NEW YORK—Almost five centuries after Juan Ponce de Leon's legendary quest for the Fountain of Youth, a cure for aging continues to drive a multibillion-dollar biotech industry. But despite gerontology's growing list of biological "breakthroughs," what it means to get old and how to best stave off the process remains a topic of heated debate.
The race to extend human life and the implications of achieving such a feat were the inspiration for Robert Kane Pappas's documentary film To Age or Not to Age. Featuring prominent scientists in the field from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and the University of California, San Francisco, as well as industry leaders from the Glaxo Smith Kline company Sirtris and the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Foundation, the film asked whether the seemingly inevitable act of aging is little more than a by-product of suboptimal living. Some of the anti-aging game's key players were even in attendance for the film's February 11 debut here at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater.
Pappas's production hinged on a 2006 report in Nature that resveratrol—a natural substance found in the skin of grapes—improved the health and survival of mice fed a high-fat diet. Inspired by coverage of the research by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade (who also attended the premiere), Pappas sought to follow the fate of the finding from the lab to the precious anti-aging pill. While resveratrol's life-extending effects in humans remain unknown, phase II clinical trials of resveratrol mimetics in patients with age-related diseases, including cancer and diabetes, are ongoing.
The very definition of aging was one of the documentary's more intriguing topics. Do we get sick as we get old or vice versa? Do we wear out like old cars? The question resurfaced after the movie during a colorful panel discussion with the "George Washington of geriatric care" Robert Butler, M.I.T. scientist Leonard Guarente and the "Lady Gaga of longevity" (so-called because of his shocking ideas) Aubrey de Grey.
"Aging is an optional feature of life and it can be slowed," says de Grey, chief science officer for the California-based SENS Foundation, claiming that the process is a product of evolutionary neglect more so than intent. De Grey's anti-aging efforts combine gerontology with regenerative medicine to stop the process rather than extend life span. "Maintenance works," he says. "That's why we have 50-year-old VW Bugs driving around quite happily."
De Grey has a point, says Butler, who entered the field of aging in 1955 and was the National Institute on Aging's first director in 1976. "The longer you live, the healthier you've been," he says, referring to extensive studies on centenarians—people who exceed the ripe old age of 100.
Guarente, a co-chair of the scientific advisory board for Sirtris—manufacturer of resveratrol-mimetics—agrees that aging is the default state. "No mechanism turns on to kill us," he says. Rather, all three scientists are interested in targeting mechanisms that can keep us alive, and healthier, for longer.
The documentary ended on a clam—a 405-year-old quahog (born slightly after the time of Ponce de Leon) that was plucked from icy waters off the northern coast of Iceland in 2007. Before that clam, the official world record for oldest mollusk belonged to a 220-year-old. If the scientists in the documentary are right, perhaps humans will one day live well into the hundreds.