Health advances, policy and ageing populations

Every day 150,000 people around the world die. The biggest killer is aging, killing around 100,000 people every day. Up to 90% of deaths in developed countries occur due to age and age-related diseases.

Broadly, the causes of aging are well characterised and understood. One of the pioneers in discovering one cause is an Australian, Elizabeth Blackburn who won a Nobel Prize for her discovery of telomerase. Telomerase replaces a short section of DNA that is lost every time that a cell divides. If it is absent, eventually cells reach their Hayflick limit and the cells stop dividing. Telomerase is necessary to prevent cancer, which is basically cells that divide without ever stopping. The slowing of the action of telomerase over time is one cause of aging. 



Source: Highest reported life expectancy for the years 1840 to 2000 from online supplementary material to Oeppen J, Vaupel JW. Broken limits to life expectancy. Science 2002; 296:1029-1031. All other data points from the Human Mortality Database ( provided by Roland Rau (University of Rostock). Additional discussion can be found in Christensen K, Doblhammer G, Rau R, Vaupel JW. Aging populations: The challenges ahead. The Lancet 2009; 374/9696:1196-1208.


Life extension has been studied extensively in the lab and has often yielded remarkable results. Scientists in Spain have demonstrated that gene therapy in mice with the telomerase gene (TERT) was able to increase their life expectancy by 24%. A human genome is very similar to a mouse, with the protein coding genes being 85% identical, making these results very exciting.


Startup company Bioviva have begun the first human trials of gene therapy for telomerase. This initially begun with the CEO Elizabeth Parrish receiving the treatments herself, with promising results. George Church has announced phase one trials in a year or two targeting the genes GF11 and Myostatin, and Google have set up a life science division, Calico, which received $1.5BN to ‘end death’. It is interesting to note they agree that by focusing on late-life diseases, curing death and aging is the next logical step.


Australia is an aging nation and the immediacy of eternal life must be considered as part of a strategy to ensure quality of life for all. The implications to health care system that result from longer life spans need to be discussed before this becomes a reality. Immortality is not something that will happen as an overnight phenomenon, but policy and frameworks must be in place before this happens. Policy must be constructed in a well thought out, consulted, and researched fashion to ensure that it is sane, fair, and ensures equality. Reactive policy with respect to issues such as this could result in disastrous consequences.