's not even entirely human DNA. This being such a radical treatment, it was the sort of thing we all scoffed at before it was demonstrate
    • by tsqr ( 808554 )

      If this is flat out not possible, then it just won't happen.

      The day is just getting started, but I feel confident in awarding you the prize for Profound Comment of the Day.

      Now, where did I put that medal?

  • by bytesex ( 112972 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:19AM (#51048927) Homepage

    Just in time so I can go on forever in my flying car.

  • by sirwired ( 27582 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:22AM (#51048957)

    Not in five years, maybe not in fifty; this is so absurdly over-optimistic, it's not even funny.

    http://xkcd.com/1605/ [xkcd.com]

    We know SO LITTLE about how genes actually function to produce, well, you, the idea that we can, within five years, figure out which genes are "responsible" for aging and turn them off/around is ridiculous. The amount of feedback looping going on, even if we knew which genes produced which raw proteins, is so twisted that even figuring out the protein synthesis process itself requires super-computers, much less figuring out how all those proteins interact with your body.

    We heard all this very same talk when the first Human Genome Project results were released. Please tell me what grand advances that has brought us, other than a few diagnostic tests, and some treatments for a couple rare diseases.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      I think this is indeed all about grant money.

      What we do know to do with gene-therapy is not even remotely on the level of the sorcerer's apprentice.

      Give this question another 50 years, and maybe we will know a bit more and maybe even be able to make predictions that have some merit.

  • Is "in just 5 or 6 years" the universal code for "I have an idea, it doesn't work, but I need to get some PR in the meantime"?

    Because when I see it I mostly think "sure, whatever, tell me about it in 5 years when it actually happens".

    So many things come along and say "in 5 years", and then 5 years later we hear nothing more about it.

    I've taken to assuming that all such claims are pretty much bullshit. Stopping aging in 5 years? Yeah, I'll stick with my assumption this is bullshit too.

  • I was thinking that, in the future, people are going to look back on us, much like we look back at old black and white films and realize that everyone pictured is now dead, and feel sorry for us because we lived before some major breakthrough was made that prolongs life extensively. We will have existed on one side of that technological divide along with billions that have lived and died before us, who were relegated to natural lifespans. They will look back on us and wonder how things may have been if ou

    • I was thinking that, in the future, people are going to look back on us, much like we look back at old black and white films and realize that everyone pictured is now dead, and feel sorry for us because we lived before some major breakthrough was made that prolongs life extensively.

      While interesting, the concept of becoming ageless comes with some severe baggage.

      Consumption of everything will need to plummet, unless we somehow figure out how to make raw materials out of nothing.

      Population will have to plummet, as will basic fertility rates. Every new human will be a permanent addition. The drive to procreate will need to be heavily suppressed.

      As well, and a sort of undercurrent, there are people in the world who are chronically depressed even with treatment for whom the concept

  • People like Church and Lander are excellent scientists in their specific areas. But they sound incredibly naive when talking about issues outside their area. My recommendation: don't believe the promises that these people are making (like "curing aging" in five years). On the other hand, don't give in to their fears either ("'we' need to go slowly").

    I hope people will work aggressively on gene therapy for aging, human cloning, genetic manipulation of human and animal embryos, and xenotransplantation. I also

  • Why do people keep deferring their journey to pearly gates to meet their maker ?

    On a serious note, we have a population crisis!
    That's the root cause for every socio-political problems in our time.

    I'd rather be excited if academics, medical practitioners, politicians and alike embark on an project to legalize "ethical euthanasia".

  • It's not like the clinical trials can be run in much less time.
  • Won't happen. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Joey Vegetables ( 686525 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:34AM (#51049045) Journal
    Most types of cells are programmed to divide only a certain number of times, and then die. There are ways to defeat this programming, but when those occur, the usual result is not immortality, but death via cancer. Wikipedia has an excellent article on telomeres [wikipedia.org] which are one of the mechanisms by which this process occurs.
    • Exactly. My own comment below: something will get you eventually. This does not ensure immortality.

  • by swm ( 171547 ) <swmcd@world.std.com> on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:41AM (#51049101) Homepage

    From Wikipedia

    A telomere is a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromosome, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration or from fusion with neighboring chromosomes.

    During chromosome replication, the enzymes that duplicate DNA cannot continue their duplication all the way to the end of a chromosome, so in each duplication the end of the chromosome is shortened. The telomeres are disposable buffers at the ends of chromosomes which are truncated during cell division; their presence protects the genes before them on the chromosome from being truncated instead.

    Over time, due to each cell division, the telomere ends become shorter.

    Cells in the germ line (sperm and ova) have an enzyme called telomerase.

    Telomerase lengthens telomeres in DNA strands, thereby allowing senescent cells that would otherwise become postmitotic and undergo apoptosis to exceed the Hayflick limit and become potentially immortal, as is often the case with cancerous cells.

    (emphasis added)

    When cells run out of telomere, they stop dividing. When the body can't make new cells, it ages and dies. If you want to not age, you have to get your somatic cells to produce telomerase. But then, cancer...

    Bacteria avoid this whole problem by having circular chromosomes. No ends, no telomeres, no telomerase. And bacteria are...you know...kind of immortal. They just grow and divide, grow and divide, worlds without end.

  • by GrBear ( 63712 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @10:43AM (#51049119)

    Side effects may include:

    - Profuse rectal bleeding
    - Projectile vomiting
    - Sterility
    - Excessive Gas
    - Delusions of Grandeur
    - Suicidal Thoughts
    - Death

    • by lazarus ( 2879 )

      If sterility is not a side effect this planet is going to have some really serious issues to contend with.

  • So he's a Harvard Professor must be true, right? Wasn't Ted Kaczynski also a Harvard professor?
  • "We have become masters in the art of manipulating genes, but our understanding of their function and interaction is far more limited."

    No we haven't. Human genetic science is still in the very early stages, and we've only begun to understand complex DNAs in a very, very general fashion. In another couple decades, we'll probably still be working away at it. It does rise to an interesting question though; If we learn to alter our DNA, and somehow do make ourselves immortal (which I heavily doubt), would it really be in our best interest? We have problems with population as it is, and at the rate we go, we'd exhaust the remainder of Earth's

  • Finally, a cure for inheritance tax, now dynasties can last forever without any of those pesky government taxed transfers of wealth.
  • The idea that we can stop aging in 5 years is just ridiculous. But let's assume we do it.

    1) Effective life span now is only about 40% longer. Yes, only 40% longer. People don't die of old age, they die of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, etc.

    2) Social Security on the other hands GOES AWAY. If we no longer die of old age, then we don't have to pay people for being too old to work. Same goes for Medicare.

    3) Those currently on Social Security get moved to Disability - with their disabil

    • by Junta ( 36770 )

      People don't die of old age, they die of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, etc.

      No one dies from 'old age', they die of some specific thing as the body wears out. Heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, even car accident risk increases as parts of the body (or in the car accident case, cognitive function) diminishes with age.

      It's an interesting question if hypothetically we could stop aging process (or even reverse it).... How the hell would society handle it. Now if an unavoidable side effect of the treatment were sterility, that would be one thing. If we can procreate, what to do about

  • I read something about 10-15 years ago about this and the author said, despite this type of medical technology, anti-aging doesn't mean immortality. He proposed even if you stopped or reversed aging, you could only live to be about 300 years old. At that point, something would get you: murder, plane crash, illness, etc.

    While I'm not an expert on the topic of society and the rise in violence, poverty, etc. I do believe overpopulation does not help the issues. The details, I speculate, could be desperation

  • A natural process that is a result of being made of biological components is not a disease.

    One thing that I will always find intriguing/amusing are self-proclaimed 'men of science' who purport to be staunch atheists, yet seem so bound and determined to stop what they should know to be a natural evolutionary process. People like this professor, and also those that claim that through some sort of special diet/routine they can achieve immortality (example: Ray Kurzweil). What is interesting is that the majorit

    • by Junta ( 36770 )

      Natural is relative. HGPS has a 'natural' lifespan of 13 years, but I don't think anyone questions its classification as a disease.

      Bacteria is natural, and yet we have antibiotics because we would rather not die from an infection when we could live longer.

      Conversely, airplanes, cars, spaceships, air conditioning, computers, and everything else is distinctly unnatural.

      I don't think 'men of science' are particularly inclined to surrender to the current state of nature. I don't see how religion even theoreti

  • It's called a pine box.

  • I really get upset when I read people writing about how germline editing is unethical. My wife suffers from terrible symptoms that are at least partially genetic. It had not flared up, we did not know how bad it would get before we had our daughter. It is unlikely we will have a second child. We don't know what she inheritted. It could get bad for her in her teens, her 20s or even her 30s. We will not know until if/when it happens. It is scary.

    So many people seem to be saying that even if it is possible

  • That is truly the question. As someone who believes in life before death but not after, I accept the likelihood of oblivion, but would just assume avoid it all the same.
  • The morality wizards want to put on their pointy hats and insert themselves everywhere they can. Curing diseases or eliminating pain and suffering is what medicine is all about. Otherwise, why call an ambulance when someone has an emergency? Saving the life of an elder is the same morally as saving the life of an infant. Yet we will have so-called morality oriented people who will raise all kinds of hell if we have even the slightest negative attached to genetic therapy. So you have a bunch of 80-ye
  • by RandCraw ( 1047302 ) on Thursday December 03, 2015 @12:58PM (#51050435)

    Geneticists like Church know a lot about gene blueprints, less about their expression, a lot less about development, and they know absolutely nothing about ageing or disease. Their work doesn't touch on 95% of disease in any way, including ageing (a phenomenon that is unrelated to genetics).

    Church should be ashamed for spouting such clueless hyperbolic fantasy. My respect for him just dropped through the floor. He's just another snake oiler.

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