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A Harvard professor says he can cure aging, but is that a good idea?


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Is aging a bug or a feature?

At the gene-editing summit, you can’t miss George Church. He’s the big guy with the bushy beard and wavy hair, someone who looks like he stepped out of an 18th century painting of “natural philosophers.” Church, who is 61, is among several hundred scientists, policymakers and thinkers on hand to discuss the powerful technology known as CRISPR, a new method for editing genes. The technique was invented in the past four years, and Church is among those who can claim at least partial credit for the innovation (there’s an intense legal battle over patents — a story for another day).

I mentioned to Church that this is the kind of work for which Nobels are awarded. He quickly responded that there are more important things in the balance than prizes. There are cures for human diseases, he said.

[How George Church used gene editing to improve the likelihood of pig-to-human organ transplants]

Church thinks that one of the ailments he can cure is aging. When I met him early this year, in his laboratory at Harvard Medical School, where he is professor of genetics, he expressed confidence that in just five or six years he will be able to reverse the aging process in human beings.

“A scenario is, everyone takes gene therapy — not just curing rare diseases like cystic fibrosis, but diseases that everyone has, like aging,” he said.

He noted that mice die after 2.5 years but bowhead whales can live to be 180 or 200.

“One of our biggest economic disasters right now is our aging population. If we eliminate retirement, then it buys us a couple of decades to straighten out the economies of the world,” he said.

Eliminate retirement? (I briefly envisioned being on deadline in my 90s.)

“If all those gray hairs could go back to work and feel healthy and young,” he said, “then we’ve averted one of the greatest economic disasters in history.”

He went on: “Someone younger at heart should replace you, and that should be you. I’m willing to. I’m willing to become younger. I try to reinvent myself every few years anyway.”

So on Tuesday, I asked him if he was still on track to reversing the aging process in the next five years or so. He said yes — and that it’s already happening in mice in the laboratory. The best way to predict the future, he said, is to predict things that have already happened.

Even without CRISPR, genetic engineering was becoming part of the fabric of modern life (your grocery store is full of products from soybeans and corn that have been genetically modified in laboratories). The big difference with CRISPR is how cheap it is, how handy, how flexible. This will put an amazing tool in the hands of a lot more researchers. (Another co-inventor of CRISPR, Feng Zhang, told the summit attendees that soon there will be an entire “toolbox” of CRISPR-like techniques that can be used to edit genes.)

For most of us lay people, what’s striking here is not the way that scientists fiddle with the code of life but the mere fact that they do it at all. Awed though we may be by the skills of the experimenters, we naturally question whether this is a good idea.

Heh. There aren't many things that are both bugs AND features. 

Top comment 

Yes. Imagine a headline that read: "A Harvard professor says he can cure poverty, but is that a good idea?"

The commenter makes a good point. 

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