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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2004

Science and the industry of anti-aging

Popular culture everywhere abounds in an amalgam of old and new remedies for aging and longevity. Its advocates expound miraculous healing powers and life-enhancing properties of a large variety of foods, waters, vitamins, minerals, hormones, chemicals, and spiritual practices that they offer to us as easily attainable commodities of the free market. Various sorts of medical professionals throughout the world successfully advocate the idea that ways and means to slow down, stop, or reverse the aging process are available. As such, anti-aging is a well-established multi-billion dollar biomedical and cosmeceutical business sector. In recent years, research scientists have increasingly started to lay claims to their specific knowledge (and, possibly, mastery) of the biological mechanisms of aging. What motivates scientists in their choice of research topics is evidently a complex question. Socioeconomic and historical circumstances often work together to attract researchers and cluster them around certain areas of inquiry and to abandon other. Why, then, would life scientists start to get interested in the study of 'aging'? Life scientists claim that progress within molecular and cell biology has opened the door to an approach fundamentally different from the age-old folk traditions of anti-aging. Discovering the rules that govern life at the molecular level, they say, will allow people to exert direct control over specific genes for the first time in history. This technology has the potential to enhance health and extend longevity by allowing us to augment gene products that diminish with age; to suppress the action of harmful genes; to remove damaged or harmful genes and replace them with desirable ones; to amplify the action of genes that enhance health and longevity; and to predict which individuals are at risk for genetic diseases.