Local news outlets in the US are tending to put out better pieces on calorie restriction these days. This one from News 24 Houston is a fair example; it's to the point, respectful, and sensible about the science. There is a refreshing absence of hysteria and exaggeration - it seems that the mainstream media now understands the basics of calorie restriction. Getting to this stage took a few years of savvy legwork and press relations by scientists and the folks at the CR Society, but they managed it. My hope is that we can teach the media establishment about serious anti-aging research in the same relatively rapid fashion.
Betterhumans follows up on the recent work that demonstrates mitochondrial damage to be a cause of aging. The article quotes the lead scientist for this impressive piece of research: "It seems to be a universal phenomenon in mammals that you have this damage to mitochondrial DNA as you get older. But I and many others thought this was just a secondary phenomenon. I think the importance of our paper is that we actually show these mutations can indeed cause several changes associated with aging." The significance of this finding is discussed at Fight Aging!, FuturePundit, and the most recent Longevity Meme newsletter.
The latest Longevity Meme newsletter is out today. In it, I summarize some of the more interesting developments in aging science over the past couple of weeks - new information on telomeres, mitchondria, and metabolism.
You will recall that two weeks ago, in the last newsletter, I mentioned the wealth of stem cell research results we have been seeing of late. Since then, it has been the turn of aging researchers to demonstrate new knowledge and important results - and that is much more exciting!
You can receive the newsletter via e-mail, or keep up with the lastest using RSS. Take a look!
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene silencing that occur without changes in the genes themselves. As noted by Medical News Today, much of the work on genetic therapies for age-related conditions - and the aging process itself - has focused on altering genes. However, "many genes in our bodies are permanently turned off as part of normal development. [Sometimes] that process goes awry, turning off genes that should otherwise remain active. The new field of epigenetic therapy [aims] to switch these genes back on." Interesting stuff, and a reminder that all newly discovered knowledge of human genetics and biochemistry will eventually help in the fight to cure aging.
The BBC notes that the British government has commenced funding stem cell research with a comparatively modest investment of $16.5 million. "A total of 57 grants have been awarded to universities across the UK looking at new treatments for conditions such as Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer. One project, by the National Institute of Medical Research in London, involves taking stem cells from the lining of the nose to repair spinal cord damage." This follows the recent opening of the first stem cell bank, also in the UK. As funding makes its way through the system, the resulting progress in stem cell medicine will make it harder for governments elsewhere to continue to ban or criminalize this research.
Nanotechnology is the creation and utilization of materials, devices, and systems through the control of matter on the nanometer-length scale (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Nanobiotechnology, an integration of physical sciences, molecular engineering, biology, chemistry and biotechnology holds considerable promise of advances in pharmaceuticals and healthcare.
As I previously noted, improvements in diagnostic technology resulting from nanoscale manufacturing would seem to be the first up to bat. Thus, diagnostics and nanoscale materials science are the principle industry focus at this time.
Some of the earliest applications are in molecular diagnostics. Nanoparticles, particularly quantum dots, are playing important roles. In vitro diagnostics, does not have any of the safety concerns associated with the fate of nanoparticles introduced into the human body.
Numerous nanodevices and nanosystems for sequencing single molecules of DNA are feasible. Various nanodiagnostics that have been reviewed will improve the sensitivity and extend the present limits of molecular diagnostics.
An increasing use of nanobiotechnology by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries is anticipated. Nanotechnology will be applied at all stages of drug development - from formulations for optimal delivery to diagnostic applications in clinical trials.
Many of the assays based on nanobiotechnology will enable high- throughput screening. Some of nanostructures such as fullerenes are themselves drug candidates as they allow precise grafting of active chemical groups in three-dimensional orientations.
The really impressive nanomedicine will take much more time, research, and resources. I don't expect to be personally making use of fully functioning medical nanorobots for another two to three decades, for example.
Medical News Today reminds us that regular exercise is a vital part of any strategy to maximize your natural longevity. Here is a partial checklist: "Physical activity not only lowers body weight, it cuts cardiovascular risk and blood pressure, improves lipid profiles, has positive effects on the immune system and can reduce the risk of certain cancers. It strengthens the heart, helps the lungs function better, enables the blood to carry more oxygen, makes muscles stronger and improves motion in the joints." Regular exercise is not just about losing weight, and, as the article notes, "All these benefits vanish quickly once people stop exercising." So get to it!
I don't normally post abstracts from scientific publications, but this one from Nature is interesting in light of recent news about telomeres, the protective caps for our DNA. Scientists knew that cellular life span increases with telomere length, but now Korean researchers have determined that the overall life span of the nematode worm is also increased when telomeres are lengthened. This opens some interesting new lines of inquiry into the mechanisms of aging and cancer: we should expect to see the results of telomere extension experiments in mice in three to four years. To learn more about telomeres and their role in aging, you should visit the telomere home page at InfoAging.
It had slipped my mind - perhaps due to the activities of certain oily political appointees - that the National Institutes of Health maintains an informative website on stem cell science. To date, it seems to have remained moderately untainted by politics. Parts of the FAQ page are dodgy, but I wouldn't expect an NIH website to acknowledge the damage done by federal policy on embryonic stem cell research...
In any case, the section that introduces stem cells is a good primer for those who are new to the underlying science, or want a better grasp of the terms of the debate.
I was going to post some thoughts on the recently reported hard proof for mitochondrial theories of aging, but Randall Parker has already done an excellent job of that at FuturePundit. I quote a fair amount below, but you should read the whole thing:
Mice genetically engineered to have a defective mechanism for repairing only the DNA found in mitochondria age more rapidly and have less than half the life expectancy of normal mice.
Mitochondria are organelles that exist inside all eukaryotic cells (most complex life forms including humans have eukaryotic cells) and function to break down sugars to produce energy. Mitochonida have their own DNA for a small subset of their proteins. The Swedish team introduced a mutation to break a repair mechanism for the DNA in mitochondria in order to study how important accumulation of damage to mitochondrial DNA is to the overall rate of aging. The results suggest that damage accumulation to mitochondrial DNA is as important as some scientists have argued for years.
Why does the accumulation of mitochondrial DNA damage accelerate aging? One obvious possibility is that the DNA damage knocks out genes needed for energy production and hence cells begin to malfunction due to a lack of energy. But another quite plausible possibility is that the mutations knock out steps in sugar metabolism in a way that leads to the generation of lots of free radicals. In this model (suggested by Aubrey de Grey - more about him below) the cells that have defective mitochondria become toxic free radical generators for all the cells around them. In essence, a fairly small number of cells become mini-toxic waste sites. Someone call in the Environmental Protection Agency. This sort of thing should be forbidden by tough pollution law enforcement.
He goes on to discuss Aubrey de Grey's proposals to alter cells to make mitochondrial damage less unhealthy:
Aubrey has repeatedly argued for funding of experimental work to move genes into the nucleus of a mouse cell to then be used to clone and raise mice that have all their mitochondrial genes in their nuclei. The effect might be the opposite of the experiment reported above. Rather than shortening life the mice might live much longer. Such a result would lend further support for the argument that mitochondrial DNA gene therapy should be developed as a rejuvenation technique.
I imagine that this would a logical next step for researchers to look into. I also imagine that Aubrey de Grey is spending a lot of time on the phone right now...
Conventional scientific wisdom has long held that higher metabolic rates lead to shorter life spans. This makes perfect sense, but - like many theories that make perfect sense - turns out to be absolutely wrong. ScienceBlog reports that researchers have determined the most metabolically active 25% of mice in fact live 36% longer than the least active, despite their less efficient and overactive metabolisms. This work raises a number of interesting questions, and demonstrates the necessity of carefully testing what is "common wisdom." Scientists suspect that this extension of life span is due to a lower rate of free radical creation in a less efficient metabolism.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research is reprinting a very good Scientific American article that introduces and explains the fundamental science of embryonic and adult stem cell research. What are the hurdles, what has been accomplished to date, and how does it all work to regenerate the human body? If you feel that you would like a better grasp of the basics, then this would be a good place to start. Scientists have a great deal of work yet to accomplish, but as the article reminds us, "how long it will take for any [embryonic stem cell] therapies to be tested in humans will be determined as much by politics as by the remaining scientific questions."
Aubrey de Grey's proposal for serious anti-aging research, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (or SENS), is positioned as an engineering project. Aubrey explains why in this manner:
SENS is a detailed plan for curing human aging. SENS is an engineering project, in the same way that medicine is a branch of engineering. The key to SENS is the appreciation that aging is best viewed as a set of progressive changes in body composition at the molecular and cellular level, caused as side-effects of essential metabolic processes. These changes are therefore best thought of as an accumulation of "damage", which becomes pathogenic above a certain threshold of abundance. The traditional gerontological approach to life extension, namely to try to slow down this accumulation of damage, is a misguided strategy, firstly because it requires us to improve biological processes that we do not adequately understand, and secondly because it can even in principle only retard aging rather than reverse it. An even more short-termist alternative is the geriatric approach, namely to try to stave off pathology in the face of accumulating damage; this is a losing battle because the continuing accumulation of damage makes pathology more and more inescapable. Instead, the engineering (SENS) strategy is not to interfere with metabolism per se, but to repair or obviate the accumulating damage and thereby indefinitely postpone the age at which it reaches pathogenic levels.
Human cells are a very complex machine, and thus we as humans are a complex collection of very complex machines. Advances in genetics, bioinformatics, and other fields of modern medicine are beginning to provide the knowledge and tools needed to examine, alter, repair, and extend our cellular machinery.
Consider the thought experiment of a stone age New Guinea tribe given the full output of a modern car factory, but no help from the outside world: no manuals, teachers, explanations, nor understanding. Human nature being what it is, members of the tribe will learn - slowly and through trial and error at first, but increasingly rapidly as time passes - how cars work, how to take best care of a car, and how to repair it, one component at a time. This is exactly the position that the human race as a whole is in with respect to our own bodies. There are more of us, but the task in front of us is vastly harder.
If you're a non-biologist who keeps track of aging research, like myself, you'll probably have a vague idea as to how things fit together inside a cell and in the various theories of aging. You probably also wish that you had paid more attention in class when you were learning about biology. The reality is quite complex; to get an idea as to how complex, you might try the discussions linked below:
Complex or not, finding a cure for aging is "just" an engineering problem, however. It is not mystical, nor is it impossible. It's just difficult. The time taken to produce results depends on our willingness to support and fund research.
Where does cancer fit into all of this? Cancer and aging share aspects of the same cellular mechanisms and biochemistry. Cancer is probably the result of malfunctions in the telomere mechanisms determining cell life spans, and the risk of cancer continually increases with age - perhaps due to the damage already caused by other components of the aging process. This area of biochemistry is under study by a number of groups, and scientists are learning more each year about the mechanisms and biochemistry involved.
Aubrey de Grey's principle objection to an absolute focus on regenerative medicine as the path to longer, healthier lives is that this will do nothing to stop the ever-increasing risk of cancer. Given that cancer is currently the second most common cause of death (and the only reason it isn't the most common is due to society-wide support for resources to be directed towards finding a cure, starting in the early 1970s), any life-extending strategy will fail if we do not develop a cure or preventative therapies for cancer.
This is exactly the same rationale for the fight to cure Alzheimer's - without a cure, this horrible condition will kill us long before we realize the benefits of a healthy life span extended through regenerative medicine.
EurekAlert reports on a convincing study linking shortened telomeres (the protective caps at the end of chromosomes) with cancer development. This makes sense, as short telomeres lead to genetic damage and - usually - cell death, or cellular senescence as it is properly known. In the normal course of events, shortening telomeres act as timers for cell life span, ensuring that old cells are replaced in a timely fashion. This research is futher proof that cancer results from a malfunction of the telomere mechanism for cell senescence - and offers new possibilities for developing preventative medicine and improved early diagnostics.
Researchers have made a noteworthy step forward in understanding the causes of aging. By inserting a genetic defect into the cellular mitochondria of mice, life span is shortened and signs of old age are created. This provides the first hard proof for the mitochondial theory of aging - scientists knew that older people have more defects in their mitochondria, but did not know whether this was a cause or effect of aging. This research is a first step and doesn't yet invalidate any of the other theories of aging. From the article: "Since mitochondria also generate free radicals, the latest work may also propel work on the free-radical theory." The next step would be to see if scientists can extend life spans in mice by eliminating defects in the mitochondria.
This Reuters piece is an excellent example of the sort of medical study that illustrates our paucity of knowledge in the grand scheme of things. The study suggests that consuming antioxidants doesn't protect against neurodegenerative conditions (such as Alzheimer's). The real message, however, is that researchers don't yet understand most of the relationships, biochemistry, and other risk factors involved. Taken alone, the study is a pin pushed into the map of a vast unknown territory. If human biochemistry is colonial America, then progress to date would put us at 1750 or thereabouts. We have established well-explored enclaves, but the road ahead is long.
2theadvocate.com reports that Louisiana state senate politicians have reversed earlier indications to pass pass a bill that bans research involving therapeutic cloning. This technology is essential to much of stem cell based regenerative medicine. The bill has yet to pass the house for approval, but every one of those state senators voting for it did so in full knowledge that blocking medical research costs lives. Posturing and public agonizing are all well and good, but they don't cure age-related disease, nor alleviate suffering and death. The only good that politicians can do in this matter is to stand aside and allow medical research to proceed unmolested.
The more extreme protesters of embyronic stem cell research are at least honest in their motivations for restricting research that will save lives. Not so Eric Cohen, who in a piece at the National Review, uses a variety of extremely dishonest arguments, half-truths, outright lies, omissions, and obfuscations to defend government policies that are causing great harm to our future health, life span, and well being by restricting vital medical research.
Another Complaint about this Eric Cohen National Review Online piece. As the title--"Inflated Promises, Distorted Facts"--makes clear, part of Cohen's argument is that research advocates have been hyping the medical potential of embryonic stem cells in the absence of hard proof of what they're capable of.
This is a highly convenient argument, given that limitations on stem cell research have prevented scientists from learning more about their potential. In other words, the idea seems to be a) you clamp down on research, and then b) you accuse the research of not going anywhere in order to justify not loosening the restrictions. What a crock.
This is a particularly common politicial trick - seen in "deregulation" for example. Get in there and mess things up so that you can justify more intervention later. That doesn't mean we should let them get away with it, of course.
Another problem is this notion of the number of stem cell lines and how it matters. Firstly, Cohen is flat out wrong - and probably deliberately so - in what he says about the number that are available.
Here's the key bit of info that Cohen conveniently omits: the NIH itself has said that under the "best case scenario," only 23 lines will ever be available under Bush's policy. Here (PDF) is where this information was first revealed; it has since been widely reported in the media (see here for the Washington Post's story).
Now, I'm sure Cohen knows about the 23 line limit; he seems well versed in the details of stem cell policy. But he simply leaves out this crucial fact, happily writing as if the number 19 will just continue to grow and grow and grow, when in fact we're quickly approaching a wall. And then Cohen has the gall to accuse stem cell research proponents of being "disingenuous." Pot kettle, anyone?
Secondly, as I've said before, focusing whether 10, 20, or 60 lines are available obscures the fact that hundreds or thousands of lines are required worldwide for serious research to proceed apace. While government restrictions keep the number of lines low, researchers are proceeding at a comparative slow pace. This state of affairs has a high cost in suffering, disease, and death attached to it - it is a willful blocking of attempts to save lives and find cures.
Lastly, we most certainly do have hard proof of embryonic stem cell capabilities, and their superiority over adult stem cells. It's not hard proof in humans, but in animal subjects - good enough for me to justify my support for large-scale research to establish human therapies. Take a look at this report, for example:
Embryonic stem cells transplanted within a 3D scaffold have been shown to regenerate damaged heart muscle in mice. The achievement, by Theo Kofidis and colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, California, overcomes several problems that have hindered previous attempts to regenerate damaged heart muscle.
The researchers had been working with bone marrow stem cells but found that they were not able to become heart muscle cells and regenerate the heart.
When the researchers used embryonic stem cells, however, they were able to improve heart function.
"In our most recent studies we showed that mouse and human embryonic stem cells improved heart function, had superior survival within the heart - weeks later we still saw improved heart function - and had definitely differentiated into heart muscle cells," says Kofidis. "We inserted a bioluminescent marker (what causes fireflies to luminesce) into our stem cells and were able to see that they engrafted in the living organ."
In summary, dishonesty - and especially that of the oily variety practiced by Eric Cohen in this stem cell article of his - bothers me greatly. I would direct Cohen to the Michael Kinsley piece of the other day, which ends:
A difficult issue is one in which you hold two or more conflicting values. Stem cells are not a difficult issue: either you think a microscopic embryo has the same human rights as you and I, or you don't. Do you believe that a woman who gets an abortion should be prosecuted for murder, just like a mother who hires a professional killer to off her teenage son? Are you picketing around fertility clinics, which kill hundreds of thousands of unborn children - if that's what you believe a 5-day-old embryo to be - just like abortion clinics do? If so, you are entitled to oppose stem-cell research. If not, please get out of the way.
A USNews article takes a look at the pros and alleged cons of radical enhancement through future biotechnology, including greatly extending the healthy human life span. As is usual in articles of this type, the anti-biotech position quickly devolves into vague maunderings about human dignity and attempts to paint change (even wonderful, positive, uplifting change) as a fate worse than death. The objections to longer lives are particularly silly; you can imagine exactly the same sort of folks in 1900 objecting to anyone living beyond 50. Gregory Stock tells us that once biotech benefits become tangible, the debate will be over - everyone will be using the technology. I certainly hope that to be the case.
Michael Kinsley does his normal good job on the stem cell research debate in this short, to the point column published in Time. "Stamping some issue as controversial can be a substitute for thinking it through. In the case of embryonic stem cell research, thinking it through does not require further study or commissions of experts. This is one you can feel free to try at home. In fact, thinking it through is a moral obligation, especially if you are on the side of the argument that wants to stop or slow this research." Indeed - the costs of delay, measured in disease, suffering and avoidable death, beggar the imagination. So think if through if you haven't already done so.
Phil Bowermaster is commenting on an article I also noticed the other day. It touches on transhumanism, if not terribly respectfully, improving the human condition, and the far reaches of healthy life extension. Phil notes:
But living forever could rob life of its meaning, said Bill McKibben, author of "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." In the book he argues that without death, humans have no opportunity to sacrifice for their children, no reason to pour out a life's work under the literal deadline of mortality.
Well, first off: there aren't that many transhumanists who see "living forever" as being in the cards. Aubrey de Grey talks about life extension that might buy us a few centuries. Eliezer Yudkowsky has a more expansive view, promoting a Theory of Fun that would help us to make the most of a life that extends to millions or even billions of years. The only transhumanist I can think of offhand who talks in terms of "living forever" is Frank J. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality. But to object to Tipler's model of living forever is to object to the religious idea of dying and going to heaven, since it amounts to the same thing. I wonder whether McKibben has the same objections to religious ideas about living forever as he does transhumanist ideas on the same subject?
First let me say that McKibben talks nonsense on this topic. Using his logic, we can surmise that we would all be better off living in a society in which people were executed at age 30. Ridiculous. Does he think that people were better off when disease claimed them at 40 instead of 80? Is suffering and death really such a wonderful thing? I am continually amazed at the lengths people go to in order to protect and rationalize the status quo, no matter how awful it is.
Secondly, on the differences between living forever and merely living for a lot, lot longer...I'm definitely of the opinion that it can't hurt to aim high (while remaining realistic about the underlying science that supports these goals). If you aim for immortality with a sound mind and good science, the worst that can happen is that you'll live a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life. Not all that terrible, right?
Looking at science and medicine, a number of serious futurists have postulated reasonable, physically possible paths through the future that lead to extreme longevity, as Phil points out. If the funding is obtained to make even Aubrey de Grey's comparatively modest proposals a reality, then we'll certainly have a nice long time to figure out what comes next - including how to avoid becoming a statistic along the way.
(From Wired). As if to say that it's dangerous for ethicists to write about fast-moving science, at least one research group has demonstrated that telomeres lengthen rather than shorten in cloned animals. This sort of back and forth on specific findings is characteristic of a young, active field of science - it is something we should be quite happy to see. Apparently contradictory studies usually indicate that scientists are closing in on a previously unknown complexity or mechanism that will explain these results. Since telomeres seem to be an important part of the biochemistry of aging, any and all additional knowledge will help serious anti-aging research.
Bioethics.net talks about the ethics of cloning based on current scientific understanding regarding telomeres and aging. Telomeres are introduced well in the article - they function as protective caps for our chromosomes, getting shorter with each cell division - but the science is more complex and uncertain than the explanation given by the author. Those of you interested in ethics may find the latter half of the article interesting, but the final conclusion is simple common sense - much more research is needed, and no human reproductive cloning should take place until we understand more of the underlying mechanisms. (Therapeutic cloning, on the other hand, is just fine).
Chris Mooney comments on short memories and shallow journalism in mainstream science reporting, as personified by a Washington Post discussion of bad stem cell legislation in this case.
I'm glad that the Post now favors freeing up more lines for research. But notice how the paper's editorial page conspicuously avoids discussing the central reason that the Bush policy failed: There were never nearly as many lines available for research as the president promised.
Yes, that's right: All the essential problems with Bush's policy were apparent within a month of its announcement. The Post should have been courageous enough to say that this policy failure was inherent from the get-go.
Sadly, all this argument over 10, 20 or 60 stem cell lines obscures the fact that thousands of lines will likely be needed for research into regenerative and stem cell medicine to proceed effectively across the board - i.e. important work to cure heart disease, neurodegenerative conditions, diabetes, nerve, muscle and bone damage, and many other age-related conditions is on hold or proceeding very slowly until this is resolved. I have discussed this matter in a previous post here at Fight Aging!
I don't think I've yet mentioned the Facing Cryonics initiative over at the Immortality Institute. While the most recent attempts to legislate cryonics out of existance seem to have died down, it is good to be prepared for the next round. In particular, Alcor supporters expect some Arizona politicians to try to reintroduce anti-cryonics legislation at a later date in 2004 or 2005 - we would like it to be a whole lot easier to stop the process.
The Facing Cryonics initiative is one attempt to demonstrate that a multitude of real people from all walks of life support cryonics and the goals of cryonics providers like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonics Institute. You can help the cryonics community with just a few minutes of your time by uploading your photograph and entering a message of support.
To learn more about cryonics, cryonics providers, and the supportive community, you should start by reading the introduction to cryonics at the Longevity Meme.
The big picture of medical research is calibrated by concrete, centers, and conferences. Each new stem cell research facility, each new regenerative medicine institute, and each new medical conference marks growth in the field. With this in mind, I am pleased to see that Cornell University is to establish the Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics with a $15 million donation from prominent philanthropists. Despite the damage done by politicians - and especially the current US administration - over the past few years, there is still money coming into stem cell research. This is something that we can all be thankful for.
An article from Boston.com takes a look at the short history and current state of stem cell research in the US. Like most such articles these days, it makes the mistake of focusing entirely on government funding and actions as the way forward. This ignores the vast amounts of private funding (for profit and philanthropic) entering the industry - or that would be entering the industry if it were not scared away by threatened anti-research legislation and hostile political appointees. Politicians are to blame for the sorry state of stem cell science, but more government is most definitely not the solution. For better medical science, all that needs to happen is for the political classes to leave well alone.
USA Today reports that Dustin Hoffman has joined the list of Hollywood celebrities openly supporting stem cell research: "What this research has more to do with is not when life begins but when life ends. This research may one day eliminate [age-related diseases] from ending people's lives prematurely." It is sad that we live in a world in which we need influential people to stand up and say the obvious in order for medical research to proceed. To quote Hoffman again, "if the public speaks out and voices its desire that these cells be made available for scientific medical research, we will have an extraordinary opportunity to eliminate this disease called diabetes and many other autoimmune diseases."
There has been a deluge of stem cell research news of late, both political and scientific. I think there's a real hope that we've reached the tipping point at which government restrictions in the US and other (allegedly) more enlightened countries will start to be swept away. It could all happen within the next six months, following the US presidential election and the California state ballot, if all goes well and if we make sure that our voices are heard. This would be a wonderful thing for the prospects of extending the healthy human life span through regenerative medicine.
Meanwhile, take a look at the latest stem cell news at the Longevity Meme. Times are changing and medical science is moving into a new age:
A Betterhumans article from earlier in the week notes a small step forward in the quest to understand and replicate lizard-like regeneration of organs. Researchers are currently attempting to convince adult stem cells, which are partially differentiated and unable to produce all tissue types, to reverse their lifecycle and become more like embryonic stem cells - able to produce any tissue type. It is thought that this or a similar mechanism enables some species of lizard to regenerate entire limbs. This research is in its infancy, however, and we have a long, long way to go by the looks of things. All the more reason for greater funding and public support for stem cell research!
As Alejandro Dubrovsky pointed out, yesterday's post on distinctions was missing a few points.
The distinction is not useful. Appealing to the word "normal" makes as much sense as people appealing to the word "natural". The human machine doesn't function in a vacuum (not for more than about 10 minutes anyway), so its environment always determines its lifespan. If caloric restriction is the environment which gives you the maximum lifespan, then that is the best possible lifespan, not an extension to the best possible lifespan. If eating badly shortens your lifespan, then that is just a shortening of your maximum lifespan, just like trying to breathe underwater would be. If better motor oil gets you a longer lifespan than no motor oil, then its a relative life extension to not having had your motor oil. Its especially irritating to see this distinction coming from this quarter since this distinction is the main argumentative recourse of the majority of doctors who are against life extension (ie they are against life extension, and all for maximum lifespan, considering curing cancer, and wiping heart disease as a good thing, since they are "diseases", while anything greater than this as unnatural, or not normal. 100 years ago of course, heart disease and cancer would have been considered normal aging).
Using "normal" in the following context:
The ultimate purpose of healthy life extension is to greatly lengthen the best possible life span you could have - not just to help you be healthier for longer within your normal life span.
was a slip of the keyboard, I think. I should have said "current" or "existing."
One can argue that any discussion of life span - such as how to increase it - is worthless without the context surrounding that life span. Let's look at cars, for example. We can't talk about the useful lifetime of a car without qualifying how much (and what sort of) repairs and preventative maintenance will be performed. With regard to the human body, we currently don't have a good toolkit to hand - we can make a fair difference to life span with preventative medicine and interventions, but not a great difference. Current medical science simply can't enable people to live beyond 120 years, or much beyond 100 for most. While this is an improvement over the 40 years (or less) we'd have without modern medicine, working to change these limitations is something that we should all look into.
In any case, I began this short trail of thinking aloud at the keyboard in search of a good way of distinguishing - for the casual visitor to this topic - between a) increasing healthy life span without increasing maximum life span, and b) increasing both. There are any number of groups touting the former (especially in the anti-aging marketplace) in a way that sounds, to many people, as though they are touting the latter. All that light and noise obscures serious work and scientific research that is, in the long run, far more important.
You can be as healthy as modern science can make you, but without access to future medical technologies for healthy life extension, you'll be just as dead as the next guy 100 years from now.
Obviously, living healthily for longer is a good thing in and of itself even without a boost to maximum life span. It is also something that we have a great deal of control over - unlike our maximum life span. When I say "living healthily for longer" at the Longevity Meme, however, I am talking about working towards the technologies that can greatly increase maximum life span. This sort of distinction is something that I believe I have to make far more clear in my writing and websites.
This piece from the Tallahassee Democrat contains some sobering statistics. "If we all live to age 85, as most of us hope to do, half of us will have [Alzheimer's] and the other half will be taking care of us." Bear in mind that, without improvement in medical technology, half of us will not even make it to age 85, struck down by heart disease, cancer or other common age-related conditions. Medical science is progressing, but most people don't think about the importance of research funding, support, and activism. Major advances in medicine require time, widespread public support, and resources - or they may not happen at all. This is just as true for serious anti-aging research as it is for the fight to cure cancer or Alzheimer's.
The Sun Herald carries an article on transhumanism and the use of technology to better the human condition, including radical extension of healthy life span. It is very gratifying to see articles like this showing up in the mainstream media - times are certainly changing! Advancing science is making ideas first put forward by transhumanists decades ago seem ever more sensible and obvious. To quote James Hughes, "transhumanists want to use technology to enhance and fulfill human potential. That's very hard to do if you die after only 70 years." The article also quotes from some prominent naysayers - but we cannot let such people hold us back when we are so close to bootstrapping our way to far longer, healthier, active lives.
StarBanner reports on the state of play regarding the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative: the project is well financed indeed, with money pouring in from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and other wealthy individuals. The campaign has raised more than $5 million since late 2003 and is aiming for a war chest of $20 million for the November ballot. If we could just convince people like this to fund medical research prizes as profligately as they fund the political process, we'd be far ahead of the game by now. If you feel inclined to support the California initiative - which faces steep costs in advertising, education, and so forth - you will find all the necessary information to do so at their website.
Fabricators, or rapid prototyping machines, allow you to "print" three-dimensional shapes in plastics, polymers and other materials. They're big and bulky - see the picture in this article - but affordable for larger research centers. Researchers are starting to make ingenious use of this technology to advance medical capabilities, building personalized prosthetics, biodegradable scaffolds that support the growth of complex tissue structures, and more. One scientists is quoted as saying "ultimately, tissue engineering may provide off-the-shelf tissues and organs for transplantation to replace or restore tissue function." Fabricators will be essential to achieving that vision, enabling people to live longer, healthier lives.
Dr. Mercola is a health and good diet advocate and businessman on the fringes of the anti-aging and healthy life extension communities. If you take a look at his latest newsletter (entitled "Popular Anti-Aging Techniques: Find Out Which Ones Work and Which Ones Don't"), you'll get a good idea as to his biases, opinions and the way in which he makes money from his business.
Dr. Mercola strikes me as one of the more responsible "better motor oil for human beings" businessmen out there. He is up front and well informed about calorie restriction, takes the high road on human growth hormone (don't use it), and is at least selling healthy diet information with scientific backing and no claims of a quick fix - even if it may or may not perform as well as claimed.
A good diet will mean you'll be healthier for longer - but it won't mean life extension unless you're practicing calorie restriction. Let me explain this comment, since this is a subtle distinction that is often lost. We all have some theoretical best possible life span, which we'll need to be in good shape to reach. A bad diet and lifestyle really means that you're reducing your actual life span by damaging yourself. A good diet and lifestyle simply avoids this reduction - but it doesn't lengthen your best possible life span.
The ultimate purpose of healthy life extension is to greatly lengthen the best possible life span you could have - not just to help you be healthier for longer within your normal life span. Currently, the only available technique proven to extend the best possible life span at all in animals (and with strong evidence pointing to the same modest results in humans) is calorie restriction.
Within this context, you might also want to read my comments on the meaning of anti-aging at the Longevity Meme. There is much the same difference between fixing age-related conditions and intervening in the aging process as there is between a good diet and calorie restriction. Remember: living a healthier normal life span versus extending the best possible life span.
Unfortunately, this distinction in rarely in evidence when people are trying to sell you things. So it's up to you to do the research and find out what is going on before you pay for products.
Good news for stem cell research from Wired: the first embryonic stem cell bank has opened in the UK. It will eventually manage tens of thousands of stem cell lines - around the number needed for serious medical progress to take place in this field. Remember that number when the NIH director next decides to claim that things are going swimmingly with the ten or so lines that can currently be used, or that US-sponsored anti-research legislation is a wonderful thing. The availability of stem cell lines, funding, and a positive political atmosphere are all necessary for the future of regenerative medicine - and longer, healthier lives for all.
WOAI reports that the National Institute on Aging has awarded a $2.5 million grant to the University of Texas Health Science Center. Researchers will be testing drugs and genetic procedures with the aim of slowing the aging process. This is a fairly conservative program in the grand scheme of things, aimed at allowing healthy, active life to continue into the 80s and 90s rather than radically extending life span. It's worth nothing that scientists like Aubrey de Grey advocate work to begin immediately on reversing the effects of aging. It is persuasively argued that this is no harder than merely trying to slow aging, so we should do the job well if we are going to do it at all.
Max More, Extropy Institute founder, here examines the reasons behind the excessive caution and rejection of healthy life extension research by Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama and others. What is the best way forward for a world in which the precautionary principle is used to stifle medical progress?
Copyright © Max More.
A deep metaphysical and existential anxiety lurks behind the diverse opposition to change brought about by technological progress. This anxiety is common to Leon Kass' fear of going "Beyond Therapy," Francis Fukuyama's fear of "our posthuman future," and the fears expressed by the more extreme wielders of the precautionary principle.
For Kass, the use of technology to overcome the historical, biological limits of humans - such as efforts to greatly extend healthy, active life span through the use of advanced medicine - is "the deepest source of public anxiety about biotechnology." In his eyes, working towards longer, healthier lives raises the weightiest questions of "the nature and meaning of human flourishing, and the intrinsic threat of dehumanization (or the promise of super-humanization)."
The Four Great Changes
Our hearts should go out to those who, like Leon Kass, are not born lovers of progress, exploration, and discovery. We need to understand why they are disturbed by the prospect of human superlongevity and other scientific advances that will change and improve our lives - only with understanding can we effectively acknowledge their concerns and provide reassurance. This sort of anxiety over change and technology is deeper than Toffler's "future shock" - instead, reaction against the medicine of radical life extension and other transformative technologies should be viewed as part of the fourth in a series of cultural shocks.
The first of these shocks came with the Copernican revolution, in which our culture lost the reassuring and situating idea that the Earth was the center - or even a significant fraction - of all Creation. Humanity experienced a second profound metaphysical shock in the Darwinian Revolution, which removed from our species any claim to be the special design and the center of a divine plan. The third shock arrived about a century ago with the unveiling of the mechanics of the unconscious mind. No longer masters of the universe, or even of the world, we could no longer be sure that we were had domain over ourselves. Our species, and our culture, has been growing up - becoming adult by losing the illusions and self-centeredness of childhood.
Now a fourth great change is beginning, as the central characters of this drama - human beings, you and I - are becoming something new and different. The widespread use of near-future medicine to address disease, aging, death, emotional deficiencies, and cognitive shortcomings will dissolve age-old constraints. With old limits removed, social conventions will take new forms. It will be a great adventure, spurred on by the loss of millstones that have held us back since the dawn of time - but not everyone wants to take part. The Leon Kasses of this world hold on tight to what they see as the eternal truths of human nature, preferring the devil they know - short lives, degenerative conditions of aging, and terrible suffering - to the great and wondrous journey that is our future.
In this context, Leon Kass has been known to quote Nietzsche. In the character of Zarathustra, Nietzsche vividly conveyed the change and metaphysical shocks of his time:
How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as if through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?
That shock is resurgent today. Apologists for the "natural order" don't want to recognize that, for we humans, accomplishing change is natural. The deeply religious oppose human enhancement - especially greatly extended healthy life spans - because such improvements make obvious the flaws in the existing order. This strikes at the root of belief in a perfect being. Extreme environmentalists, on the other hand, resist the technologies of improvement and transformation in the name of a modern mythology that exemplifies Nature as inherently benevolent and humanity as inherently evil or debased.
A lesser, but far more pervasive, form of opposition derives from our own necessary rationalizations. Throughout history, each and every person has lived with the knowledge that we all age, grow crippled, suffer, and die. This painful reality is something we all, as individuals, have struggled to come to terms with - and many of us are loathe to discard that hard work, even for the best of news and the brightest of promised futures. For the sake of sanity, our culture treats any horrific, apparently unassailable fact as though it were good, or necessary to give life meaning, or an essential part of the "best of all possible worlds." This is simply human nature.
Today, however, we stand on the brink of being able to change many horrific facts. The universal nature of aging and death by disease is one such fact open to change through human ingenuity and human technological prowess.
As an aside, evolutionary psychology no doubt plays a role in reinforcing excessive caution. The vast majority of our ancestors lived on the very edge of survival, with little knowledge of science and the true workings of the world. There was no safety net, no backup plan, and little margin for error - experimentation, or indeed just the normal course of events, could and usually did lead to disaster. Great caution has long had survival value, and so it became a common trait. Ours is a different age, however, one in which we have amassed great knowledge, deepened our reserves, and interconnected our diverse cultures and institutions. We can now use our caution sensibly rather than be ruled by it, applying cautious thought in far more focused and intelligent ways.
As individuals, and culturally, we have yet to catch up with this reality.
The Straw Man of Perfection
One point on which I can agree with Leon Kass - if not a way he would like - is his warning about the pursuit of perfection. He talks of medical research and healthy life extension advocates as seeking perfection of mind and body, of searching for immortality. This would indeed be a mistake, but Kass has it backwards. The religious opponents of enhancement are the ones who believe in an immortal heaven of passive perfection - a realm where nothing changes, no one develops, and everyone rests forever. As Zarathustra put it:
"Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want anymore: this created all gods and other worlds."
Those of us who favor advancing technologies - both to heal humanity of its historical afflictions and to enable our continued growth as a species - have little patience for perfection. Perfection is not the real issue. The real issue is the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and breaking chains, such as aging, that constrain us to our present human condition of suffering and pain.
Let's Stop Stopping
The Precautionary Principle, as used by anti-biotech groups and opponents of medical research, raises an impossible standard. It would have us stop progress until we have proof of safety, but we cannot provide proof of safety for anything without trying it out. Nor can we know all the potential benefits of any given advance - extreme precautions that amount to relinquishment of the Bill Joy variety carry great risks of their own. What are the human costs of not developing a cure for cancer? What are the costs of failing to understand and intervene in the aging process?
As Bill McKibben insists, "Enough is Enough!" Fine. But enough for whom, and for how long? Who gets to decide? McKibben, Kass and Fukuyama view advocates of healthy life extension and other transformative technologies as asking for too much. They worry about a "loss of human dignity" resulting from radical life extension and human enhancement - but this is nonsense, dangerous nonsense. In what way is a slow, painful death due to degenerative conditions of aging dignified? Is dignity generated by a small group of anti-progress ideologues forcing this death upon millions of people every year through suppression of medical research?
No. The technologies and medical advances of the near future will bring us more time for self-development, along with the ability to overcome biological and neurological limitations to living our lives in the way we desire. Dignity - real dignity, as opposed to the fake dignity espoused by Leon Kass - requires freedom from constraints. Transformative technologies bring increased choice, and thus increased opportunities for real human dignity.
Freedom and Choice
Increased choice goes both ways: none of us plans to force healthy life extension or other enhancement therapies upon Kass, Fukuyama, or McKibben. It is up to them as to how - and how long - they live their lives. We ask in return for the same freedom to pursue our goals. The choices of either side do not harm or hinder the other.
We can appreciate and respect what Kass calls the "giftedness" of the world - though it is a fact, not a gift. We can, and should, take precautions while allowing for a plurality of values and choices: we can use our caution sensibly, rather than being ruled by it. The diverse people who build the advanced technology, better medicine, and new societies of tomorrow are quite capable of balancing precaution with pioneering, relinquishment with reaching. We humans, as the "mind of nature," will carry out the noble responsibility of appreciating what is while creating what can be.
Even as we explore, venture, develop, experiment, stretch, grow, and dare, we would do well to reach out to those who pull back in fear. Our responsibilities as advocates of profound advances in medicine and science include explaining the nature of positive futures, developing pathways to those futures, educating people and communicating our vision. We can sooth the fears of those ridden by metaphysical anxiety, and show them that our bright future is no threat to their chosen path in life.
Here's a quick recap: caloric restriction leads to longevity in virtually every animal species in which it's been tried. Why? There is continuing debate, but a lot of attention has been given to an enzyme, SIR2, that is increased with caloric restriction.
This is important. Just because something follows, it does not mean that it's the cause. We knew that SIR2 levels increased prior to measurable increases in longevity, but that did not mean that SIR2 was the reason. Now that we have a greater understanding of what SIR2 does, we may soon be able to evaluate SIR2's involvement in regulating lifespan.
As I note at the Longevity Meme, this research is an excellent example of the speed of modern science. It only took a year to understand the mechanism by which this enzyme operates, write the paper, and get it published. Pretty impressive.
The other item of interest from the Speculist is a note that Mark Modzelewski is stepping down as director of the Nanobusiness Alliance - which I am sure pleases many people. Modzelewski was point man for many of the attacks on molecular manufacturing research and Eric Drexler from mainstream nanotechnology business organizations. I wrote about this when it started to spill over into attacks on nanomedicine research, a sound technology that will be vital for future healthy life extension therapies.
I can't say that I'm sad to see Modzelewski go - and neither are the guys at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. Hopefully this means that we'll see more sensible attitudes towards nanotechnology and nanomedicine research in the future.
The latest Longevity Meme article is up and ready for you to read: Max More discusses the fear of healthy life extension expressed by the likes of Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama. What are the origins of this fear of positive change? Why do some people cling to the human condition rather than work towards ending suffering and death? How can we address their concerns without compromising the most vital medical advances of the years ahead? What is the way forward for a world used to abuses of the precautionary principle and calls to stifle medical research?
My Internet meanderings brought me to a website entitled "LONGEVITYPILL.COM" yesterday, and I rolled my eyes. The author, Bill Sardi, seems an earnest enough fellow - he supports calorie restriction, for example - but the thrust of the website is very much more of the same old school of pills and drugs.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that when radical life extension technology - medicine that can add decades to our healthy life spans - is developed, it won't be in the form of a pill.
Sure, there are plenty of people working on drugs that might have quite significant effects on life span and health - but the majority of this work is simply not going to result in products that make as big a difference as we'd all like. Barring bad luck or bad genes, people can make it to a healthy 80 or 100 years through calorie restriction and a good lifestyle. It seems unlikely that any drug I'm aware of in the pipeline at the moment will do much better than that.
In any case, most of these near future products would have to be injected to have the desired effect. The human digestive system is very good at breaking down complex compounds - especially those relating to human biochemistry - before they get anywhere near the bloodstream.
The more complex therapies of the future are the sort of things you undergo in a hospital setting. Stem cell transplants, gene therapies, organ regrowth, cancer scans - these are some the technologies that will - we hope - soon extend the healthy human life span. One day, with the aid of advanced nanotechnology, we will no doubt be able to stuff these procedures into a pill if we so desired - but that day is a long way off. Those people chasing longevity pills and exotic life-extending drugs in the here and now are just barking up the wrong tree and putting their dollars into the wrong field of research in my opinion.
BusinessWeek in running an article on the use of proteins - rather than stem cells - for regenerative medicine. It concludes that there is a great deal of promise in this field, but things are off to a slow and somewhat rocky start. Researchers are a long way away from the level of knowledge they would like to have: "It's very promising. But there's still a lot of biology and molecular engineering to be done." All fields of scientific endeavor are littered with failures ... at least at first. A wide diversity of efforts to understand and manipulate the workings of the human body is exactly what must happen if we are to extend the healthy human life span any time soon.
Following the discovery of longevity-related genes, researchers have been trying to find drugs to activate them. Betterhumans reports some progress towards a drug that can activate sirtuins, enzymes that influence longevity and are known to be involved in metabolism, aging and cancer development. One of the scientists involved in this work tells us that "if we could activate sirtuins, perhaps we could promote genomic stability and decrease cancer as well as other aging-related problems." Advances in bioinformatics are speeding up this and similar research - notice that it only took a year to go from finding the enzyme to understanding the mechanism and producing a candidate drug!
It looks like scientists are getting closer to being able to answer fundamental questions regarding the effectiveness of adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells - and why some adult stem cell treatments work, while others fail. It's still all somewhat confused, however, and there is a fair amount of work still to be done.
There are many different types of adult stem cell. A fair summary of what is known today would be that some adult stem cell types are useful in some therapies, although scientists are not sure how they are producing beneficial effects. Embryonic stem cells have been demonstrated to be useful in all circumstances in which they can be controlled - but getting them to do what you want to do is proving to be a hurdle. In both cases, some tests have shown undesirable side effects resulting from some therapies. Other studies have demonstrated very impressive positive results - including people who would otherwise be dead returning to an active life.
Overall, it is important to remember that stem cell researchers don't have the important answers yet. Amazing progress has been made, but more unbiased research is needed to understand how to best use stem cells to treat many currently incurable age-related conditions: Alzheimer's, nerve damage, Parkinson's, diabetes, bone loss, cancer, and many more.
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BusinessWeek takes a tour of the mainstream medical research business - big pharma and the new biotech giants - to see how they are starting to pour money into regenerative medicine. Much of the focus today is on repairing damage to the "engines of life," the heart and brain, but an amazing variety of privately funded work is taking place. There would be much more money, research, and progress if not for political threats to stem cell research, however. All advocates for regenerative medicine and freedom of research should take a look at what the privately funded marketplace is doing here - the self-interest and altruism do make good partners.
Any strategy for greatly extending the healthy human life span must include some reliable method for preventing or curing cancer - the mechanisms of cancer are closely related to the cellular aging process. With that in mind, this Science Daily article reports on progress in developing a genetically altered virus that kills cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. This offers the prospect of reliably destroying cancers without chemotherapy, radiation, and the attendant life-threatening side-effects. A couple of companies are working on this and similar technologies, but I'd guess that we are maybe five years away from seeing human trials. Still, it is very encouraging to see a leap forward in cancer treatment underway.
A Backbone Magazine article looks at the future of nanomedicine and healthy life extension. The common estimate seems to be that we will see this field in full swing in 20 to 30 years. We expect nanomedicine to improve upon the ability of regenerative medicine to extend healthy life span - through vastly improved diagnostic and in-situ microrepair abilities. Nanomedicine will also bring with it the tools needed to directly intervene in the biochemical processes of aging. Scientists are not there yet, however. There is much to learn and a great deal of work to be done - so we must support medical research!
Slashdot noted some predictions and thoughts on nanomedicine and healthy life extension today (cribbing from a Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends post). I've mentioned nanomedicine a number of times before here - it is an important technology that will improve upon what we can do with regenerative medicine. If you're interested in learning more, then Robert Freitas' work is a good place to start reading.
What bothers me about the slashdot piece is that all the common, old, Malthusian objections show up in the comments; posters objecting to saving lives because of speculative overpopulation concerns, or that the social security system will break, or other extensively debunked issues. For example:
Aren't people forgetting the social problems? Its like what the mathmatician said in Jurrasic Park: "They were so busy trying to see if they could, they didn't stop and think if they should" (or something to that effect). So if we have a generation (or two) of people living longer, what happens to Social Security? Or housing? Or land prices? Or the environment? Or heck lots and lots of other very limited resources! Would I take one of these pills if it was offered to me for $1k? Damn straight I would, but there are so many issues that I shudder at the effects this will have ~100 years down the road.
The other most common objection people voice to healthy life extension - the Tithonus Error - is also voiced:
You'll be a 200-year-old, withered, repulsive, barely-coherent husk of a human being... but dammit, you'll be healthy!
Extended longevity means extended healthy life span, not more years of increasing infirmity. You would never be old for longer - you would be healthy and in the prime of your life for longer. Hopefully for as long as you choose, if medical research proceeds rapidly enough.
Thankfully at least a few of the commentators get it:
And then the ethical problems. If you save lives (and don't tell me that curing heart attacks, diabetes, and cancer won't save lives), is it ethical to not do so? Is it better to watch them die, knowing that you could have helped, but didn't just so that you could get your social security check?
To quote someone much smarter than I: If science is the source of problems, ignorance is not the solution.
Short of continuing to plug away at education, how do we ensure that most people understand that Malthusianism of all sorts is simply wrong? Resources are never fixed, and nor are the ways in which we use them. We humans continue to produce more resources, and make better use of existing resources, all the time through our advancing technology and knowledge of the world.
I do think we are making progress - after all, a number of sensible rebuttals to the negativity and Malthusianism do show up in the Slashdot postings - but it is always dispiriting to see so many people willing to force everyone to suffer and die because of fundamental misunderstandings about the way in which the world works.
(From the Houston Chronicle). I am aquiring a very low opinion of Elias Zerhouni, the NIH director. You may recall his last excursion into bald-faced lying about the effects of US administration policy on stem cell research - well, here we go again. How can he say this stuff with a straight face? At least this time he follows up the outright lie with an arm-twisted semi-admission: "from a purely scientific perspective more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research." Hundreds or even thousands of stem cell lines are needed for serious research - and we still have government flunkies telling us that things are going swimmingly with the few we do have.
I thought that this article by Patti Davis, Nancy Regan's daughter, on the topic of embryonic stem cell research was worth pointing out. It is good to see that the sane view is getting more column inches these days:
There is a possible cure waiting in the wings for people with juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, ALS, Parkinson's, heart disease, cancer, as well as spinal-cord injuries. It's called stem-cell research.
On the night of May 8, my mother, Nancy Reagan, was given an award for caregiving at a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for stem-cell research. "We have lost so much time," she said when accepting her award. "I just can't bear to lose any more." It was a star-studded event, but everyone there was clear about one thing: Disease doesn't care about fame, or wealth or even youth. It just is.
Approximately 128 million individuals could benefit from stem-cell applications, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The number is probably higher, and as time goes by, it will grow higher still. Imagine the fear that would strike you if you were given a diagnosis that was, basically, a life sentence.
My family has watched my father, once called "The Great Communicator," vanish into the shadows of Alzheimer's; we are only one of many families who know the cruelty of this disease. My mother has taken her sorrow, her loss, and stood up for the one cure that can prevent people in the future from knowing this agony. George W. Bush, though he may want to try, can never stand in the way of people who want to banish the diseases that are stealing so much.
The article ends on this note, and I agree with it wholeheartedly:
People's desire to live healthy, whole lives will prevail in the end. There is a cure out there. We all know it. We will reach past any mere political obstacles to grab onto it and make it a reality. A messy, horrible war that has spun out of control could very well determine the next election. So should the miracle of stem-cell research - a miracle the Bush White House thinks it can block. It's too late for my father. At the fund-raiser last week, my mother told the audience that "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him." But those of us who have stood helplessly at bedsides or shuddered at our own diagnosis - those who have woken up to learn they would never walk again - have something to say about the very real promise of a miraculous cure: nothing can stop us from reaching for it.
This is the essence of medical research - the will that explains why it is done at all, whether for cancer, Alzheimer's, or to stop the aging process itself. This is why people devote lifetimes to medicine. It is our humanity and our ability to do good at work.
So much suffering and death in the world is caused by the ugly realities of the present day human condition: we can do better.
After more than a year of requests and not so gentle hints by readers and other advocates, I have finally opened a CafePress store for the Longevity Meme. This venture is starting out small, but now you can show your support for the fight to cure aging by flaunting Longevity Meme and Fight Aging! clothing and wares. If you have suggestions for items or slogans you would like to see, then this would be a good time to let me know. All profits from the Longevity Meme store will go to the Methuselah Foundation to grow the Methuselah Mouse prize fund.
Betterhumans reports on another team working on scaffolds and tissue engineering for damaged hearts. As the team lead says, "through tissue engineering we could actually restore the function of the heart by replacing large portions of the damaged heart muscle by a bioartificial one." Interestingly, this work demonstrates that embryonic stem cells work where adult bone marrow stem cells do not. We need more studies like this to quiet the more sophisticated anti-research groups speaking out against embryonic stem cell research. This research also illustrates that work with scaffolding materials for regenerative medicine is advancing rapidly.
You'll be glad to hear that I have finally made the time to understand the arcane ways of CafePress and put up an online store. Now you can show your support for the fight against aging by flaunting Longevity Meme clothing and wares!
Since Fight Aging! is a phrase both snappy and to the point, the first items out of the gate are as shown above. Now would be a good time to let me know of any clever ideas you have regarding slogans and products...
All profits from this store will be donated to the Methuselah Mouse Prize for anti-aging research, which amounts to between $3 and $5 per item. If you are not the materialistic type, you could just skip the purchase stage and donate directly to the prize fund - I know that I certainly can't think of a better use for money than working to ensuring a longer, healthier future for everyone.
This article from the National Review is a good example of the more sophisticated arguments from groups opposed to embryonic stem cell research. The author cherry-picks medical successes using adult stem cells, fails to mention the many uncertainties and failures, and skips over noteworthy progress in embryonic stem cell work entirely. The fact of the matter is that regenerative medicine is a young field, and scientists still have a great deal to learn. We don't even know for sure how half of these therapies actually work! Any pronouncement on the efficacy of one branch of stem cell research over another is very premature - and usually ideologically motivated, as in this case.
Michael Rae, who you can thank for pointing me to some of the items posted to the Longevity Meme, was on CBC yesterday. He is one of the participants in an ongoing study of the benefits of human calorie restriction, reducing calorie intake in order to live longer and suffer less of the degenerative effects of aging. Calorie restriction is the gold standard for currently available healthy life extension techniques - it is backed by decades of animal studies, and some impressive human data. If you want to be around and active to benefit from the regenerative medicine and nanomedicine of tomorrow, then you have to take care of yourself today!
I think that this Arizona Republic article is a good illustration of the biggest problem caused by the commercial anti-aging industry. Through all the boosterism, you'll notice that what they are really selling is better motor oil for the human body. Sure, it helps, but it's no substitute for a good diet, supplementation and lifestyle. Like better motor oil in an engine, it can only improve matters by a small amount in the grand scheme of things - and all the light and noise surrounding "anti-aging" techniques means that serious attempts to greatly extend the healthy human life span go unnoticed and unfunded. This is a tragedy with terrible, terrible consequences.
I've always looked forward to reading your columns in the Wall Street Journal. You have been a consistent source of information and inspiration. I was therefore extremely disappointed to read your most recent piece, ("Bada Bing? Bada Boom."), dated May 13.
While I agree with and share your fears about the dangers of terrorism on US soil, I found your views on the (completely unrelated) subject of human cloning to be both ill-informed and wrong-headed.
Specifically, you wrote:
Whenever I think of cloning, I think of Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. He quoted the Bible to Richard Nixon's malefactors: "God is not mocked." Indeed he is not. Once we can have cloning, we will have cloning. Once we can have cloning we'll be cloning replacement-part humans to make new hearts for aging baby boomers. We'll throw the rest away, or mine these beings for other organs and elixirs. Once we have cloning, we'll start growing cloned armies. Why shouldn't they fight for us? Once we have cloning, a lot of things will happen, including that we'll be opening the mouth of hell.
As scary as the "dirty nuke in Port Newark" scenario is, I find that I am nearly as chilled by the scientific illiteracy displayed in the above quote. It would appear that you have learned everything you know about the subject from watching the Star Wars movies.
Cloned armies, indeed.
There is an enormous difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The latter need not require the production of an entire "replacement human;" it may be possible to grow "replacement organs" on their own, or to develop stem cell lines that can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. How precisely this will open up the "mouth of hell" is unclear.
Reproductive cloning raises serious moral and ethical issues, but "cloned armies" is not one of them. The ability to produce armies would require not cloning, but a technique popular in (uninformed) science fiction movies that might properly be called Rapidly Growing Large Numbers of Sentient Adults in Vats. That I know of, no one is currently working on developing that technology not even in New Jersey.
Peggy, you are too serious a journalist and too valuable a voice to entertain such nonsense. If you would take some time to learn what cloning is really all about, I'm sure that you would have something significant to say about both the potential risks and the potential benefits of this technology.
In the mean time, I suggest you stick to subjects you're more familiar with.
Your Faithful Reader,
(Originally published on The Speculist.)
2theadvocate.com reports on the legislative battle over stem cell research continuing in Louisiana. It looks like the anti-research politicians are not having as easy a time of it as they would like - and a good thing too. Louisiana may yet end up with somewhat rational, 21st-century laws on medical research, but there's a way to go yet. (Just think how far ahead researchers would be if politicians had just stood aside five years ago!) Meanwhile, in New Jersey, half a country and several worlds away, legislation was signed today to establish a state funded stem cell research center. The New Jersey governor said: "This isn't an abstract academic debate. People are suffering today, and what we offer them is hope."
The Proactionary Principle is an answer to abuse of the precautionary principle by anti-research, anti-science pressure groups. It was proposed and debated at the Extropy Institute Vital Progress Summit back in February, and is now making it into late draft form for comment. The freedom to responsibly innovate and develop new medical technologies is essential to healthy life extension - we must "assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone." Relinquishment - the path of the precautionary principle - leads to millions of avoidable deaths from disease and aging.
The Proactionary Principle is an answer to abuse of the precautionary principle at the hands of anti-biotech, luddite groups, and opponents of advances such stem cell therapies, regenerative medicine, and extended healthy longevity. It came together as an idea during the Extropy Institute's Vital Progress Summit back in February, and is expressed by Max More as follows:
People's freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people's freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.
It is very clear - at least to those of who support advancing medicine and scientific work towards healthier, longer lives - that the precautionary principle is used as a weapon by special interest groups attempting to halt scientific research for their own ideological reasons. To quote Max More again:
The precautionary principle has been used as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against the technological progress so vital to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.
Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment and innovate.
The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity - good as well as bad - while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity's evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.
Furthermore, the precautionary principle is inherently flawed. It serves us badly by:
- assuming worst-case scenarios
- distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
- assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
- ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
- illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
- conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.
The Proactionary Principle is an important step forward: it is a concise, rational, to-the-point answer to the failures of the precautionary principle ... and it has a snappy name. It should go far. As people who recognize we are responsible for our own future - and supporting the bright future of medical science - we should make sure that the Proactionary Principle is heard by everyone!
(From EurekAlert.) The Genetics Policy Insitute will be holding a science conference on therapeutic cloning and stem cell research for the UN in June. The aim is to educate delegates and thus help to prevent anti-research groups, led by the current US administration, from pushing through a worldwide ban on therapeutic cloning in October. This is a worthwhile project, and it means that it is increasingly important for you and I to contact our elected representatives to express your views on the issue. The threat of a UN ban is scaring away private funding for important research into regenerative medicine, much of which depends on therapeutic cloning techniques.
I think the most interesting question was this (after snipping the side conversations and less related posts on politics):
[ct] Reason, what one goal would you like to achieve within the next twelve months?
[Reason] only one?
[Reason] that's tough - I have so many
[Reason] cruel and unusual - give me a moment to think about that
[Reason] I think that the most important goal that can be accomplished is to get the Methuselah Mouse prize to the next level (of traffic, press, cash, attention)
[Reason] or rather, that wuold be most important goal that I *can* reasonably accomplish in the next 12 months
[Jonesey] agree reason
[Jonesey] MM is huge
[ct] Which of the four?
[Reason] not that I'd be doing it alone
[Reason] ct: the four all go together; can't accomplish any one of them alone
[ct] Prioritize the four, please.
[Reason] hmm. Well cash is the highest, since if we had cash and none of the other three, then the other three could be obtained by waving the cash around
[Jonesey] the funding necessary for MM is miniscule compared to what is being spend right now in iraq
[ct] Thank you.
[Reason] very true - you can cure a major disease these days for the cost of a stealth bomber
[Reason] ct: does this mean you'll be visiting the Methuselah Mouse Prize donation page right now? :)
[ct] It was a thought.
[Reason] in many ways, at this stage, the number of donors is as important as the amount
[Reason] it's bait for the wealthy philanthropists
[Reason] although the Three Hundred initiative is very important too - and I encourage you all to look at it with an eye to joining
[Reason] The Three Hundred web page
The Methuselah Mouse Prize is indeed an important effort to generate public support and accelerate serious research into reversing aging. [ct] went ahead and generously donated to the prize before the chat had ended, for which I didn't get the chance to thank her - so, thank you!
For those of you reading this now, I hope that you will take a few minutes to look at the work being done by the Methuselah Foundation and consider donating to this worthy cause. You can also learn more about research prizes and the way in which they spur development in science and medicine at the Longevity Meme - read the article and be impressed at just how much investment a donation can inspire.
Increasing knowledge of human biochemistry provides new insights into how obesity (or even simple excess weight) damages health and reduces life span. Wired notes that "experts have realized for decades that large people die young, and the explanation long seemed obvious. Carrying around all those extra pounds must put a deadly strain on the heart and other organs. Obvious but wrong, it turns out." The harm caused by fat is in fact due to imbalances in chemical signals that damage organs over years and decades. Even a modest amount of excess fat greatly increases the risk of suffering all the most common age-related conditions.
You may recall the rather unpleasant and public family dispute over the Alcor cryopreservation of Ted Williams that took place in 2003. The Boston Herald reports that a new round has started, as Ted Williams' daughter is attempting to obtain his body for burial - which would of course remove any chance at a new life in the future. Alcor zealously protects client privacy and will not comment on these matters - so we wind up with the sort of one-sided nonsense spouted in this article. The lesson: when you sign up for cryopreservation, make every effort to ensure that your living relatives will not and cannot legally seize and destroy your cryopreserved body.
When the Mirror is printing pieces on healthy life extension and the medical technologies that will get us there, I think it's fair to say that we're in the mainstream. As the article notes, before going on to discuss nanomedicine, stem cells, and cancer cures, "there is a medical revolution just around the corner." As we all know, public understanding and support is vital to large scale research programs. Without this support, the necessary resources will not be assigned - whether through market forces or (democratic) government programs, both of which tend to follow the voice of the masses over long time periods and at the largest scales. So make sure your voice is heard!
An article from Scientific American examines the timeline for growing replacement organs (the field of tissue engineering), concluding that this advance may still be a decade or more away from reliable, widespread use. Scientists are currently working - with modest success - on growing smaller pieces of tissue using scaffolds. This technique has been applied to bone and heart tissue, amongst others. Success with larger masses of tissue, and complex organs, is largely a matter of scaling up the process - which has a lot to do with how well researchers can grow blood vessels and manipulate different cell types in the same structure.
The controversy over human embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning remains unresolved, and the issue may mark a new era of divisive and deadlocked "biopolitics." What the review of the polls makes clear is that public attention was captured by this emerging conflict during the summer of 2001, but has waned since, as media coverage has subsided, and many other competing issues have come to dominate the political and media agenda. Despite Americans' elevated attention to the issue in 2001, however, it appears that the public remains in the dark about the science and the policy driving the controversy.
The public possesses strong reservations about research that destroys embryos, preferring if the research must move forward, that scientists make use of either extra embryos left over from in vitro clinics, or adult cells. Additionally, evidence indicates that question wording in surveys can have strong effects on the public's stated response to these volatile issues.
On the matter of cloning, the public is strongly opposed to reproductive cloning, but resolve softens when it comes to medical applications, while a substantial proportion of Americans remain unsure about the matter. Still, only about a third of Americans support compromise legislation that would allow therapeutic cloning to remain legal.
I'm not sure I agree with this last conclusion here. People have a greater tendency to support therapeutic cloning when they understand it is vital to developing regenerative medicine - and cures for many currently incurable diseases. I'll certainly be distressed if minority support for research is the case, given the winner-takes-all nature of modern "democratic" politics.
The rest of it is more or less what we knew already, but the process is of getting to the answer is interesting and worth reading. The article winds up with the following point:
In all, the analysis points to an important role for the media in shaping future public judgments of stem cell research and human cloning. Evidence of strong question wording effects, combined with the findings relative to low levels of public knowledge, suggest that the public may be highly susceptible to influence by changes in media attention and media characterization of the issue.
Media influences people when they are unfamiliar with the basics of the matter under discussion. Not exactly rocket science, but something that we should all remember: journalists (of all sorts, from bloggers to more formal old school reporters) distort, spin, offer opinions as fact, and help or hinder specific issues as a matter of course.
Small Times reported last week that the NIH has started a nanomedicine initiative. This would be the right time for it, if we are correct in assuming that advanced nanomedicine will be in full swing between 2020 and 2030. There is a great deal of work to be done in the years ahead, of course, but - as for regenerative medicine - scientists currently have a good basic grasp of the roadmap, the goals, and the requirements. Beyond that, it's all "just" getting the job done, finding funding, and passing the gauntlets of regulation and commercialization for any given therapy. Hopefully nanomedicine researchers will not have to go through years of their work being banned by decree...
Celebrities and Hollywood money are supporting stem cell research these days, as the campaign to remove federal anti-research legislation continues. The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative (looking set for the November ballot) also benefits from this sort of support. Almost everyone has a friend or relative who suffers from a condition (diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, nerve damage, heart disease, and many more) that stem cell therapies could one day cure - if research is allowed to continue at full pace. There is no excuse for sitting on the sidelines while special interest groups and politicians are destroying the possibility of a longer, healthier future for all of us.
The online edition of Time examines the current state of stem cell politics: "Today a brush-fire challenge to Bush's stem-cell policy is spreading across the U.S., fueled by the frustration of [families] who have allied themselves with patient activists for other diseases, major universities, several state legislatures and members of Congress." States and universities are forging ahead while efforts are underway to reverse the policies and threatened legislation that have blocked stem cell research for years. Anti-research legislation has to go and politicians must step aside if we are to see major progress towards curing most age-related conditions in the near future.
Betterhumans - the public face of transhumanism, an online news magazine that often touches on healthy life extension - have launched their new site design. Very nice it is too. The old one was starting to get a bit cramped, but the designers have done a good job this time around in striking a balance between more information, larger text size and enough spacing. It is also good to note that the Methuselah Mouse Prize counter and link is higher and more prominent on the page.
Our understanding of adult stem cells is in a state of flux at the moment. This article from WCJB should add a little more confusion to the mix, reporting that adult blood stem cells could be capable of forming brain cells (or fusing with them, or performing some other action that produces the reported results). A number of researchers are currently claiming that adult stem cells cannot regenerate tissue outside their organ of origin - while others are demonstrating that adult stem cells can indeed do just this. These apparent contradictions are symptomatic of a young and complex field of research: we have a great deal yet to learn about stem cell types, biochemistry, and behavior.
Biodegradable scaffolds have featured prominently in recent work on tissue regeneration. Here, the Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli scientists are making progress in using scaffolds and injected cells to regrow heart tissue damaged by heart attacks. They ran a trial on pigs to demonstrate effectiveness, and "the 10 who suffered from congestive heart failure and were treated are all doing well, while there was a 40 percent mortality rate among the 10 pigs who were not treated." The researchers are now working towards human trials - probably in the US - and expanding their technique to other organs, such as the liver.
Chris Phoenix has noted that attacks from mainstream nanotechnology business folk on molecular manufacturing (or "dry" nanotechnology) and Eric Drexler's work are starting to spill over into nanomedicine:
Just this week, a nano blog that used to be trustworthy and even-handed has gone down the same path. In response to Robert Freitas' recent publication of Nanomedicine Volume IIA: Biocompatibility, Cientifica posted an article containing such phrases as, "swarm of nanobots - more idle speculation," and "books of this ilk," and most dishonorably, "a hobby pursuit."
A book with six thousand references is not a hobby pursuit. I wonder why they are trying so hard to persuade people that it's not worth reading. What is their motivation?
I've been saying "they," but in fact, Paul Holister recently left Cientifica. It appears that Tim Harper is now free to vigorously -- and irresponsibly -- oppose the more advanced kinds of nanotechnology. I'm not usually so openly critical. But false claims that "Martian nanobots ... are equally feasible" should not go unchallenged. This is shabby journalism, and it damages the serious and ongoing discussion of the potential effects of advanced nanotechnology.
You may or may not be aware of the rather ugly, funding-fueled debate over the future of nanotechnology that has been taking place in recent months. Glenn Reynolds has been covering it well: for reasons connected to politics and money, portions of the nanotechnology industry have been attacking serious, well-respected work being done on much more advanced nano and molecular technologies.
I was happy sit on the sidelines of this particular dust up until they started in on nanomedicine. Now it seems I should join the fray. Nanomedicine ("wet" nanotechnology) is an important future technology for healthy life extension, taking up the slack where regenerative medicine will not be able to do the job. Just as for dry nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, many smart people have spent a great deal of time working to lay the scientific foundation for this technology - while our understanding of materials science and biochemistry catches up to the point of being able to build it.
(You might be interested in reading a paper called "Accurately Describing a Technology That Does Not Yet Exist", which explains how the laws of physics and the scientific method can be used to, well, accurately describe a technology that doesn't yet exist).
What we don't need are a bunch of politically and financially motivated yahoos riding in without an ounce of scientific credibility to say that nanomedicine can't be done. You think it can't be done? Fine - get into the labs, write the treatises, do the necessary years of work, and try to prove your hypothesis. That's the way science is done in this town.
The New York Times provides a summary of current initiatives and recent history in stem cell politics. It's a pro-government piece at heart, of course, conveniently forgetting that politicians are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place - and by "got us into this mess" I mean "are creating a future of millions of avoidable deaths by blocking medical progress." The terrible human cost of anti-research policies and restrictions on medicine - there are approximately 6000 deaths each day due to age-related conditions in the US alone - is somehow never quite as important as printing quotes like this: "You hear a lot of negatives about government, but if you go and talk to your congressman or senator, they listen."
The Washington Times reports that Nancy Regan will begin pushing for stem cell research funding in a much more public manner - this article being the start of that process, I imagine. The more celebrities advocating stem cell research the better, although I personally am not in favor of increased government funding (for anything). The scientific side of stem cell research is proceeding well; all the major problems are political - existing and threatened legislation has been scaring away private funding for years. Since this is a matter of shouting down special interest groups and pressuring politicians into stepping aside, more support from the general public and celebrities is vital.
I thought you might find this article interesting. It follows up on the first First Malaysian Conference on Anti-Ageing Medicine:
KUALA LUMPUR: The Government will introduce anti-ageing medicine in hospitals if it is proven to be effective in treating or reversing ageing-related diseases. Health Ministry Family Health Development director Datuk Dr Narimah Awin said such medicine presented a new perspective and a paradigm shift in the population's healthcare.
"The Government will incorporate it (in the healthcare system) if there is evidence that anti-ageing medicine is good for the Malaysian population," she said at the First Malaysian Conference on Anti-Ageing Medicine yesterday. "Ageing and disease affects us as we grow older. Some of the challenges that accompany the ageing population must be seen as opportunities. There are several opportunities to enhance the quality of life of older people, and one such opportunity is offered by anti-ageing medicine. We need to consider anti-ageing medicine in the light of the Malaysian social and health scenario," said Dr Narimah, who is also secretary to the Health Ministry's National Council for Anti-Ageing.
Anti-ageing medicine, a RM200bil industry in the United States, is the practice of early detection, prevention and treatment or reversal of ageing-related dysfunctions.
While ageing is an inevitable natural process, she added, ill health, discomfort, disabilities in old age should not be seen as inevitable. "You can't help growing older, but you don't have to get old," Dr Narimah said.
For the most part, that sounds like a refreshingly responsible attitude. Clearly define what you are talking about when you say "anti-aging," and prove that particular therapies work before using them. We'll see how it pans out in practice - hopefully better than the bulk of the anti-aging marketplace in the US.
I should finish up by noting that aging is only inevitable if we continue to do nothing about it - i.e. if funding for scientific anti-aging research to address the aging process itself continues to be scarce. Medical progress requires public support and money to move forward; we should be providing more of both for serious efforts to understand and intervene in the aging process.
Judging by the volume of news over the past few weeks, we've entered the period in which a wave of early adult stem cell research is starting to produce results. As is usual in a young field of medicine, it looks fairly confusing and there's a lot of contradictory information out there - especially from the anti-abortion groups who are hyping adult stem cell research (as an alternative to embryonic stem cell research) for ideological reasons.
Let's start with the bad news: a Swedish group claims that adult stem cells are indeed limited in their regenerative powers:
There is little, if any, evidence that adult stem cells can build other cells in an adult organism than those formed in the organs they themselves come from. At any rate, blood stem cells do not convert to heart muscle cells in a damaged heart, which was previously hoped. This has been shown by a research team from the Stem Cell Center at Lund University in Sweden in an article in Nature Medicine.
During the end of the 1990s and early 2000s scientists nourished great hopes that adult stem cells would be able to develop into all sorts of cells. If so, it would not be necessary to use the ethically more problematic embryonic stem cells. However, newer studies have shown that while adult stem cells are very good at producing different types of cells in their own respective organs, they have little or no ability to form cells in other organs.
"Both we and two American research teams have used various methods to replicate a study from three years ago that appeared in Nature. It was about transplanting blood stem cells to create new heart muscle cells to repair a heart after a heart attack. But all of our results univocally indicate that this is not possible," says Jens Nygren. He is a doctoral student and part of research team headed by Professor Sten Eirik Jacobsen at the Stem Cell Center.
This raises questions - given that recent human trials have shown that adult stem cells have an impressive regenerative effect when combined with bypass surgery for heart disease.
Perin, in collaboration with Hans F.R. Dohmann at Hospital Procardiaco in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has already tested the treatment on 14 patients in Brazil. That study, published last year in Circulation, showed that the procedure is safe and significantly improves heart function.
"We saw significant improvements in exercise capacity," says Perin. "This is measured in terms of peak oxygen capacity, which went from 17 percent to 24 percent in treated patients."
So how does this therapy work? Do stem cells release chemical signals causing existing tissue to regenerate? Do they fuse with muscle cells? Both? Neither? These are questions that remain unanswered - more research is needed.
Meanwhile, other scientists are demonstrating all sorts of impressive regenerative techniques in petri dishes and laboratory mice, performed on the way to fully understanding stem cell biochemistry. One might almost call this the barnstorming era of stem cell science. For example, while serious work is being done in the UK on regenerating teeth from stem cells, a research team in the US has found that dental pulp-derived stem cells can protect and promote the survival of some types of brain cells.
In people with Parkinson's disease, a shortage of the neurotransmitter dopamine causes symptoms such as muscle rigidity, tremors, difficulty walking and problems with balance and coordination. Previous studies in animals and humans have focused on other sources of stem cells, however, most of those cells die when grafted into the brain.
The major advantage to using dental pulp-derived stem cells is that they are more robust than other stem cells. The dental pulp cells also express glial cell-line neurotrophic factors, which work to support dying nerve cells and replace dead cells. And the cells could be extracted from patients to be treated, avoiding immune complications from foreign donors.
While some scientists are figuring out how to craft therapies from stem cells, others are working on improving basic methods and knowledge - just as important, given our still limited knowledge regarding stem cell biochemistry, differentiation and other matters more arcane. It was recently shown that, for at least some uses, adult stem cells derived from fat are as effective as adult stem cells derived from bone marrow:
For the first time, stem cells purified from fat have been used to heal an injury in a living animal. Michael Longaker of Stanford University in California and his team showed in mouse experiments that so-called adipose-derived adult stromal (ADAS) cells purified from a rodent's belly fat could be coaxed to heal a skull fracture too large to mend by itself.
If the same technique works in humans, these cells could be coaxed to mend broken bones and correct other defects in tens of thousands of surgical procedures each year in which bone grafts and prosthetics are now necessary.
This is indeed a big improvement - fat is far more easily extracted than bone marrow. We might see the start of "therapeutic liposuction!"
Other US researchers are making progress in understanding stem cell biochemistry, step by step.
The discovery of a molecule that stops stem cells from replicating could enhance the ability of stem cells to fight cancer and other diseases. By defining the molecular switch that hinders stem cell replication, researcher Tao Cheng and colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania may have overcome a major hurdle to growing stem cells in the laboratory.
Stem cells can even be a delivery method for some cancer therapies. Killing cancer cells isn't hard - there are many methodologies available that will accomplish this - but ensuring that the only cells killed are cancer cells is hard. This is why delivery mechanisms are so important in the search for cancer therapies.
A mechanism has been discovered that allows some stem cells to track brain tumors, a finding that could be used to deliver targeted cancer treatments. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai's Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute in Los Angeles, California say that neural stem cells - immature cells that can differentiate into any central nervous system cell - could be used to deliver cancer-killing genes to deadly brain tumors.
"We have previously demonstrated the uncanny ability of neural stem cells to seek out and destroy satellites of tumor cells in the brain," says John S. Yu, a senior author of the study. "Now we know at least one component of tumor cells that is attracting neural stem cells toward them. With this knowledge, we hope to expedite the translation of this powerful and novel strategy for the clinical benefit of patients with brain tumors."
It is understanding the mechanisms - the chemical pathways, the biochemistry - of stem cells that will lead to further advances and medical application. Knowledge is the fastest pathway to results. The stem cell therapies we see in trials now are merely the first of the first, the best we can do with our present level of knowledge. It's impressive - very impressive when it comes improving the condition of heart failure patients - but still crude compared to what we will eventually be able to accomplish.
A Daily Reflector article summarizes the tired old arguments used by those opposed to longer, healthier lives: overpopulation, boredom, the fear of change, the ridiculous notion that longer lives would lack meaning, and socialist concepts of equality - never mind that all have been extensively debunked for decades. The hidden underlying agenda is a little more notable in this article: "Experts contend the government could pursue a number of policies toward life extension. Some options include hindering, delaying or providing no funding for research or banning it outright." There you have it: support for government-mandated upper limits to life span right out in the open.
(From EurekAlert). A Swedish study shows that adult blood stem cells used to treat heart damage do not build heart muscle cells. In general, recent work has shown that "while adult stem cells are very good at producing different types of cells in their own respective organs, they have little or no ability to form cells in other organs." Human trials have clearly demonstrated that adult stem cell therapies can repair heart damage, so scientists must now try to understand how these therapies work. Confirmation of adult stem cell limitations places greater emphasis on the need for embryonic stem cell research to further advance the capabilities of regenerative medicine.
The Herald Tribune reports that Louisiana politicians are moving closer to criminalizing therapeutic cloning, a technology vital to the developing field of regenerative medicine. You will recall that a federal ban is still awaiting a senate vote, and that the current US administration is still attempting to obtain a global ban on therapeutic cloning at the UN. We live in strange times, when a small clump of a few dozen cells - like the ones you shed every day from your skin - is more highly valued than the lives of millions of suffering people. This anti-research political atmosphere scares away private funding, slows progress towards cures for many currently incurable age-related conditions, and thus costs lives - many, many lives.
I came across this letter to the Illinois Leader today, similar to many I've seen before on the topic of anti-research legislation. I thought I'd share:
Pro-life flat Earth thinkers lack compassion
The more people know about SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) or therapeutic cloning, the more likely they are to support it. But anti-abortionists ["STANEK: It's a mad, mad, mad, mad embryonic kill bill," May 4] want you to think a blastocyst or a few pluripotent cells, invisible to the naked eye, are a human being. Even an unfertilized egg with one's own DNA qualifies and probably individual sperm as well.
I think they want to bestow civil rights on cells so it will be easier to overturn Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, while the stall regarding stem cell research stymies progress, I am slowly becoming Christopher Reeve with my Parkinson's Disease, albeit alone and without his financial resources. Does my life count for anything? Apparently not. It's just my tough luck.
When I had ovarian cancer at age 43, I was not bitter or angry--after all, everything was done that could be done. But not so with this emergence of anti-science flat earth thinkers which include the President and his minions.
This is a real crime against humanity by the ignorant, non-compassionate people in power.
People with incurable, fatal diseases are justifiably angry at what is being done to them by the current US administration and anti-research pressure groups elsewhere. We have lost five years of progress in regenerative medicine and stem cell based cures already - and the cost of these delays in human life and suffering is staggering.
Those of us lucky enough not to be suffering from heart disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, or other degenerative diseases - those of us lucky enough to have health and remaining life measured in decades rather than months or years - should take a long hard look at why we are not participating more fully in the battles over research. After all, we all suffer from a fatal condition called aging. It will kill us all if medical research is blocked. The only difference between us and people like the author of the letter above is time, a few extra years before we are in her shoes. If compassion and altruism are not enough to motivate us, then self-interest must be - or we are all doomed to suffer, grow sick, crippled, and die.
SAGE Crossroads discusses the machine path to healthy life extension this week, including a nod to the ideals of the transhumanist movement. As prosthesis technology improves, many new options will become available for repairing and preventing age-related damage in our bodies - nanomedicine to replace diseased blood with respirocytes, and artificial eyes for the blind, built piece by piece. As our grasp of materials science advances, prostheses will complement the regenerative medicine of the future. "Would you like to keep the original furnishings when we cure your heart disease, sir, or would you like something a little more ... impressive, shall we say?"
I believe I forget to mention here that some of my thoughts on the anti-aging industry and the use (and misuse) of the term "anti-aging" are starting to make it into more formal pieces of writing. I put up a hot topic page that attempts to explain anti-aging at the Longevity Meme just recently, for example.
Like it or not, "anti-aging" now has a number of quite different common meanings and connotations. Each is championed by a particular group or loose coalition of interests, but advocates for these groups have a way of diving into the fray without defining their terms. This makes reading about anti-aging very confusing for the newcomer.
- For the scientific community, anti-aging refers exclusively to slowing, preventing, or reversing the aging process. There is, as of 2004, no medical technology that allows this to be done - although the jury is still out on calorie restriction in humans. Nor is there any currently available method (short of waiting for people to die) to accurately measure the effects of an alleged anti-aging therapy.
- In the medical and more reputable business community, anti-aging means early detection, prevention, and reversal of age-related diseases. This is quite different from tackling the aging process itself, and a wide array of strategies and therapies are currently available. Calorie restriction, for example, is a demonstrated way to lower risk for a wide range of age-related degenerative conditions.
- The wider business community - including a great many fraudulent and frivolous ventures - views "anti-aging" as a valuable brand and a demonstrated way to increase sales. At the worse end of the scale, this leads to snake oil salesmen, "anti-aging" cremes that may or may not make your skin look younger, and infomercials that tout the "anti-aging" benefits of exercise machines. Broadly, and very charitably, we can look at these varied definitions of anti-aging as meaning "to look and feel younger in some way" - which has no bearing on how long you live or how healthy you actually are.
The confusion of most interest is between the first two definitions. Many interventions lengthen life span for individuals by preventing or curing specific age-related diseases that would otherwise prove fatal. For example, ask yourself whether preventing heart disease or diabetes is anti-aging medicine. This would have no effect on the aging process, but it would help many people to live longer, healthier lives. Is this anti-aging? Scientists say no, some medical and business groups say yes.
Many of the problems stemming from the anti-aging marketplace are due to confusion over definitions and what certain products accomplish or are intended to accomplish. Some of this confusion is very deliberate ("anti-aging" exercise devices? Skin creme? Repackaged vitamins? Herbal health spas?) This greatly angers scientists, as actions taken in the marketplace divert public understanding and support away from serious attempts to lengthen the healthy human life span.
Most of what is currently sold under "anti-aging" banners and brands will have negligable effects on life span. The best of it is vitamins, pills, supplements and exercise - the motor oil of the human body. Sure, the more reputable stuff is good for you and can help you to lead a healthier life, but you just can't get that much more out of an engine when all you are doing is improving the motor oil. By focusing so much attention and money on these topics, the anti-aging marketplace is ensuring that support is diverted from what must be done in order to extend the healthy human life span by decades and more.
I've been saying for a while that the cryonics industry will benefit from mainstream medical adoption of spin-off technologies. Today, Wired is covering the work of BioTime, a company working on therapeutic hypothermia - cooling the body to allow major surgery with less trauma. A quote: "Right now, we can easily bring animals back from two hours of absolute clinical death. No pulse, no respiration, no measurable brain activity." These animals show no signs of physical or neurological damage - interesting stuff. BioTime is a company working on extending cryonics technology from the more accepted end of the business, but there are clearly strong synergies with cryopreservations at Alcor and other cryonics providers.
The mainstream press has certainly become much more informed about calorie restriction (CR) over the last year, as illustrated by this positive and educational article at MSNBC. These days they get the science, facts and figures mostly correct, know that the CR Society exists (and who the president is), and have a set of favored CR practitioners for quotes and interviews. From my perspective, one of the most important things about raised awareness of CR is that more people are learning it is possible and desirable to extend the healthy human life span. Newcomers to calorie restriction often go on to become involved in other parts of the healthy life extension community.
I received a short and interesting education in what the most popular spam filters are up to last night while attempting to send out the latest Longevity Meme newsletter. You'll note that near the end, it contains the following text:
The article that was here had to be cut out in order for this e-mail newsletter to pass the most common spam filters - an unfortunate consequence of the prevalence of certain products in spam e-mail. You can read the original at the link above.
The post that I had to redact from the newsletter reads as follows:
Responsible Comments On HGH (Monday April 19 2004)
As I remarked in a Fight Aging! post a few days ago, it's hard to find unbiased information about human growth hormone (HGH). Salesmen from the "anti-aging" marketplace and people with agendas have crowded out the few qualified, responsible voices. That said, I'm happy to see a sane, balanced article on HGH by Judith Reichman at MSNBC. It gives a good overview of the science, the uncertainties, hazards, and possible benefits. Her conclusion is the same as mine: "Until we get more scientific information, I do not recommend that HGH be used for women who are healthy, but just getting older (and heavier). If you want to spend that kind of money, invest in better researched paths to better looks and longevity."
This is a good illustration of one part of the problem caused by all the eager beavers out there in the "anti-aging" marketplace attempting to profit from the intersection of spam, dubious science, and the human desire for real solutions to the problem of aging - legitimate discussion of human growth hormone and anti-aging medicine is now not going to get past the spam filters.
We can extend this technical problem out to become a useful analogy: we humans all run a form of spam filter in our day to day lives, filtering out junk as we figure out what is good and what is not. The light and noise from the less reputable end of the anti-aging marketplace - cremes, dubious science, fraudulent claims, and so forth - is causing many people to consign any thought of legitimate anti-aging research to the spam bucket. This is a bad thing.
The BBC is on the ball today, this time reporting on plans by a British company (Odontis Ltd) to grow replacement human teeth from stem cells. The necessary technology has already been demonstrated in mice, which means a commercial therapy could be five years away if all goes well. Despite the anti-research opposition, it seems that at least some fields of regenerative medicine are obtaining funding and moving ahead. The more demonstrated and effective stem cell therapies there are in the world, the better - greater public support will make it increasingly hard for politicians to ban medical research.
Research aimed at curing Progeria, a rare and deadly premature aging condition, also sheds light on the normal aging process. The single genetic mutation responsible for Progeria was identified a year ago, and scientists have already determined the mechanism by which the condition operates. This BBC article explains that the mutated Lemin A gene causes cells to divide much more rapidly than normal, and thus die more quickly as they reach the normal limits for cell division. Progeria, then, does not just appear to be accelerated aging - it is accelerated aging. I elaborate a little on the meaning of this (and related) research in the latest Longevity Meme newsletter.
This article from the Scotsman is a little more clear about the implications of the recent RAD51D discoveries. Many news outlets have been reporting this as a major breakthrough in the fight against aging, which isn't the case. It is an important step, and opens up new avenues for cancer and aging research, "but to imply that it might lead to a way of keeping people forever young was completely misleading. Halting the ageing process of cells would run the risk of leaving people ravaged with cancer." Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey suggests that tackling cancer will be the hardest part of his proposed plan to defeat aging.
Some thought-provoking sentiments on aging, politics, social policy and human nature were offered earlier in the week in a Christian Science Monitor article. (As an aside, one of the best things about Google News is that it finds good articles in places that you'd never normally think of trying). I think that the point of the article is well expressed in the first paragraph:
As a baby boomer, Ken Dychtwald knows the value his generation places on staying youthful, energetic, and active as long as possible. At the same time, as a gerontologist and bestselling author on retirement and aging, he sees a looming paradox.
"Boomers want to get old at 90 but get old-age entitlements at 65," he says.
Human nature is an essentially selfish thing. Give people free reign and they'll take what they can get. Long term planning doesn't come naturally to any of us - we have to think about it.
"We have created the wrong model of maturity in this country," Dychtwald told an audience at the American Society on Aging conference in San Francisco last week. "Instead of saying 'More, more,' we need to get involved."
At each stage of life, he explains, "people have things to take and things to give." Although the average age of retirement was 62 in the 1990s, he adds, "At 62, you are not exempt from giving."
What Americans need, Dychtwald insists, is a "new map of aging" to reflect the heartening new reality that people are not old at 65. Explaining that people make plans and assumptions about their careers and their later years based on the current timetable of retirement at 65, he argues that old age needs to be redefined as occurring much later.
I'm encouraged that at least some people are thinking this way. If unimpeded, medical science - and the healthy human life span - will advance in leaps and bounds in the decades ahead. The current sprawling systems of enforced retirement and pyramid scheme social security payments must be abandoned or changed radically.
A culture of entitlement is damaging for everyone, at every age: we are all, ultimately, responsible for our own lives, health, wealth and happiness. If ever-larger capable, healthy, active portions of the populace continue to engineer our society to obtain resources for themselves at the expense of others, the system will collapse.
The second volume in the Nanomedicine book series by Robert Freitas, entitled "Nanomedicine, Vol. IIA: Biocompatibility," is now freely available online. First published in hardcopy in 2003, this book describes the many possible responses of the human body to the
introduction of medical nanodevices, especially medical nanorobots (such as respirocytes, or artificial blood cells). Researchers like Robert Freitas are documenting a detailed, plausible framework for medical nanotechnology as it will be practiced in the 2020s and 2030s - and hopefully earlier. If you are looking for insight into future medical technologies, Nanomedicine is a good starting point.
Dr. Roy Walford, in many ways the father of the modern calorie restriction movement, has died from complications relating to ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease, a rare muscle wasting disease with no well-established modifiable risk factors). His wake is to be held today, and a section of his website has been opened for those who wish to leave tributes. Roy Walford's books were a great help to me, personally, in my investigations of calorie restriction. His scientific work on calorie restriction has made a great difference to many people's lives - this work continues in the scientific and business communities.
In 2030, when we have perfected DNA computers and nanomedicine as envisaged by Robert Freitas is in full swing, what will we do for an encore? Futurist Ray Kurzweil proposes replacing DNA inside human cells with nanomachinery that does the same job - but better. This would be a radical break with the past, but would offer new ways to block disease, prevent aging and otherwise upgrade the human body. I'm skeptical that the necessary understanding of our genetic code and all its inferences will be gathered quite this quickly - 50 years sounds more reasonable than 25 to get to this point. We'll see how long it takes to develop nanotech blood cell replacements first...
Lisa would like to invite us all to her father's wake. Here's the invitation:
Please join Roy's friends and family in a wake to honor this dearly beloved Renaissance man...
Dr. Roy Walford
1924 - 2004
Scientist, Artist, Teacher, Writer, Adventurer, Father, Friend
True to Roy's dramatic nature, we will feature the Best of RLW in a video collage; his music video, an abbreviated version of the documentary film in production on Biosphere 2, and more.
For your convenience, we have reserved parking spaces at the beach. We can park your car or you will receive a pass provided by an attendant at the parking lot on the north-west corner of Brooks and Pacific. The entrance is through the alley just north of Brooks.
SUNDAY, MAY 2, 2:00 - 9:00
If you would like to come, please send a request to the following email address (and don't email me; don't hit the 'reply' button):
We will send out an email invitation to you on Saturday evening with the address, directions, and other pertinent information. Note, there are also memorials being planned in New York, and at the Biosphere in Arizona. More information on those will be sent when the details are finalized.
Best of health to us all,
Brian M. Delaney
President, The Calorie Restriction Society
For those of us unable to attend, a website has been put up so that people can write tributes and comments - like this one:
thank you Roy I am a NOBODY who read THE 120 YEAR DIET and was inspired by it. I have read it and re-read it so many times that ROY is fixed in my mind as a lifelong companion. His words were a guide to my life. His passing leaves the world seeming emptier.
As Aubrey de Grey says: "Aging really is barbaric. It shouldn't be allowed. I don't need an ethical argument. I don't need any argument. It's visceral. To let people die is bad." How many more hundreds of thousands of lives will slip away on the path to a cure for aging? The answer to that question is up to us.