Following on from providing a sketch outline of the healthy life extension community, let's look at the old versus the new. There are, from my impressions to date, two fairly distinct phases in healthy life extension medicine, technology, and the healthy life extension community at large. Let's call them "old school" and "new school." The old school of healthy life extension got started in earnest back in the 1970s. The new school is less than a decade old. In the community diagram, it's more or less the case that "old school" is to the right, while "new school" is to the left.
The old school community includes advocates like Max More, cofounder of the Extropy Insitute and businesspeople like the various founders of the Life Extension Foundation, Alcor, the Cryonics Institute, and A4M. (There is a lot of interesting history packed into the relationships and evolution of the LEF and A4M over the past few decades, but that's a story for another time).
Old school healthy life extension technology and medicine is largely chemical, based around the search for supplements, hormones and vitamins that will optimize natural healthy life span. The old school businesses built around making and selling these substances have inspired the "anti-aging" marketplace of today ... which may not have been the best of outcomes, all things considered. There isn't much that I would have done differently, given the options available at the time, but the "anti-aging" marketplace has grown far beyond its legitimate roots. The resultant adventurous marketing, bad science, quackery, confusion of claims and outright fraud are damaging the perception and practice of legitimate anti-aging science.
Businesses and business models have tremendous inertia, as any executive will tell you - the noise of the marketplace for optimizing natural longevity via old school methods will continue to drown out signs of new school medicine for a while yet.
A good way of looking at this situation is to compare it to the automotive industry - hydrogen fuel cell cars (new school!) are coming, but there are still millions of old internal combustion engines out there, and a huge industry devoted to making the most of them. Change is slow, and a lot of money is invested in the old school way of doing things, no matter how much better the new school ways may be.
The start of the old school life extension movement predates modern efforts to develop personalized medicine and the ability to determine genetics and underlying biochemical processes. Many old school techniques can be seen to vary widely in effectiveness from person to person for reasons that are only now beginning to be understood. Homone treatments in particular seem to be very variable, and the science uncertain. Most importantly, old school life extension technologies cannot greatly extend healthy life span beyond the point attained by normal, sensible healthcare, diet and lifestyle.
The old school has success stories: modest supplementation works, and a great many substances are of demonstrable use in optimizing natural healthy life spans. Calorie restriction, of course, is old school and proud of it - the first calorie restriction science predates all modern healthy life extension movements by a lifetime. On the business side, the organizations built to supply supplements have given rise to greater advocacy, have raised awareness about the possibilities of healthy life extension, and have funneled profits into research funding. The Life Extension Foundation and its founders, for example, go far beyond the business of supplements: they publish a magazine, fund cryonics research, aging research and work in regenerative medicine and the science of calorie restriction.
Cryonics is also very much old school: the oldest cryonics providers have been in business since the 1970s, and cryonics was very much hyped in early life extension advocacy and writings. Despite a great deal of promise, and the prospects of profitable offshoots in medical technology, it has remained a niche industry. You can read more about cryonics - with a healthy dose of old school sense, sensibilities and enthusiasm - at the Longevity Meme:
How about the new school? New school advocates include people like myself, Ray Kurzweil, Bruce Klein, Robert Bradbury of Aeiveos, and Dave Gobel of the Methuselah Foundation. The field of commentators and pundits is much expanded in these days of the Internet, and supporters of new school healthy life extension can be found throughout the extended media - such as Randall Parker, the founders of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the principles at Betterhumans. We all support rapid development in new fields likely to greatly extend the healthy human life span: regenerative medicine, stem cell research, aging research and nanomedicine.
New school scientists, investors and businesspeople make their names in recent, bioinformatics-driven fields, early nanomedicine, or in attempting to shake up the field of gerontology. Examples include Michael West, John Sperling, Aubrey de Grey, Robert Freitas, Cynthia Kenyon of Elixir Pharmaceuticals, and Xi Zhao-Wilson of Biomarker Pharmaceuticals. A small host of companies and dedicated people are currently working at the forefront of medical science for healthy life extension. Those noted here are just a few among many.
New school healthy life extension science can be characterised by three things: understanding, bioinformatics and the fact that therapies are not here yet. Examples include tissue engineering to build replacement organs, stem cell based cures for neurodegenerative conditions of aging, in-situ therapies that use modified stem cells to repair damage in the body, and work towards understanding the aging process. New school medical technologies promise greatly extended healthy life spans, far beyond what is possible today.
- Understanding brings great power: understanding the genetic and protein-based mechanisms of the body that lead to disease and the effects of aging. Understanding how different people respond in different ways to the same treatment. If we know how our bodies work, we can design specific treatments in the light of knowledge. Compared to present day science, even fairly recent medical research was a slow trial and error affair, with no way to properly confirm theories as to why one therapy worked and another failed.
- Bioinformatics has vastly increased the speed at which medical research can happen in many fields. Tens of thousands of tests and biochemical experiments can now be performed in the time it once took for one test, and at far less expense. Massive parallel testing based on the fruits of bioinformatics and the computer revolution greatly speeds the path to understanding. (See this post at FuturePundit for an example of this principle in action).
- New school healthy life extension medicine is not here yet. As of February 2004, calorie restriction is still the only proven way to extend the healthy human life span. When will the first new school therapies capable of healthy life extension come out of the lab and into commercialization? The answer to that queation depends on advocacy, education, success in finding research funding and the will of society to push these advances through the process.
Having drawn a line between old and new, I have to admit that the line is isn't all that clear at the border. Old school and new school blend at the edges. The Life Extension Foundation (old school) funds regenerative medicine research (new school). A4M executives speak out in support of therapeutic cloning and modern medical research.
Personalized medicine and greater understanding of biochemical mechanisms are beginning to make existing medicine, as well as old school supplements and therapies, safer and more effective. Everyone is different, but understanding those differences enables greater extension of healthy life span with the tools that are currently available. Kronos, a John Sperling company, is a prime example of this sort of approach.
If you have comments on this sketch of the community as old and new, overlapping in the middle, do let me know.