Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Molecular Life Extension

By Cynthia Forlini and Ainsley Newson

Alongside the question of whether we can treat ageing is the question of whether we should.

It is a universal certainty that we will all die one day. And we have a near-universal goal for our deaths to come painlessly after a long and full life.

Of course illness, disease and accident can cut life short. For many of us, however, our deaths will come as a result of growing old and our bodies gradually failing us.

But should we accept this biological status quo as the basis of our lives? Or is ageing something to rail against and try to defeat?

We already engage in plenty of strategies that claim to slow the outward signs of ageing of our bodies. We also eat well and exercise to protect our hearts and our bones. We continue to read and think to protect our minds. But now, a growing number of geneticists and molecular biologists are seeking a cure for the ageing process itself.

Researchers in Australia and internationally are investigating a number of compounds that might extend life by intervening in key genetic and metabolic pathways. The goal is to live a longer life free of the decline we typically associate with ageing – lower energy, susceptibility to illness, frailty.

While this is no doubt cutting-edge science, it raises some big questions that haven’t yet been debated in much depth. Alongside the question of whether we can treat ageing (as we do for many individual diseases) is the question of whether we should.

Promising results from studies using anti-ageing compounds in animal models are appearing in high-ranking journals. Some scientists are even taking these compounds themselves, or giving them to their family members and pets. Products from commercial offshoots of this research are already being marketed, often as health supplements (as these tend to be regulated like food products), but they have yet to go through rigorous independent trials.

Could this research be proceeding too fast? Research translation can be slow and expensive, but it generates the evidence that regulators need to decide whether something should be made accessible to populations. In an era of heightened commercialisation, laissez faire regulatory regimes and “need it yesterday” consumerism, we risk not stopping to look at what the end points might be, and how we feel about them.

The scientists doing this research draw careful lines around being mortal and being immortal; between being human and transcending humanity. But maintaining these bright lines in research and beyond needs an important conversation about responsibility for the oversight and outcomes of research. Whether this research should be taking place and under which limitations, if any, are critical questions.

There are broader questions about molecular life extension, too. Some have to do with collective responsibilities to share limited global resources.

For example, the impact of an ever-increasing population on the environment and food supply would be massive. It would also redefine our common understanding of health, illness and the goals of medicine. In this light, would it be fair to prioritise anti-ageing interventions when many don’t have access to basic healthcare requirements? These are all issues that require a wider community conversation.

From a community perspective, the idea of living and ageing well remains a matter of debate. Some initial research with members of the public suggests that people are not uniformly in favour of life extension, as might be expected. At the very least, quality of life is favoured over quantity. Even if quality could be assured, what would constitute an ethical notion of a reasonable length of life?

Other questions have to do with individual responsibilities. Living longer could influence whether, when, and how individuals should choose to reproduce. The potential for pharmaceutical interventions to slow ageing could have an impact on the lifestyle choices that people make to maintain their health. Would it be acceptable if pharmaceuticals could replace the need for eating well and exercising? Are such activities inherent to a notion of a life lived authentically and well?

Such questions are not unique to this research. They are also arising in the context of gene editing, another technology poised to radically change health. But we don’t yet have any clear answers there either.

The role and expectations around ageing in our society are profound. This process shapes our life courses, relationships and expectations. Moving from a position where ageing is inevitable (and, usually, accepted) to it being seen as something to “cure” would cause a drastic shift in the collective and individual responsibilities that our societies are built upon. We are left to consider whether ageing is part of our humility, or less than it?


Dr Cynthia Forlini and Associate Professor Ainsley Newson are with Sydney Health Ethics, University of Sydney.