LONGEVITY MEME NEWSLETTER
May 31 2004
The Longevity Meme Newsletter is a biweekly e-mail containing news, opinions and happenings for people interested in healthy life extension: making use of diet, lifestyle choices, technology and proven medical advances to live healthy, longer lives.
- Exciting Developments in Aging Science
- Telomere Science is Heating Up As Well
- Latest Healthy Life Extension Headlines
EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS IN AGING SCIENCE
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!
Let's start out with a surprise development: conventional scientific wisdom has long held that higher metabolic rates lead to shorter life spans. This makes perfect sense, but - like many theories that made perfect sense at the time - turns out to be absolutely wrong.
Researchers have determined that the most metabolically active 25% of mice in fact live 36% longer than the least active, despite their less efficient, overactive metabolisms. This is an eye-opener, to say the least, and shows that you can never be too careful when it comes to running every last experiment on the list, never mind what the common wisdom says. "Check everything" is a good credo.
While scientists understand metabolism fairly well, they are not sure why high metabolic rates should equate to longer life spans. One theory is that a less efficient metabolism generates fewer damaging free radicals despite the greater level of activity. You can read more about the free radical theory of aging at the following site:
Free radical theories of aging are also given a boost by the next, very impressive piece of experimental research: Swedish scientists have recently provided hard proof that damage to mitochondrial DNA is a cause rather than an effect of aging.
Mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells, manufacturing an important source of energy but also generating free radicals. Researchers have long known that DNA damage in mitochondria is strongly correlated with aging, and there are mitochrondrial theories of aging:
By inserting a genetic defect into the mitochrondria of mice and observing the results, the Swedish team has demonstrated that this sort of damage is a cause rather than a symptom of aging. The defect-bearing mice lived only half as long as normal, experiencing accelerated aging.
If you, like me, need a refresher course in cell biology by this point, you should peruse the following useful links:
This mitochondria study is a very important confirmation, and the Swedish researchers are to be commended for carrying out this difficult work over the past four years.
The obvious step forward is to attempt to greatly extend healthy life spans in mice by preventing mitochondrial damage, repairing it as it occurs, or making it irrelevant. Aubrey de Grey, biogerontologist and advocate for greater research into serious anti-aging medicine, has been proposing ways to protect cells from the effects of mitochrondrial damage for some years now:
I am excited by this development because it clearly justifies a well-understood path for future research - extending healthy life span by protecting, repairing, or changing human mitochondria. It won't be cheap or easy, but knowing the way forward is half the battle! You can read more commentary on this topic at Fight Aging! and FuturePundit:
TELOMERE SCIENCE IS HEATING UP AS WELL
Telomeres are protective caps on your chromosomes that shorten with each cell division, eventually triggering cell death (senescence, to give it the proper name) in a timely fashion. When long enough, telomeres protect your DNA from damage and keep cells alive longer. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on circumstances - some cells need to be replaced frequently, and cancer is a disease in which your cells run rampant, refusing to die in a timely manner. We'll do the biology refresher first this time:
Recent work has demonstrated fairly conclusively that short telomeres are associated with cancer development. This was suspected, but the correlation is very strong - shortened telomeres were found in 88% of all precancerous lesion tissue samples examined, and abnormal telomere length in 97% overall.
What does this mean? It means that a) cancer is probably the end result of malfunctions in the normal telomere cell senescence mechanism, b) new possibilities are opened up for very early stage cancer detection and diagnostics, and c) since scientists know a fair amount now about how to lengthen telomeres, new preventative cancer therapies might eventually be on the cards too.
This isn't the best of the latest telomere research, though. No, the best is this:
South Korean scientists have demonstrated that lengthening telomeres in the humble nematode worm increases overall life span, not just cellular life span. Whether this will also be true in higher animals, with their cancers and added biological complexities, remains to be seen. I expect that it will take a few years to run the same or similar studies in mice.
These developments should leave you feeling, as I do today, cautiously optimistic about the science, and sure that greater funding for serious anti-aging research is both needed and merited.
That is all for this issue of the newsletter. The highlights and headlines from the past two weeks follow below.
Remember - if you like this newsletter, the chances are that your friends will find it useful too. Forward the newsletter on, or post a copy to your favorite online communities. Encourage the people you know to pitch in and make a difference to the future of health and longevity!
Founder, Longevity Meme
LATEST HEALTHY LIFE EXTENSION HEADLINES
Epigenetics And Gene Silencing (May 30 2004)
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.
UK Government Funds Stem Cell Research (May 30 2004)
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.
Reminder: Exercise Is Essential (May 29 2004)
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!
Longer Telomeres Mean Longer Life (May 29 2004)
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.
A Surprising Development (May 28 2004)
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 Stem Cell Challenge (May 28 2004)
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."
Short Telomeres Linked To Cancer (May 27 2004)
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.
Zeroing In On The Cause Of Aging (May 27 2004)
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.
Studies Tell Us That We Must Learn More (May 26 2004)
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.
Louisiana Stem Cell Debate Continues (May 26 2004)
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 Future Of Biotech And Our Bodies (May 25 2004)
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.
The False Controversy Of Stem Cells (May 25 2004)
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.
Bulls, Telomeres, Young Science (May 24 2004)
(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.
Telomeres, Aging, Cloning, Ethics (May 24 2004)
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).
Another Stem Cell Center Formed (May 23 2004)
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.
The Sad State Of US Stem Cell Research (May 23 2004)
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.
More Celebrities Supporting Stem Cell Research (May 23 2004)
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."
Small Stem Towards Lizard-Like Regeneration (May 22 2004)
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!
Sobering Statistics (May 21 2004)
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.
Transhumanism And The Defeat Of Aging (May 21 2004)
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.
California Stem Cell Initiative Progress (May 20 2004)
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.
The Many Medical Uses Of Fabricators (May 20 2004)
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.
First Embryonic Stem Cell Bank (May 19 2004)
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.
NIA Grants To Slow The Aging Process (May 19 2004)
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.
Caution And The Way Forward (May 19 2004)
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?
Regenerative Medicine Using Proteins (May 18 2004)
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.
The First Longevity Drug A Step Closer? (May 18 2004)
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!
Repairing The Engines Of Life (May 17 2004)
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.
Progress For Anti-Cancer Virus Therapy (May 17 2004)
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.