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Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D.

many people simply don’t understand, but it’s an incontrovertible truth. So there’s no way that we are going to reduce the age-specific mortality rates in the next century to the extent that we reduced them in the Twentieth Century. That happens only one time and one time only, and it has already happened. That resulted in an increase of life expectancy at birth during the Twentieth Century from approximately 47 to approximately 78 years. To increase human life expectancy by even two years today would necessitate the resolution of cancer as the cause of death. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next fifty years, frankly, and not very many other people do either.

David: I interviewed Aubrey de Grey for this collection and I would like to create some dialogue between the people that I’m interviewing. Aubrey’s response to what you said above was:

“Len is absolutely right–for the sorts of “resolutions” of the leading causes of death that he allows himself to imagine.  Another way of saying what he’s saying is that geriatric medicine — combating the pathologies of aging but not the underlying, accumulating molecular damage that makes those pathologies happen–is a short-term approach because the damage continues to accumulate and the pathologies (or other ones) become more and more difficult to hold back. However, if we docombat that underlying damage–obviating it (stopping it from being pathogenic) or else periodically removing most of it–then we will resolve not only the major age-related diseases but also all the other things that older people are more susceptible to than the young, whether it be infections, accidents (due to weak muscles, fragile bones or slow reactions), etc., and that will reduce the mortality rate at all ages to around what it is for today’s young adults.

How would you respond to Aubrey’s comment?

Dr. Hayflick: Aubrey is assuming that our scientific knowledge has reached such a degree of sophistication and understanding that we presently have (or soon will have) the tools and the fundamental understanding to intervene in either the aging or longevity determining processes. This same belief has been held for centuries. Even sixty years ago, and before we knew the structure of DNA, this belief was held by several prominent scientists. They were wrong. Fifty years from today scientists will look back on early Twenty-first Century biology and be astonished to think that we could have had the chutzpah to believe that we were knowledgeable enough to believe that we could interfere with the aging process. Aubrey’s belief that in fifty years we will know how to make some humans live to be two hundred has been fifty years in the future for the last 3500 years.

David: What type of anti-aging research would you like to see going on?

Dr. Hayflick: I don’t want to see any anti-aging research being done because I think anti-aging research is like doing research on antigravity.

I would like to see research done on answering one of the questions I posed earlier, namely: Why are old cells more vulnerable to pathology than are young cells? The second thing I would like to see done is something that a layman like John Guerin is doing, and that even the professionals are not doing because they don’t understand its importance–namely to answer the question, What is the reason why there animals that either age negligibly or not at all? There’s no research being done in that area, despite John Guerin’s heroic efforts. So it’s really neglect. The problem, in my view, is that it’s in the hands mostly of medical professionals who think only of disease and pathology, and mix it up with aging. They don’t understand that there are four aspects of the finitude of life: longevity determination, aging, age-associated diseases, and death. They don’t understand the difference between those four, and they especially don’t understand the difference between aging and disease. Many people think that aging is a disease. I don’t think it’s a disease at all.

David: In your book How and Why We Age you discuss the possibility of building an orbiting “Noah’s Ark” containing the preserved vital germ plasm of important plant seeds and the cell lines of human and animal species in order to safeguard our survival in the event of a global ecological disaster. I thought that was a pretty great idea. Has there been any interest from NASA in doing this?

Dr. Hayflick: No. I proposed it to NASA back in the ‘60s but it fell on deaf ears. I have recently seen it surface actually. There are a lot of science fiction stories that incorporate it. But I think I’ve seen recently somebody resuggesting it again, but I don’t recall where. It was several years ago.

David: What are you currently working on?

Dr. Hayflick: I’m doing a lot of theoretical work, because I no longer have a wet lab. I’ve accumulated so much data, and I’m working on many of theoretical aspects, some of which I’ve already discussed with you. I’m also preparing to do another book. I’ve been asked to do a book by Cambridge University Press on my experiences as scientist, because I’ve had some unique experiences–a couple of which I mentioned to you only briefly. The book is going to be sort of a memoir, but built around three subject areas, which I was fortunate enough to be either a pioneer, or was witness to, and these are: the emergence of tissue culture or cell culture as a scientific discipline, the emergence of vaccine technology, and the emergence of the field of aging. Since I happened to be present at all three births, roughly, and know a lot of scandalous stories, it should be fun.

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