Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Live long and prosper - at a price

The future is here - at least if the Sunday Times is to be believed. Fans of quality science fiction came in for a treat today with reports that we are on the way to not one but three scenarios we have previously seen played out only on our bookshelves.

First we have an anti-aging treatment - John Wyndham: Trouble With Lichen - estimated to appear in the next decade following genetic research. Then there are the six intrepid cosmonauts spending 18 months on a simulated trip to Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson, Ben Bova and a dozen others - and, as if that were not enough, the Brave New World of IVF for all - perhaps the first step towards babies in bottles.

Of the three, it is the first that, despite the advantages it purports to hold out, would have the most devastating effect on society - after all, it's a fair bet humans will continue to conceive in the traditional way for the foreseeable future. In Wyndham's novel - a trenchant social satire - a scientist describes his growing sense of alarm when he realises that he has discovered an antidote to aging:

'But just imagine the result of a public announcement....simply the superficial result of knowing that the means to extend one's term of life exists. The thing would be off like a prairie fire. Think of the newspapers fawning on it.[...] The contriving, the intriguing, the bribery - perhaps fighting, even - that would come of people trying to get in first to grab even a few extra years,[...] The whole prospect was - and is - quite appalling.'

And now, according to Eleanor Mills, a team led by Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is already developing drugs to mimic the effect of centenarians’ super genes; testing on humans could begin in 2012. He reckons that within five or 10 years people will take these pills at around 40 “and their lives will be longer”.'

So what will be the effect on the day he announces a drug that will prolong life? Well, if past experience is anything to go by, whichever pharmaceutical company is backing his research will immediately slap a price-tag on the product that will rule it our for all but the super-rich. After all, the situation already exists.

For many people with terminal cancer, there are drugs out there which can change life expectancy from weeks to years - at a price. If you - or occasionally the NHS - can fork out £50,000 pa, life goes on; if not, it doesn't. The drugs companies aren't in the business of charity; the bottom line is always profit.

After decades of research, they're going to want some return on their investment in the ultimate in marketable commodities. The Times thinks millions of people will take the drug, leading to the social upheaval foreseen by Wyndham's scientist - think about the effect on annuity values or insurance premiums - but we're far more likely to see a ruling elite firmly ensconced for decades while the workforce live and die as they always have done.

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