Biotechnology for a longer life

The Nordic Committee on Bioethics, in collaboration with the Centre for Collaborative Health at Aarhus University, organised a workshop on «Biotechnology for a longer life» in Aarhus, Denmark, 9 December 2016.

The workshop addressed developments in new technology for extending human longevity and discussed questions regarding the quality of life for an ageing population. The event was aimed at policy makers, researchers and health care professionals.

While people generally want to live as long as possible, many also harbour fears of growing old as it brings increased risk of degenerative disease and of becoming fragile and dependent on others. Additionally, the elderly often find themselves to be isolated and lacking a well-defined role in society. Current advances in health care have increased life expectancy in the Nordic countries well above 80 years, and several biotechnology companies claim to be developing ways to slow or arrest ageing, or even to extend life indefinitely.

With this in mind, the Nordic Committee on Bioethics and the Centre for Collaborative Health at Aarhus University organised a workshop that gathered experts from disciplines across the spectrum from molecular biologists to philosophers to present developments in new technology for extending human longevity and discuss questions regarding the quality of life for an ageing population.

In the first part of the workshop, Professor Tine Rostgaard from the Danish Institute for Local and Regional Government Research presented statistics on life expectancy and quality of life in the Nordic countries and discussed how the image of an older person has changed over time. Professor Jon Snædal, a specialist in geriatric medicine from the Landspitali University Hospital in Iceland, presented the development of effective preventive measures to increase life expectancy and the maximum age.

This session was followed up by a presentation of the biological mechanisms behind the ageing processes, given by Associate Professor Tinna Stevsner from the Danish Aging Research Center at Aarhus University, and a presentation of current treatments pursued for extending longevity by Senior Adviser Dr. Sigrid Bratlie Thoresen from the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board. Dr. Thoresen emphasised that biological barriers will have to be broken to overcome the natural biological limit for maximum life expectancy, which appears to be around 115 years. She gave examples of how this can be done using different biotechnological treatments, including drugs that slow down the ageing processes; technologies for generating new tissue and organs such as stem cell technology, xenotransplantations and 3D-printing of organs; and gene therapy and genome editing. Matti Häyry, Professor of Philosophy at Aalto University School of Business in Helsinki, introduced and discussed a range of philosophical questions relating to human identity, the meaning of life, and how longer or even infinite life will change society.

In the third session of the workshop, the presentations were targeted towards the future of being old. Professor Morten Kyng, from the Center for Pervasive Healthcare at Aarhus University, discussed how the design and use of telemedicine and telehealth, that is the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide clinical health care from a distance, can empower citizens and health care professionals. He stressed that telemedicine, driven by the expected dramatic reduction of costs, is about to change life and the workplace, and that cooperation among patients, healthcare and IT-personnel will be necessary when incorporating ethical perspectives into the programming of new devices and tools. Siri Bjørvig from the Norwegian Centre for E-Health Research followed up the theme by presenting trends and policies in welfare technology and its potential for geriatric care.

The last part of the workshop focused on the individual, societal and social implications of longevity. Professor and Head of Department at the Centre for Collaborative Health at Aarhus University, Carsten Obel, addressed the mental health of the elderly. Lars Larsen, Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus University presented a project carried out in collaboration between the university and Aarhus municipality in which geropsychologists and cognitive therapy were used to improve well-being among the elderly.

Professor Svend Andersen from the School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University, provided a theological point of view. “The last years of life are just as important as the beginning of life”, he emphasised in his presentation, and suggested that consideration should be given to training those who are taking care of the elderly in a manner similar to that used to educate kindergarten teachers. In the last presentation of the day, Assistant Professor Eva Naur Jensen from the Department of Law at Aarhus University presented legal and ethical questions associated with monitoring and retaining citizens with loss of cognitive abilities. She stressed that human rights apply equally to everyone, and underlined the conflict between the right to self-determination and the ability to understand risks.

The presentations were followed by an open discussion among all participants.

The workshop demonstrated that there are ethical questions of great important to Nordic societies that are emerging as the population of elderly increases and the development of advanced technologies advances. Some 30 participants attended the workshop.

The Nordic Committee for Bioethics will continue to work on these issues in the years to come. There are plans to organise a follow-up conference in 2018.