Reporting on TransVision 2004

Kip Werking (author of "The Posthuman Condition," the Haldane award paper for 2004) was kind enough to send over a long report of his time at TransVision 2004. I'm excerpting and commenting on the parts pertaining to healthy life extension and related scientific research:

After these less memorable lectures, everyone walks further north to another pub for the award ceremony. I walk next to de Grey and sit next to him at the banquet. We are both receiving one of the two awards that evening: I win the Haldane Award for Best Undergraduate Paper and he wins the H.G. Wells Award for Outstanding Transhumanist Contributions. We both grab beers at the pub and chat about aging. I ask him to explain once again his skepticism towards the benefit of caloric restriction in humans. De Grey maintains that the life extension benefit of CR correlates well with the lifespan of the species. Humans, however, are one of the mammalian species that live the longest. So, on de Grey's view - which is a small minority amongst the gerontological community - caloric restriction might expand the human lifespan by one or two years at most. More importantly, any CR mimetic that researchers might develop in the future will suffer from the exact same limitation because it will use the same genetic mechanism. He intends to present a more rigorous account of this idea. I tell Aubrey, "I hope to God you are wrong."

Aubrey de Grey's views on calorie restriction are fairly well known and debated within the community. My view on the subject is that research into calorie restriction is likely to shed light on important genetic and biochemical mechanisms relating to metabolism and aging. All knowledge in these areas is very important - the more we learn, the sooner we can craft truly effective therapies to extend the healthy human life span.

De Grey presents an alternative proposal for saving human beings from the disease of aging (and not the diseases of aging - like most transhumanists, he would characterize aging itself as a disease). He calls this effort ENS or Engineering Negligible Senescence. According to de Grey, one would only need to cure seven things in order to provide negligible senescence. Having read Olshansky describe how decreasing the likelihood of one disease killing a person only increases the likelihood of another, so that the aging retardation approach of targeting specific diseases suffers from diminishing returns, I had my own reservations about the sufficiency of these seven problems. When I confronted de Grey about them he admitted that others remain. He maintained, however, that these other problems would be easier to fix and not as deleterious to our health. Even if they are sufficient, I marveled at his optimism - his list includes curing heart disease and cancer. Nevertheless, de Grey asserts that, with $100 million per year for ten years, he can do it. Of course, he would not have to cure every problem that afflicts humans; all he needs to do is give us enough life extension to reach the point at which medicine is adding more time to life expectancy than aging and disease are - a point which de Grey calls "escape velocity."

You can read a fairly concise explanation of the escape velocity concept in a review at PLoS Biology, and you should certainly read Aubrey de Grey's SENS website. I should point out that heart disease is already close to being dealt with - early stage adult stem cell therapies are proving very effective in trials. The hurdles remaining are largely regulatory and commercial. As for cancer - the US National Cancer Institute aims to render cancer a controllable chronic illness by 2015. A lot of money and talent is being thrown at that problem.

"Now that I am here, I must take the opportunity to thank at least two people for whom I feel a great deal of gratitude. I do not intend these remarks to be at the expense of others, such as our keynote speakers. First of all, I would like to thank Nick Bostrom, who fights for and defends us in the ivory tower, against people such as Leon Kass. Nick, moreso than any other philosopher I know, takes an uncompromisingly transhumanist position against these bio-conservatives."

Bostrom seemed surprised by my remarks but I had to mention him. His In Defense of Posthuman Dignity (forthcoming in Bioethics) and The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant (forthcoming in Journal of Medical Ethics) impressed me greatly and showed how absurd reactionary ethicists can be.

If you have not yet encountered the exceptionally clever Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, then you must do so this very instant. Get thee hence and read!

"Second I would wish to thank Aubrey de Grey, who is fighting hard every day to save each of us from death and help us to live forever. I would also like to say one other thing. I am very happy to see so many people, from such diverse nationalities and various political positions, all united together under the celebration of transhumanism. I thank you for that, and I thank you for this."

...

Now Ronald Bailey gave his address at the pub. The bulk of his talk dissected the arguments that prominent bioethicist Daniel Callahan made in a recent issue of Gerontology. These arguments can be summarized as the charges that life is bad that further life would be useless and that life extension would exacerbate the problems of war, poverty, Medicare, Social Security, and so on. For example, Callahan argues that further life would not bring further vitality, but more golf. At this point Aubrey de Grey spoke up. "Why pick on golf?" Against the former, I also love Bailey's quip that "just because Callahan is bored with life" we should not conclude that we will all become so. His other arguments are mistaken upon many grounds, not the least of which is the testimony of history, during which life expectancy has doubled. Callahan also seems to commit the common fallacy of thinking that because people are older, they must be decrepit. Finally, he does injustice to important moral considerations (when, exactly, would he insist that a person die?).

I noted Ronald Bailey's report on TV2004 at the Longevity Meme yesterday, and a shorter version of his address can be found at Reason Online.

After More's presentation, I stayed in the same auditorium for the discussion on aging. This began with Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, from Harvard Medical School, giving his presentation titled "The genetic network of human ageing: a system-level approach." Earlier, Magalhaes had explained his skepticism towards caloric restriction to me. He mentioned how there is no study of caloric restriction in primates or humans, but that ongoing studies suggest that the severe diet increases the risk of infection. In his presentation, Magalhaes explained how his approach to aging differed from de Grey's by comparing the rates of aging of various species instead of younger and older organisms. This is novel strategy that I remembered from Steven Austad's excellent book Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering about the Body's Journey Through Life; later I learned that Austad has invited Magalhães to work in his lab. During his presentation, Magalhães showed how the rate of aging can be measured as the doubling time of the mortality rate. The doubling time for humans is quite large. Magalhães also presented his online genetic database of genes related to human aging. He linked each of these genes together in an impressive graphic according to how they influence each other. Like a bald child with cancer looking at an array of oncogenes, I marveled to look upon the network of genetic defects that would sentence me to death.

Next, Rafal Smigrodski, from the underrepresented private sector, gave his presentation titled "How to buy new mitochondria for your old body." Smigrodski described how his company is preparing a treatment to repair broken mitochondria. They have developed a method to deliver genetic cargo to mitochondria that is superior to traditional virotherapy. By marketing the treatment to those with a rare genetic defect in their mitochondria, Smigrodski hopes to jump the gap between therapy and enhancement and prepare the way for age retardation therapies within a couple of decades. I felt that much of his presentation was too good to be true; only time will tell.

Aubrey de Grey gave another presentation after Smigrodski titled "Removing toxic aggregates that our cells can't break down." He did not share the latter's optimism in obtaining FDA approval or bringing to market a treatment for a disease which afflicts less than one hundred people in the United States. Much like the speaker before him, de Grey was concerned with mitochondria, the power plants in each one of our cells which possess their own DNA. According to de Grey, these energy generating organelles create waste that is typically treated by the lysosomes. Sometimes, however, the lysosomes fail and the waste simply accumulates within the cell. This waste has been shown to be related to aging. Many researchers are now working upon a gene therapy to correct this defect in mitochondria and slow aging.

Yes indeed, mitochrondria are hot at the moment. They are important to so many mechanisms in the body that it is almost a given that good new possibilities for medicine are going to materialize if enough scientists work at it. The truly interesting connection is to the aging process, however - just how important this connection is will become clear within four or five years at the outside, I predict.

Comments

It sounds as if Kip did pretty well in absorbing a lot of information
from our interaction. A few minor corrections, though:

- "He intends to present a more rigorous account of this idea" [that the
life extension achievable by caloric restriction is likely to be only
a little more in humans than in mice, rather than proportional to the
lifespan]. My paper on this is now in press in "Gerontology" (that's
the Kluwer journal, not the same as "Journals of Gerontology"). Time
will tell how long my view remains the minority among gerontologists!
But I must also stress that I too hope I'm wrong. I just don't want
people to put all their eggs in the CR basket when I might be right.

- "Having read Olshansky describe how decreasing the likelihood of one
disease killing a person only increases the likelihood of another, so
that the aging retardation approach of targeting specific diseases
suffers from diminishing returns, I had my own reservations about the
sufficiency of these seven problems. When I confronted de Grey about
them he admitted that others remain." Not quite. The point is that
the seven aspects of aging that I discuss are not age-related diseases
as normally defined. Instead they are, jointly, precursors of a wide
range of age-related diseases -- some causing a given disease more
directly than others, but all acting synergistically. Curing diseases
of old age only when they have already advanced to the point where we
call them diseases is indeed futile, for just the reasons Jay says,
but fixing these seven things fixes "aging itself" and thus pre-empts
all age-related diseases as well as the frailty that predisposes us to
them. There will be further things that we will need to fix in due
course, when we get to unprecedented ages, but that's not the reason
why Jay says curing diseases will confer little benefit.

- "Even if they are sufficient, I marveled at his optimism - his list
includes curing heart disease and cancer. Nevertheless, de Grey
asserts that, with $100 million per year for ten years, he can do
it." Actually I say that I can do it in MICE in that budget (with
90% probability), and that having done it in mice we will not need
to find any more money because the public will be convinced and both
public and private finance will be effectively unlimited. But it'll
still take another 15 years from then (50% probability) to do it in
humans, even with those unlimited funds.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at August 12th, 2004 9:33 AM

It was great to hear Aubrey speak again at TV 04 and to see that the anti-aging component of Transhumanism is dynamic and motivated.

The new aspects of Aubrey's talk that I found most fascinating and provocative were his suggestions to reach out to groups that are not traditionally receptive to transhumanist ideas.

Turning the "Wisdom of Repugnance" on its head was brilliant. For what do we find more viscerally repellent than death?

Appealing to the rational theist was another stroke of genius. Traditionally the religious are not transhumanist allies. But Aubrey's argument is an interesting one in that it invokes language and ideas that might appeal to a more religious constituency.

Posted by: Duane Hewitt at August 13th, 2004 5:56 PM

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Reporting On TransVision 2004

Ronald Bailey of Reason Online reports on his time at TransVision 2004: "[TransVision 2004] attracted some 125 philosophers, scientific researchers, and techno-visionaries to Toronto last weekend to think about, discuss, and promote the ways in which technology will transform human lives ... Probably the most immediate goal of these transhumanists is promoting research that will radically increase healthy human lifespans." The scientific focus at the cutting edge these days seems to be on mitochondrial damage and what to do about it. From the sounds of it, we should be hearing much more about new techniques for repairing, moving or replacing mitochondrial DNA - with the aim of slowing the aging process - within a few years.

Link: http://www.reason.com/rb/rb081104.shtml

Comments

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

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