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Thursday, December 12, 2002

Welcome and Opening Remarks

CHAIRMAN KASS: Good morning everybody. Welcome to Council Members, to guest presenters and to members of the public. I would like to recognize the presence of Dean Clancy, the designated federal officer in whose presence this meeting may officially begin.

I would also like to extend a special welcome to the members of Professor Sandel's class from Harvard University who have come down to witness how this conversation takes place inside the beltway. They've been studying with Michael this quarter, and we're delighted to have you here.

This meeting will be the third meeting on our project called either "Enhancement" or "Beyond Therapy", in which we are exploring the possible uses of new biomedical technologies beyond the treatment of individuals with known diseases and disabilities, uses either for personal enhancement, the satisfaction of client desires, or for social and behavioral control. And this meeting from beginning to end will explore technologies that might affect the native in-born capacities of human beings through the uses of genetic and genomic knowledge, that's tomorrow, that might affect human behavior above and beyond the treatment of disease through the use of stimulant drugs this afternoon, and this morning, technologies that might push the temporal boundaries and trajectory of a natural human life span through research on the biology of aging.

The first two sessions this morning devoted to aging research will explore first, the question of whether we can add years to life and exploration of the current research and future prospects, and the question of the duration of human life, whether there is such a thing as a biological warranty period.

If I might, since this is a topic dear to my heart, if you might indulge me, I would like to read a couple of pages from 20 years ago, when I knew more about this subject than I now do. But this is an introduction. Actually, by the way, when I was the Staff of NAS Committee on Life Sciences and Social Policy, which is almost 30 years ago, one of the chapters of our report was on the retardation of aging as the futuristic possibility that nevertheless raised large questions, and this is the introduction of an old essay.

"Why should we die? Why should we, the flower of the living kingdom, lose our youthful bloom and go to seed? Why should we grow old in body and in mind, losing our various powers, first gradually, then all together in death? Until now, the answer has been simple, we should because we must. Aging, decay and death have been inevitable as necessary for us as for other animals and plants from whom we are distinguished in this matter only by awareness of this necessity. We know that that we are, as the poet says, like the leaves, the leaves that the wind scatters to the ground.

Recently, this necessity seems to become something of a question thanks to research into the phenomena of aging. Senescence, decay, and even our species-specific life span are now thought to be the result of biological processes that are, at least in part, genetically controlled, open to investigation, and in principle, subject to human intervention and possible control. Slowing the processes of aging could yield powers to retard senescence, to preserve youthfulness, and to prolong life greatly, perhaps indefinitely. Should these powers become available, whether to wither and why will become questions of the utmost seriousness."

And then I make a series of arguments as to why we should take these up even now, even though these are futuristic matters, and go on to point out that the prolongation of healthy and vigorous life, and ultimately perhaps even a victory of mortality was, perhaps, the central goal and meaning of the modern scientific project as articulated by its founders, men such as Bacon and Descartes.

Bacon it was who first called humankind to the conquest of nature for the relief of man's estate, and there's ample suggestion in Bacon's writings that he regarded mortality itself as that part of man's estate from which he most needs relief. Bacon himself engaged in immortality research, and may well have been its first martyr, sacrificing his life on the altar of longevity. He apparently contracted his fatal illness while performing freezing experiments on a chicken.

Descartes in the famous passage in Part 6 of the Discourse of Method, where he rejects the speculative philosophy of his predecessors in favor of a practical philosophy that would render ourselves as masters and possessors of nature, goes on to talk about the benefits of this new power, amongst which he says that we could be free of an infinitude of maladies, both of body and mind, and even also possibly of the infirmities of age if we had sufficient knowledge of their causes, and of all the remedies with which nature has provided us.

This is an old story, and it's been a dream not just of magicians and sorcerers, but even of the great founders of modern science. The success of the past century, which increased the average life expectancy at birth from 47 to 77 is a success that cannot be repeated, since that increase was largely due to the conquest of childhood diseases, sanitation and the like. But further increases in the potential human life span, as it's been pointed out in our readings, could not come from curing the specific diseases that now afflict us even in our old age, and the debilities of old age, the weakness, the brittleness, the decline in bodily and mental powers remain. Retardation of aging through understanding of the basic processes holds the key, if there is one, both to adding life to years, and of adding years to life.

This Council takes this up, not because we've been taken in by cryopreservation or by the vast arrays of creams and elixirs that are now being sold to a gullible population of retirees and aging baby-boomers, but because of the exciting new developments in the field of aging biology itself. Aging research might turn out to be the ultimate enhancer. Who knows? But in order to separate fact from fiction and to help us understand where this field is going and what it means, we're extremely fortunate to have two of the leading researchers and scholars in this area, people whose research is not only first rate, but who have taken pains to try to bring the meaning of this work to a larger public.

For the first session, we'll hear from Steven Austad, who's Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Idaho, and the author of a book, Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering About The Body's Journey Through Life. And in the second session, to my left, Jay Olshansky who is the Professor in the School of Public Health, in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois-Chicago, also connected with the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, and a Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And with his colleague, Bruce Carnes, the author of The Quest For Immortality: Science At The Frontiers of Aging.

The procedure will be as usual. We'll have presentations from Professor Austad and discussion, we'll take a break, and we'll hear from Professor Olshansky. The floor is your's, and thank you very much both for joining us this morning.

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