This research, as reported by EurekAlert, sounds like it will be a major advance for the field of regenerative medicine if it pans out. "Stem cells found in adult skin retain their embryonic capability of making many types of cells. ... We think these stem cells are actually embryonic cells that go out into the skin during development and then stay in reservoirs in hair follicles." Remember that a number of equally promising developments in stem cell science over the past few years have turned out to be false alarms. It is worth following any research that promises readily available multipotent stem cells in adults, however - that is the key to efficient, low cost tissue engineering.
A recent article details unregulated Russian stem cell frauds and pseudoclinics - not exactly a shining example of what can be achieved. Russians seem to have the worst of all worlds; enormous levels of fraud, a population that doesn't yet seem to have learned the merits of caveat emptor, poor educational infrastructure, an ineffective and overbearing state, and the inability to develop effective private review, rating and monitoring organizations.
Vladimir Bryntsalov, a Moscow pharmaceutical tycoon, decided last year on the advice of a friend to seek a treatment for the gray hair and wrinkles that come with being 58 years old. He had a potent mixture of human embryonic stem cells injected under his skin. It is a radical procedure with unpredictable results under any circumstances, let alone in a Moscow beauty salon. A few weeks later, Bryntsalov was as gray, wrinkled and tired as ever - and sported several pea-size tumors on his face. He began to doubt that the salon was legitimate. "They didn't have a laboratory, nothing," he says. "Who knows where [the stem cells] came from?"
It's not clear what's being injected beneath patients' skin. Are they embryonic stem cells harvested from days-old embryos? Such "undifferentiated" cells would be the most promising candidates for repairing organs, from alcohol-addled livers to wrinkled skin, but they are also the least predictable and potentially most dangerous. "If we introduce undifferentiated cells into the body of a person with low immunity, then there's a high risk of cancer," says Gennady Sukhikh, a stem-cell scientist from the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Some clinics advertise human-embryonic stem cells, but in fact take them from pig embryos. The Kosmeton clinic, which rents space in a tony Moscow neighborhood from a medical facility with ties to the Kremlin, openly admits to luring patients with empty promises. "In our advertisements, we say that we have stem cells," says Yelena Chelishcheva, who works at the clinic. Clients actually get an injection of skin cells.
The bright side of this situation is that the same limited, situational freedom that allows the frauds to operate also allows serious research to proceed:
Ironically, serious science may yet benefit from the Russian free-for-all. Dr. Andrei Bryukhovetsky, a scientist at Moscow's Cancer Institute, is using the adult stem cells of spinal-injury victims to repair vertebrae. "This is the one area where we are ahead of the Americans," says Bryukhovetsky, "and it's only because our laws allow us to use stem cells, both embryonic and adult." Bryukhovetsky also has a front-row seat when stem-cell treatments go wrong. A 23-year-old woman, who had paid $10,000 for a series of stem-cell injections for a concussion, went to Bryukhovetsky complaining of severe headaches and a breakdown in her immune system. The risks are obvious to him, if not to all.
If you are familiar with the funding situation for medical research in Russia - a country where academics have been known to moonlight as taxi drivers to make ends meet - then you'll see just how much damage has been done to medical research in Europe and America. We could be so much further ahead on the path to developing regenerative cures for age-related conditions.
The Independent takes a look at TriStem and their claimed retrodifferentiation technology. "A London-based biotech company says it can take an adult human cell from a patient and use it to create a stem cell. If ongoing medical trials being conducted in India to substantiate these claims prove successful, the whole issue will be turned on its head." We'd all like this to work, but it's best to wait for confirmation from the wider scientific community before getting too excited. The ability to create stem cells on demand from a patient's own tissue would certainly be a large step forward for regenerative medicine - although it still leaves the issue of how to deal with age-related damage to DNA.
Science News Online discusses the possibilities offered by muscle-enhancing gene therapies previously demonstrated in mice. The therapeutic possibilities are promising: "Instead of simply supplying a copy of a missing gene, he and others realized that gene therapy could also fortify muscle, bones, and other tissue at the first signs of disease or aging. This approach could slow the progress of muscle wasting from aging or diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and osteoporosis." This is still an early stage technology, however, and some follow on work has demonstrated very undesirable side-effects. Still, the promise of regenerative gene therapy is there and should be pursued.
NASA is engaged in a number of lines of medical research of relevance to healthy life extension. "Wouldn't it be nice if the cells in your body would simply tell you when you're starting to get sick, long before symptoms appear? Or alert you when a tumor is growing, while it's still microscopic and harmless? The ability to detect changes inside of individual cells while those cells are still inside your body would be a boon to medicine. NASA-supported scientists are developing a technology right now that could, if it works, do exactly that." This article looks at the intersection between diagnostic nanomedicine, personalized medicine, and efforts to prevent or repair radiation damage - technologies that should prove very useful in the fight to cure aging.
"It is not ethical to place obstacles and difficulties in the way of scientists who are using their talent and knowledge to improve our capacity to treat illness," Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega told a news conference.
Spain will initially have two centres of research -- one in Catalonia specialising in regenerative medicine, and the other a stem cell bank at Granada.
The latter follows the examples of Sweden and Britain which already have similar facilities.
Even a partial lifting of restrictions in this way is welcome - it gives another research community the chance to achieve meaningful progress in this important field of research. As scientists come closer to demonstrating regenerative cures for age-related conditions, it will become increasingly difficult for politicians in other parts of the world to continue to try to suppress freedom in medical research.
Whoever is elected to office following the November US election, whichever way the UN jumps on therapeutic cloning, and whatever the result of the Proposition 71 vote in California, the mechanisms of government capable of restricting medical research will still be in place. The degree to which medicine is socialized - and thus slowed, hobbled and held back from the best possible pace of advance - will remain largely unchanged. Most of the threats to the future of your health and longevity will still be there, personalized by the same government employees and rules that existed before the election.
The best thing to do? Help to inspire scientists to get to work on greatly extending the healthy human life span. Regardless of the politicians in power, progress in the science of healthy life extension is good - and we have a lot more control over that than we do over the machinations of Senate, House and White House.
The Washington Post has a good overview of the problems facing scientists who are trying to work within current federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. The allowed lines are largely useless for a number of different reasons. "At least five of those colonies 'will never be useful for the clinic' because they are so difficult to grow ... each colony has its own quirky propensity to turn into one kind of body cell or another, suggesting many more than the 22 colonies available will be needed if the field is to reach its full potential to treat a wide variety of failing organs." In conjunction with threatened legislation that has scared away private funding, this situation has caused years of delay in progress towards cures for age-related conditions.
The damage caused by anti-research legislation, especially that directed at therapeutic cloning, is well illustrated in this UPI article on Advanced Cell Technology. The threat of bans at federal and state levels in the US has scared away private funding and left companies like ACT limping along for years. "Due to a dearth of funding, Lanza said his company has been unable to follow up on promising results in animals and carry out experiments that could lead to life-saving therapies for humans. The financial situation is so dire, the company has at times been unable to afford basic office supplies." This has greatly held back progress in regenerative medicine and following up on promising laboratory work for age-related conditions.
A great deal of effort is going towards establishing the knowledge and tools necessary for control over our cells. Stem cell research is a good example, as typified by this work:
Researchers at Jefferson Medical College have found a new way to coax bone marrow stem cells into becoming dopamine-producing neurons. If the method proves reliable, the work may ultimately lead to new therapies for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease, which is marked by a loss of dopamine-making cells in the brain.
Much of the most important, if not most immediately productive, stem cell research concerns control over cellular differentiation:
Cellular differentiation is a concept from developmental biology describing the process by which cells acquire a "type". The morphology of a cell may change dramatically during differentiation, but the genetic material remains the same, with few exceptions.
A cell that is able to differentiate into many cell types is known as pluripotent. These cells are called stem cells in animals and meristematic cells in higher plants. A cell that is able to differentiate into all cell types is known as totipotent. In mammals, only the zygote and early embryonic cells are totipotent, while in plants, many differentiated cells can become totipotent with simple laboratory techniques.
Scientists are current working to understand the triggers and mechanisms of differentiation in pluripotent and totipotent stem cells. Even the limited success to date has produced some surprisingly effective potential therapies. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to understand and control the mechanism of potency - thus enabling any cell to be transformed into any other type of cell. The result of all this work would be low cost, efficient regenerative medicine. Age-damaged or injured tissue? No problem, just grow a fresh, undamaged replacement in culture from your own healthy cells.
Of course, some age-related damage affects all of your cells. Your telomeres - protective caps on the ends of your chromosomes, regulators of planned cell death - grow shorter as you age, and this (most likely) leads to cancer. Cancer research is another broad area within which many groups can be found working to understand and control our cells. Take this, for example:
Metastasis is a major problem with cancer because it allows tumor cells to spread to other parts of the body (See Supporting Material: Cancer and Metastasis). While solid tumors can be removed surgically or treated with chemotherapy or radiation, metastatic cells that have already entered the circulation are capable of opening a passageway through blood vessels in order to spread to various organs throughout the body.
To support their approach, Cheresh, Weis, and their colleagues demonstrate that mice that are genetically deficient in the Src gene are resistant to tumor cell metastasis. Furthermore, blocking Src in normal mice dramatically protects the mice against metastatic tumors because it keeps the cancer cells "sandbagged" in the bloodstream where they are vulnerable to attack and clearance from the immune system.
Our bodies are complex machines made up of complex machines; progress in modern medicine is all about understanding and controlling the smallest of these machines. Technologies to halt aging, cancer and disease will eventually result from these efforts. The more public support that exists for this work, the faster it will go, and the better our future becomes.
Medical News Today reports on a successful attempt to "coax bone marrow stem cells into becoming dopamine-producing neurons. If the method proves reliable, the work may ultimately lead to new therapies for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease, which is marked by a loss of dopamine-making cells in the brain." Scientists are making good progress in learning how to control adult and embryonic stem cells - this work would be going faster in the absence of legislative interference. Ultimately, researchers would like to be able to take any cell and turn it into any other sort of cell ... but that is a long term goal for regenerative medicine. In the meanwhile, the more research the better.
(From EurekAlert). "In the first study of its type in the world, a team at the University of Edinburgh found that worse mental function is linked with abnormally enlarged channels around blood vessels in the brain. ... The abnormal channels are known as enlarged perivascular spaces. Rare in young, healthy adults, they are very commonly seen in the brain scans of older people, and in conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and high blood pressure." It is an open question as to what this might mean - no mechanism is to hand to explain the link. Basic research like this is very important; we only have the one brain, and it can't be replaced. Understanding the aging brain and developing regenerative medicine that works in situ is vital.
EurekAlert reports on work that would seem to set the high bar for tissue engineering a cure for degenerative blindness. "The key to their success is that they transplant intact, 2-millimetre-square sheets of the upper retinal layer. This preserves the circuitry of the light-sensing cells, as well as the supporting cells that nourish them. Aramant is dismissive of the stem-cell work, pointing out that no one is anywhere near recreating the complex structure of the retina using stem cells." Methods of generating complex tissue from stem cells will catch up - and would seem to be the most ethical way of generating the amount of complex retinal tissue required for this sort of therapy to be widely available.
Ronald Baily discusses the First Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology at Reason Online. Robert Freitas, author of the Nanomedicine books, is featured: "not only will nanotechnology provide us with a lot of cool stuff and eliminate global poverty, it will also help us live a really long time. In his lecture on "Nanomedicine and Medical Nanorobotics," Freitas predicted that we would see in the next five years biologically active nanoparticles used as diagnostic sensors. He also described a project at the University of Michigan to use tecto-dendrimers, complex tree shaped molecules that could be designed to simultaneously sense and destroy cancer cells." In the longer term, Freitas is looking at how to build and employ nanomedical robots such as his respirocytes.
In my introduction to calorie restriction (CR), I mention body mass index:
Weight loss should be mentioned in the context of CR, even though it is not the primary goal of a CR diet. Medical experts agree that being overweight is harmful to your long term health in many different ways. Excess weight increases risk factors for conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer to Alzheimer's. It is no exaggeration to say that if you are overweight, you will have a shorter, less healthy life - many recent studies suggest that even a little excess weight is very bad for you. Bearing this in mind, it is an excellent idea to check your Body Mass Index (BMI) and consult with your physician about your weight.
Greg Ferguson e-mailed the following comments:
Use of BMI is not a good indicator of good body composition -- I put to you that the use of a fat percentage indicator is much more reliable.
For example, I am average height, in my mid-30's and am lean enough that I have a "six-pack" stomach, yet at 5'10, 190 lbs, my BMI of 27.3 would indicate that I am overweight. My fat percentage is 9%. I am most certainly not fat.
BMI is an outdated concept and following it leads to a reduction in life span. People become "skinny fat" -- they drop their overall weight, but it is the muscle and bone mass they lose to do so.
For men, aiming to keep body fat between 7 to 10% is an excellent plan. For women, aiming to keep body fat at approximately 19 to 20% is an excellent plan. Women require additional body fat for reproductive health. Maintain body fat through a combination of cardiovascular activity, smart diet choices using fresh vegetables and good protein sources and regular weight training is a much, much healthier goal and has been proven to extend life span and vitality throughout that life.
About.com has more background on body fat percentage as a measuring tool and what is currently considered average. Anyone else want to weigh in on the merits of various ways of estimating your body composition and how that relates to health and calorie restriction?
I thought I'd share a few thoughts from the latest Longevity Meme newsletter:
If you can put money away in a retirement fund to improve your future financial status, then you can certainly think about how to work now to improve your future health and longevity. Most people really don't like to think about the unpleasant realities of age-related degeneration - which was no doubt for the best when such things were unavoidable. That is no longer necessarily the case, however. As a society, we have a golden opportunity ahead of us: Medical science, if adequately supported and funded, could soon ameliorate and eventually defeat the degenerative effects of aging.
How soon that happens is up to us. We can stick our heads in the sand and ignore this possibility or we can do just as much for the future of longevity medicine as we are prepared to do to ensure our financial future. Take a little time today to read about the ways in which you can support the future of healthy life extension and real anti-aging medicine. It makes sense.
Thinking realistically about the future is the first step towards realizing what must be done. So think about it - and donate to the Methuselah Mouse Prize, or do your part to help the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence initiative. We can all help to bring about a future that includes real longevity-enhancing medicine - working for a better future isn't just for scientists!
ScienceDaily reports that a gene associated with type 2 (largely age-related) diabetes has been identified. "The protein that this gene makes represses the insulin response, so if you are making a lot of this protein, your ability to respond to insulin would be blunted, which would lead to higher glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. If it is too high, that's diabetes. ... There are certainly other genes that contribute to diabetes ... This is good evidence for one." Identifying genes is an important step in modern research. Thanks to advances in bioinformatics it is becoming easier with each passing year to determine all related biochemistry for an age-related condition - if you have identified the genes to use as a starting point.
A number of groups are working on stem cell based regenerative therapies for eyes. As noted by the BBC, human adult retinal stem cells have been shown to form the right tissue when implanted into mice: "When their eyes fully developed, the human cells survived, migrated into the sensory part of the eye and formed the correct cells. ... This will help them find out whether retinal stem cells can be used to treat degenerative diseases of the retina such as retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration, which are among the most common forms of blindness in developed countries." This is early stage work, but successful strategies for managing stem cells in one project help to advance many others.
As more research groups pay attention to the underlying genetics and biochemistry of calorie restriction - the only diet that has been proven to extend healthy life span in mammals such as mice and primates, and looks very promising for humans too - the basic science is becoming more solid. See this piece at Betterhumans:
The exact molecular and cellular pathways through which caloric restriction works, however, have proven unclear. It is generally thought that caloric restriction works by triggering a family of enzymes called sirtuins that protect cells and delay cell death.
This hypothesis is based on studies in yeast and worms that have shown that a sirtuin called Sir2 and its homologues are a key lifespan regulator. But while the Sir2 molecular pathway has been linked to calorie availability in yeast, write Rogina and Helfand, it has not been shown to function in the calorie restriction pathway in multicellular organisms.
For their study, the researchers created strains of flies that either overexpressed or underexpressed Sir2. They found that in four strains in which Sir2 expression was significantly increased, lifespan was extended by as much as 57%.
Conversely, in two other strains in which Sir2 expression was not elevated or was only marginally elevated, lifespan was not extended. The researchers also showed that lifespan cannot be extended by caloric restriction in flies that lack Sir2, providing evidence for a primary role of Sir2 activity in determining longevity.
"Together, these observations make a strong case that calorie restriction extends lifespan in flies by increasing Sir2 activity," write the researchers.
It's still possible that calorie restriction operates differently in yeast, but with more people looking at the problem now, we should know for sure within a few years. Financial backers are sensing a comparatively near term business opportunity in calorie restriction mimetic drugs - substances that reproduce the benefits to health and longevity without the dieting - and the money is flowing.
It looks like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation publicity efforts - mentioned here previously - are well underway. "Alcor will be featured in a number of programs in the US, including The History Channel's 'Tactical to Practical' ... This week, Alcor hosted German television channel, ZDF for three days of filming. ... Sky One Television, a British television station, plans to feature Alcor in a pet documentary. ... another production company for Arte TV (French public television) plans to feature Alcor as an example of leading-edge technology. The Entertainment Group of the Netherlands plans to include Alcor in a television program about options for the end of life." We'll all be interested to see what the wider public thinks of cryonics these days.
EurekAlert reports on a study of calorie restriction that focuses on the aging brain. "Since there is evidence that both antioxidants and calorie restriction increase lifespan and reduce aging-related diseases, Dugan and her colleagues hypothesized that calorie restriction, like antioxidants, helps protect the brain against free radical damage. ... Old mice fed normal diets had significantly more superoxide in several regions of the brain than their young counterparts, particularly in one region implicated in Parkinson's disease, called the substantia nigra. But calorie-restricted old mice did not." Interestingly, calorie restriction did not appear to protect against general cognitive decline in this study. We need better medical technology!
I suspect that because most younger people don't like to think too hard about the realities of getting old, they don't have a good grasp of just how terrible it is to suffer advanced age-related degeneration. SAGE Crossroads makes some points: "Falls cause 70% of accidental deaths in folks age 75 and older, and even seemingly innocuous spills can trigger lasting harm to the elderly ... Half of people age 80 and older fall at least once per year ... When they fall, seniors are more likely than youngsters to hurt themselves seriously. Bone density can diminish with age, allowing even a minor spill to break an arm, leg, or hip." Think about helping the fight to cure aging today.
Chris Mooney has some pointed comments on one particular facet of dishonesty from opponents of embryonic stem cell research:
What is it with conservatives that makes them feel like they have to take a contrary scientific position on issues like embryonic stem cell research, rather than simply stating their moral disapproval? This drives me absolutely nuts.
I mean, are we really supposed to believe, based on a scientific-sounding article by a patient's advocate, that all of the mainstream scientific societies advocating embryonic stem cell research have it wrong? That may sound like a ridiculous notion, but it's at the very core of the right's argumentative arsenal on the issue of stem cell research.
I've mentioned sort of thing before once or twice. Simply put, unimpeded adult and embryonic stem cell research are required for research into regenerative medicine to move ahead at the best possible pace. The best thing that politicians can do is to leave medical research and businesses unmolested.
An article from the BBC examines some of Steven Austad's comments on the future of longevity: "He said that he was virtually certain some children alive now would live to the year 2150. ... he added that he was so certain that someone alive today will still be alive in 2150, he had placed a bet on it with a friend. 'It's a bet that I feel I'm so overwhelmingly likely to win, I feel like I've stolen the money from him.'" Another somewhat famous 2150 bet between Peter Schwartz and Melody Haller can be found at the Long Bets website. Other scientists involved in aging research, such as Aubrey de Grey, think that we can do far better than a mere 150 years with the right level of funding and public support.
Working nanomedicine - "wet" applications of nanotechnology, both the future of molecular manufacturing and less advanced, more business-friendly definitions - will be a very important step forward for medical science. As nanotechnology becomes more mature, medical applications will enable increasingly greater understanding of and control over cellular biochemical processes ... such as those involved in aging.
Advocacy for medical research can be thought of as falling into two categories: 1) Encourage funding for the goals present day technology is already capable of achieving, and 2) encourage funding for new enabling technologies so that I can talk to you about category #1 again ten years from now. While nanomedicine based on molecular manufacturing is still firmly in category #1, groundwork in a variety of areas is proceeding, carried out by organizations like Zyvex, the Foresight Institute and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.
Currently, as I'm sure many of you are aware, Foresight's First Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology is underway. While most of the conference is focused on "dry" nanotechnology research (or research that is too early-stage to have clear medical applications), Robert Freitas was at hand to give a presentation on his work:
Current nanomedicine focuses on targeted nanoparticles and self-assembled nanostructures. In 10-20 years, the methods of massively-parallel molecular manufacturing will allow the construction of complex diamondoid medical nanorobots. These nanorobots will be used to maintain tissue oxygenation in the absence of respiration, repair and recondition the human vascular tree eliminating heart disease and stroke damage, and instantly staunch bleeding after traumatic injury. Other medical nanorobots will eliminate microbial infections and cancer, and even replace chromosomes in individual cells thus reversing the effects of genetic disease and other accumulated damage to our genes.
Medical applications of nanomedicine are a surprisingly low number six on Chris Phoenix's top ten list:
6) MEDICAL ETHICS AND RESEARCH: Massively parallel sensors. Cell-sized probes and surgical robots. "Actually cutting someone [for surgery] and making them bleed will soon look as primitive as, well, as bleeding them." Cheap supercomputers for very rapid medical R&D. (No more clinical trials?) Neural connections: "This is speculative, because we don't know how neurons work in detail." Genome manipulation. Physical "augmentation, for some of us, a source of much hope."
That doesn't sound as hopeful as the Chris Phoenix who penned Nanotechnology and Life Extension. You can be up to your neck in infrastructure and trade improvements, but it won't help you one bit if you're already dead due to age-related degeneration.
This piece from Mass High Tech drives home the ridiculous, cruel and corrupt nature of the anti-research positions held by Leon Kass, chair of the President's Council on Bioethics. "Yes, two figures of high visibility addressed nearby audiences in recent days. One, a scared, disease-burdened man who represents millions, pleaded for help in his fight against disease. The other, a healthy representative of the White House, declared that we probably should learn to live with what we have." Yet in many ways, Leon Kass is the best of our opponents - unlike the old guard of gerontology, who block or slow serious anti-aging research in their own way, he is prepared to debate his horrible views in public.
Robert Lanza, medical director at Advanced Cell Technology, weighs in on the possibility of an international ban on therapeutic cloning at the United Nations. "Even the United States' new ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, called a news conference in support of therapeutic cloning and the urgent need for this research. Now, like National Institutes of Health chief Elias Zerhouni, Danforth has had to swallow the Bush policy; he must promote the Bush position to the United Nations that represents neither the scientific facts nor public opinion. ... The scientific results so far speak for themselves. In animals, embryonic stem cells already have reversed diabetes and fixed damaged hearts. Nerve cells have been used to treat Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and to restore function to paralyzed rats."
The NIH News covers a promising development in Parkinson's research: "[a single mutation] causes Parkinson's disease in some families. Although Parkinson's disease is usually not inherited, the discovery of this gene and further study of how it works could open up new avenues of research for preventing or delaying the onset of the disease. In research, the study of rare familial forms of a disease has often led to major insights into the pathogenesis of more common forms." The past few years have demonstrated the power of modern bioinformatics: once you have identified a genetic cause, it is the matter of less than a year for a single laboratory to pin down and understand the biochemistry of the disease.
Betterhumans reports on real progress in developing a synthetic substitute for bone. This composite material is really another form of biocompatible scaffolding, designed to encourage organic bone growth and host other necessary tissue within the body. "If the material holds up, it would be a significant advance over existing therapies for bone loss and could help people who undergo everything from bone cancer treatment to joint replacement." This is good work, and shows that the prosthetics/artificial organ side of research is keeping up with biological regenerative medicine in at least a few areas. Competition and a variety of methodologies are good in any field.
A pair of dueling press releases today from interested groups in the US:
An anticipated vote at the United Nations to enact a global ban on all forms of human cloning now seems to be leaning in favor of research. A vote was expected on a Costa-Rica/U.S. led treaty which sought to ban all cloning -- including therapeutic cloning, which produces stem cells and could cure diseases affecting over 100 million Americans. But in recent discussions on the cloning issue by the U.N. Legal Committee, more nations started voicing support for medical research. The Committee emerged without a vote.
Therapeutic cloning could be used to help nearly 100 million Americans suffering from cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, ALS, and other devastating conditions for which treatments must still be found. Therapeutic cloning is fundamentally different from human reproductive cloning; therapeutic produces stem cells, not babies. In therapeutic cloning, the nucleus of a donor's unfertilized egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a patient's own cells, like a skin, heart, or nerve cell. No sperm is used in this procedure. The cells are not transplanted into a womb. The unfertilized egg cells are stored in a petri dish to become a source of stem cells that can be used to treat currently incurable medical conditions. Therapeutic cloning aims to treat or cure patients by creating tailor-made, genetically identical cells that their bodies won't reject. In other words, the research could allow patients to be cured using their own DNA.
U.N. Cloning Debate Leans Toward Global Ban
This week, Dr. David Prentice, Senior Fellow for Life Science at Family Research Council met with a variety of yet undecided countries to gain support of a global ban on human cloning. Slovakia, Nigeria, Kenya, Norway, Ethiopia, Philippines and Uganda are the latest to join the alliance of countries speaking out on behalf of the global ban.
Secretary General Kofi Annan has come out in favor of therapeutic cloning, for what it's worth:
"Obviously it's an issue for the member states to decide," Mr Annan said.
"But as an individual and in my personal view, I think I will go for therapeutic cloning."
That announcement will have brought cheer to US opponents like Belgium, which is behind a rival resolution co-sponsored by more than 20 nations that would ban only reproductive cloning.
Meanwhile, Virginia Postrel thinks that this exercise is not so important in the grand scale of things:
The United Nations may soon give friends of freedom yet another reason to support unilateralism (and cheer the U.N.'s general toothlessness). Having failed in the U.S. Senate, efforts to criminalize therapeutic cloning have gone international. Sponsored by Costa Rica and supported by the Bush administration, a measure to create an international convention to ban all forms of human cell cloning, including cloning for research purposes, has returned to the U.N.
While deeply concerned about potential U.S. laws, I don't share this site's fear of international conventions without enforcement power. Their roundup (via Instapundit is, however, a useful reminder that this issue never goes away.
Meanwhile, thanks to Senate rules and constitutional checks and balances, cell-cloning remains legal in the United States.
Well, legal in some parts of the US. I'd be inclined to agree with these sentiments if anti-research factions didn't have such a strong position in the US and elsewhere at the moment. Even a toothless resolution in the UN helps to strengthen the hand of those who are trying to hold back medical research.
To round off, the folks at BioMed Central don't see a vote as being likely today:
Members of the legal committee of the United Nation's General Assembly began once again tackling the debate over human cloning yesterday (October 21), but the chances of a decisive vote on the issue during this latest round of talks, scheduled to continue today, appear remote. And some members voiced their frustrations at the international body's inability to take a stand on human reproductive cloning, which all members appear to oppose.
If the committee decides to vote on cloning, it may take years before they adopt the final text of the decision, Pecsteen explained, and each state can choose whether or not they want to ratify the agreement. The United Kingdom, for example, has said it will not participate in a convention that bans all forms of cloning.
As I noted previously, now is a good time to contact your elected representatives and let them know your opinions on the anti-research policies that your ambassadors to the UN are promoting.
A couple of articles from the media I thought worth pointing out: firstly, a high level overview of the future of personalized medicine and genetic research.
Ten or 20 years from now, a droplet of blood may be all your doctor needs to catch a cancer in its earliest stages. That droplet could also reveal which genetic diseases you might develop later in life and which medicines, tailored to your genetic makeup, are right for you.
Hood believes that in 10 to 20 years medicine's focus will have shifted away from treating existing diseases, typically late in their progression, to preventing disease before it sets in.
What will make this medical revolution possible, according to Hood, is systems biology. This discipline, which is actually a blend of biology, computing and micro/nanotechnology, tries to understand the behavior of a whole, such as the human body, in terms of the interactions among its parts - its genes, proteins and other molecules.
I'm a big fan of the push towards personalized medicine - so many of what are currently top of the line therapies affect different people in very different ways. Medicine is still too often a matter of pulling the big red lever on the side of the complex machine and hoping for the best. Moving from developing therapies on the basis of test results, educated guesses and studies, and towards the model of developing therapies based on exact knowledge of genetics and biochemistry is a revolution that will bring great advances in health and longevity.
Here is another article worth reading from Reason Online: Tim Cavanaugh's views on Proposition 71, the California stem cell ballot measure.
In a characteristic anti-71 argument, Steve Milloy singles out prominent Prop 71 advocate Irving Weissman, whose company StemCells Inc. faces a depressed stock price and would almost certainly get a boost if the ballot initiative passed.
What Milloy doesn't highlight (though a stock analyst he cites does) is that the stock of that company, like that of many biotech plays, has already been affected - negatively - by government interference. Prop 71 proponents point not only to the Bush decision but to Congressional bills introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) that would have criminalized this type of research.
"In 2002 and 2003, when the Weldon bill was in the House of Representatives, Proposition 71 wasn't even a dream," says Robert Klein, chairman of the Yes On 71 Coalition. "The Brownback bill didn't involve public funding at all. The Bush administration has gotten Costa Rica to front a UN bill outlawing this research worldwide. It's initiatives like this that made our own congressional allies to tell us 'We can't hold this dike back forever. You need to get enough funding to scientists so they can show some results.' Historically, public funding has broadened public support."
This is the kind of topsy-turvy logic public health pieties have left us with. You can't discuss a matter of science in any terminology other than that of public policy and taxpayer money. The future may or may not hold medical breakthroughs due to stem cell research. But it definitely will hold more scientists getting public funds and then complaining about the politicization of science, more demagoguery featuring unborn babies and celebrity patients, and more situations in which even reasonably thrifty and cautious citizens will have to say, "Well, it's only three billion dollars."
While new technologies based on stem cell research get most of the press, complementary strategies in regenerative medicine are also moving forward. From Medical News Today: "The Northwestern researchers, who ultimately would like to help paralyzed people walk again and enable diabetic individuals to lead a normal life without daily treatments or organ donations ... focusing on a key component of regenerative medicine: synthetic scaffolds and their interactions with cells. Without the development of effective scaffold technologies Stupp doubts significant progress can be made in regenerative medicine." New scaffold materials are made possible by advances in early nanoscale manufacturing techniques.
An interesting piece on research into telomeres is reprinted at the LEF News: "Like a string of pearls at the tip of every chromosome, but the length of the necklace continually varies. Every time the cell replicates, one of the pearls disappears. When you reach the end of the necklace, the cell dies. ... We know that telomeres control when the cell dies, but the key is [to discover] which cells control aging and death ... And we don't know which cells those are yet." Telomere research is an important example of the intersection between cancer and aging science - basic research here benefits both fields. "If researchers could figure out why the telomerase suddenly becomes active and why the cells fuse ... scientists could create an early-cancer detection test."
(From EurekAlert). While the US administration - backed by conservative, anti-research bioethicists like Leon Kass - is trying to engineer a global ban on therapeutic cloning, scientists are meeting to present the promise of this technology. "Will therapeutic cloning create immune matching? It's unclear. At this point, we don't even know if human embryonic stem cells are safe, let alone effective. What's important is that research be allowed to continue so we can find out. ... a ban on all forms of human cloning sends the wrong signal to the scientific community; it stigmatizes the research and will slow the pace of discoveries for decades to come." The slowing has already happened - and it has consequences measured in lost lives and crippling disability for millions.
The Honolulu Advertiser reports on the use of scaffolds in veterinary tissue engineering. "The matrix works like a three-dimensional scaffold and is void of cells but has structural and functional proteins still intact. Once in place, the matrix 'recruits' cells for tissue remodeling without scarring. ... Dolphin Quest attending veterinarian Gregg Levine said that without the procedure, Liko likely would have faced a partial amputation of his dorsal fin because the injury was too severe to heal properly on its own." We humans can look forward to recieving the benefits of this sort of technology for the regeneration of severely damaged tissue in the years ahead - once the regulatory hurdles are passed.
Michael Rae pointed me to a great post from earlier this year. A few highlights:
If he has the operation (with other things in remission and his age) he has a four in five chance of coming out OK. But there's always that ONE in five chance... And if he doesn't have the operation, he'll die. Give his toughness and will to live, I think he'd survive if he has the operation. Everyday he takes a ton of pills. He sees the doctor all the time. And, from what I've heard, he is now leaning towards having the operation - a not surprising decision from a couragous veteran who was on a boat bombed during WWII.
Why? People want to LIVE
And the people who insist that at age 80 or 90 "it's time to make room for others" forget that aging folks can mentor younger people, offer bits of life-changing wisdom, keep a family together, work longer years before retiring (age 65 retirement these days is an absolute JOKE), and as we have seen help fill some gaps in the labor pool.
Why do people want to prolong their lives? They want to live for the joy of being part of it -- partaking in family activities as simple as going out to eat pizza.
Soaring health costs make extended lifespans more stressful;, throwing a monkey-wrench into the conventional wisdom regarding the money needed for retirement, but they don't change human beings' desire.
Quite right. Go and read the whole thing.
Betterhumans reports on a potential treatment for osteoporosis. Age-related bone loss is a serious, widespread condition with nasty consequences - it does not receive the attention it deserves in most discussions of the degenerative effects of aging. It is good to hear that scientists are making progress in finding a cure: "American researchers in Texas have found that the antibody, AMG 162, can quickly stop the bone resorption process and improve bone density within a year ... They determined that AMG 162 given once every six months was best tolerated and caused a rapid, dose-dependent increase in bone formation and density." More rigorous trials are in the works, but this looks promising so far.
We're in the early stages of biotechnology. We just finished the genome. We haven't finished reverse-assembling it yet, and we don't understand how the genes express themselves in proteins. Just now, we're getting machines powerful enough to simulate protein folding. We're learning the information processing methods underlying biology, disease and aging. We're finding very finely tuned interventions to reverse aging and to reverse disease processes. And there are very profound bio-technology-based therapies in the pipeline already. There are drugs in the pipeline that will enable us to eat as much as we want and remain slim, that will reverse type-2 diabetes by getting rid of excess glucose. I'm very confident that over the next decade we'll largely eliminate the diseases that kill 95 percent of people today. We've identified a dozen or so aging processes, and we have strategies for reversing them all. I believe that within 10 years we'll produce a mouse that doesn't age, and we'll translate that into human therapies within another five to 10 years after that.
I think that this 10 year timeline is overly optimistic, to say the least. Who was it said that we always greatly overestimate what can be done in a decade and greatly underestimate what can be done in two decades? The length of the business cycle and regulatory regimes ensure that the pace of commercializing new therapies will continue to lag behind accelerating medical research. While Aubrey de Grey presents a convincing case for radical life extension in mice within ten years, this is a) a project currently lacking the necessary $100 million per year in funding, support and infrastructure, and b) not "a mouse that doesn't age." Still, even adding a few decades to the healthy human life span within the next 30 years would be a major achievement and place us well on the way to "acturial escape velocity." I think that this is a plausible, possible goal - but one that will require the same order of activism and scientific support that efforts to cure cancer, Alzheimer's or AIDS have received. It won't just fall into our laps.
This next sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly:
We've rationalized death, which in my view is a profound tragedy and a tremendous loss of knowledge and expertise. And we have rationalized it as a good thing. I guess if there's nothing you can do about it, the best thing you can do is rationalize it, but there will be things that we can do about it.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the California governor has endorsed Proposition 71, the stem cell funding initiate that aims to provide $3 billion in regulated embryonic stem cell research over the next decade. This is not too big of a surprise; he had seemed to be giving tacit support to the ballot measure already. "I'm very much interested in stem cell research. I support it 100 percent ... I hope that it will win, so that eventually, 10 years from now, people will be saved from those terrible illnesses." Personally, I'm more interested in seeing the threat of anti-research legislation - that scares away the much larger pool of potential private funding - reduced or eliminated rather than further socialization of medical research, but I realize I am in something of a minority in that respect.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that "extraordinary similarities exist at the molecular level between the immune systems of the elderly and those of young people with chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions." Researchers studying these conditions in children may discover ways to slow or prevent age-related damage to the immune system. The chief researcher mentioned here is not looking beyond incidental healthy life extension, however: "My goal is not to identify aging genes because aging is a normal outcome of human life. My goal is to slow down the ill effects of aging by reconstituting the immune system. There are people who think we should be studying longevity, but I think quality of life is more important."
Here we have a small selection of items relating to the proposed international treaty banning therapeutic cloning that is strongly backed by the current US administration - and seems to be going without comment in much of the blogosphere. As before, there is the strong possibility of a vote passing later this month:
The UN has been wrestling with whether to regulate human cloning since 2001, and decided to postpone a decision on it after reaching stalemate last year. Its legal committee will take up the discussion again on 21 and 22 October.
As they were last year, UN delegates are deeply divided. One group, led by Costa Rica and backed by nearly 60 countries, including the United States, is calling for a comprehensive ban on cloning. This includes both reproductive cloning to make babies, and the creation of human embryos for use in medical research.
The other group of countries, led by Belgium and backed by over 20 countries, wants a ban on reproductive cloning only. These countries argue that cloning for research should be allowed because stem cells grown from cloned embryos might lead to cures for countless diseases.
The opposing sides have changed little since last year's deliberations. But Spain, for example, has switched away from supporting a blanket ban because of its change from a conservative to a socialist government after elections in March 2004.
Pro-science organizations have reacted to this new set of efforts to suppress freedom of research:
Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, said: "The US should be allowed to decide whether therapeutic cloning should be outlawed within its borders.
But other countries, including the UK, have now passed legislation to allow carefully regulated therapeutic cloning while introducing a ban on reproductive cloning."
While any treaty would take years to hammer out, and countries like the UK are not likely to adhere to it in any case, it would be a blow to supporters of regenerative medicine and embryonic stem cell research. As I note in the latest Longevity Meme newsletter:
Three high profile political events in the next few weeks will go a long way towards determining the next few years of progress in the fight for freedom in medical research. The combination of the California embryonic stem cell research proposition, the US presidential election and the proposed United Nations ban on therapeutic cloning are going to be taken as a referendum on the most promising technologies for developing regenerative medicine and cures for age-related conditions. Never mind that most of us don't have a say in these matters, politicians in the US and elsewhere may end up seeing a mandate to further interfere in the process of medical research.
While we are on the subject, some words of wisdom from James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA: "To what extent research on stem cells will improve the quality of human life, I don't know, but we should be allowed to try."
Following the death of Christopher Reeve earlier this week, I think that the most offensive anti-research arguments (from politicians and advocates) are those that state cures are not right around the corner - ergo it's fine to ban research. Of course medical research takes time, and of course medical research is uncertain ... but freedom is important. The end goals of medicine - to efficiently eliminate all disease, degeneration and disability, to defeat the aging process and allow perfect health for each of us for as long as we choose - are a high and worthy destination.
We should be allowed to try.
Now is a good time to contact your elected representatives and let them know your opinions on the anti-research policies that your ambassadors to the UN are promoting.
As reported in the Phoenix Business Journal, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation - a cryonics provider - is planning for expansion of the business and greater attention to public relations. These initiatives would seem to be the results of putting a businessman rather than a scientist in the CEO spot, a choice that I am very much in favor of. Cryonic preservation is an important stopgap measure on the way to meaningful extension of the healthy human life span via medicine, and this industry has languished for far too long. Professionalism and business aptitude are the first steps on the way to providing many more people with the option of undergoing cryonic suspension.
A Science Daily article handily illustrates that efforts to understand basic cellular mechanisms, processes and other biochemistry are some of the most important work taking place today. Knowing how our cells work makes the difference between haphazard, long, expensive searches for therapies and directly tailored solutions - knowledge is power in medicine. "In a boost to cancer research, Princeton scientists have invented a fast and reliable method for identifying alterations to chromosomes that occur when cells become malignant. The technique helps to show how cells modify their own genetic makeup and may allow cancer treatments to be tailored more precisely to a patient's disease."
InfoAging reminds us that excess weight - in the form of abdominal fat deep within the body - is bad for our long term health and longevity. "Scientists have known for decades that people with too much abdominal fat are more prone to diabetes and heart disease. Only in recent years have they found the reason - abdominal fat produces at least 10 hormones that affect the body's metabolism." In effect, weight gain produces an extra "unofficial" organ - one that is working to damage your health and reduce your healthy life span. As practitioners of calorie restriction already know, maintaining a low normal BMI with good diet and lifestyle choices will keep you healthier for longer.
Events of the next few weeks will go a long way to determining how political opposition to embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning will play out over the next few years. If the United Nations votes to ban therapeutic cloning, the present US administration is re-elected and the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative is voted down at the ballot then we can look forward to a long fight for freedom in medical research - and delays in advancing medical technology that will cost the lives of tens of millions who could have been saved.
The UN discussion comes at the height of arguments about cloning in the run-up to the US presidential election. President George W. Bush opposes the creation of human embryos for medical research, but challenger John Kerry supports it, and the two have sparred publicly about their differences.
The impending election is adding fervour to both sides of the UN debate. Observers say that the United States is intensifying its lobbying for an all-out ban, because this reinforces President Bush's stance.
Those against a blanket ban may prefer to defer any decision in the face of the election, says Marc Pecsteen, a legal advisor at the Belgian mission to the UN. If John Kerry is elected on 2 November, the argument goes, he might switch the US position and their case could gain strength.
Those involved say that it is difficult to predict the outcome of next week's deliberations. Will the committee decide to ponder the case longer, or will it come to a vote? Many say that a decision is likely to be deferred, at least for a short period of discussion and consultation.
Even when popular support exists for a cause - such as stem cell research - the structure of highly regulated, expansive, invasive democracies means that years or decades can pass without significant change. If popular support doesn't exist, minority groups are blocked from moving ahead on their own. Significant change becomes a long, drawn out battle between vested interests rather than a purely local concern. This is a sad state to find outselves in: anything that slows technological progress also greatly reduces our chances of living to see significant extension of the healthy human life span.
(In Expatica). French politicians allowed limited embryonic stem cell research to begin earlier this month, but therapeutic cloning - vital to much of the most promising research into regenerative medicine - is still banned in that country. "A decree covering the domain that came into effect last week allows scientists in France a five-year window during which such research will be allowed." The removal of political restrictions on research is always welcome, but it's worth comparing the current state of affairs with the rate at which truly free research could be proceeding. Preventing researchers from working towards cures for age-related conditions carries a staggering toll in otherwise avoidable death and disability.
(From the Life Extension Foundation News). Varying forms of bone loss might be the next widespread age-related condition to recieve much more attention and research funding. "Osteoporosis and other bone diseases, such as Paget's disease and osteogenesis imperfecta can lead to a downward spiral in physical health and quality of life, including losing the ability to walk, stand up, or dress, and can lead to premature death." While the article focuses on old school strategies of prevention and nutrition, there are signs that medical science could do far better. "Thirty years ago, doctors thought weak bones and osteoporosis were a natural part of aging, but today we know they are not." Supporting research into age-related conditions is a vital part of ensuring your future health and longevity.
I'm happy to report that the book is a complete success.
This book is a collection of essays divided into two parts: Science and Perspectives. The Science half of the book is written by scientists well-known to life extension enthusiasts: Aubrey de Grey, Michael West, Robert Freitas, Ray Kurzweil, and Marvin Minsky to name a few.
But if the authors of the Science portion the book are correct that radical life extension is coming, any philosophical arguments against life extension will ring hollow when it arrives. The Perspectives section is of greater value when it debates how to adapt our society to life extension, rather than whether we should pursue it.
The publication of this book is certainly a landmark for the Immortality Institute. The Institute should be proud of this accomplishment. More importantly, this book is a milestone in the quest for life extension. The depth of the bench here, the willingness of respected scientists to contribute to such a book, is an important development.
Research into free radicals and their contribution to degenerative age-related brain conditions is getting a boost in New Zealand according to News-Medical.Net. "Our particular focus will be on brain injury, examining how destructive free radicals and oxidative stress in the foetus and new-born relate to that condition, and also their role in later life with the onset of neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. We'll also be examining the importance of anti-oxidants in protecting against injury, both in the new-born and the ageing brain." The free radical theory of aging is still in play, given recent work identifying mitochondrial damage as an important cause of aging. The links between metabolic rate, mitochondrial mechanisms, free radical production and damage appear to be subtle and complex.
The Ashbury Park Press discusses efforts to promote and fund stem cell research in New Jersey. These are the early days of a medical revolution, and it's a shame that there is so much opposition to research aimed at curing age-related disease and extending the healthy human life span. "Our goal is to develop the technology that will allow us to make any cell into stem cells. After all, a stem cell is just a cell that is expressing certain genes. The future of stem cell therapies lies in this direction. One day, people will be able to give a tube of blood or other cells and then come back a week later to have stem cells ready to be transplanted to repair their brain, spinal cord and body. Let us work together to make this so."
The ever thoughtful Russell Blackford has penned a good article on barriers to adoption and support of transhumanist ideas - such as working to greatly extend the healthy human life span.
It is something else again, and something far more radical, to propose that we should quite literally upgrade our human biology. For many thoughtful, intelligent people in the professions and the academic world, this is a frightening idea. Now that transhumanism is getting media attention, it is not surprising some conservative commentators (such as Francis Fukuyama) are starting to brand it as dangerous.
Still, until very recently, even the relatively modest idea of gene therapy has attracted expressions of concern. In this intellectual environment, the goals of transhumanism are ruled out of discussions from the start, except as targets for attack. To associate yourself with them is to be perceived as at best idiosyncratic and naive and at worst the sort of person who would happily consort with Nazi doctors and mad scientists. It is far easier to associate yourself with movements that project the picture of a caring person, dedicated to benevolence and justice.
It would be nice if opponents of transhumanism were open to rational debate. However, I have gradually been learning some important, not terribly palatable lessons. One is this: We have moved beyond the point where liberal arguments about individual freedom and personal choice have much impact. I have argued in many forums that there is little intellectual basis for laws against innovations such as human cloning, which liberals should accept as a legitimate option for those who feel a need or preference for it. It is already too late to argue in that way, at least exclusively, for the cloning debate has demonstrated again and again that transhumanism's main opponents have abandoned traditional liberal ideals. John Stuart Mill's claim that experiments in living are to be welcomed now receives short shrift in public policy. The tone and content of the debate show that we are up against a scarcely disguised wish to impose certain moral ideals as legal norms, and a fear of strange directions that society might take in the future.
Food for thought for those of us who are engaged in activism for healthy life extension, fighting anti-research legislation, and efforts to expand our community. You should read the whole thing. One final thought:
What else can we do? The main thing is simply to stand up and be counted.
Ideas are important, as is stepping up to the plate to do our part. Insofar as healthy life extension goes, I believe that the larger problems relate to misinformation and misconceptions rather than animosity towards the concept of living heathily for longer. Education - even if only a more public airing of conversations within the healthy life extension community - is thus vital. We generate new supporters by explaining healthy life extension with greater clarity and presenting it as a simple extension of current medical practices and goals: prevention, curing age-related disease and delaying degeneration where possible.
(At Betterhumans). James Hughes of the World Transhumanist Association discusses the merits of a cure for aging in the context of universal healthcare and social costs. I think he is conflating two very different ideas - the long term economic benefits resulting from extended healthy life spans are important to note, but these benefits certainly don't depend on socialism in our medical system! "Healthcare costs aren't being driven up by the simple existence of therapies or seniors. They are driven up by the need to use those therapies to treat seniors' aging-related diseases and disabilities. ... If seniors didn't get sick, they wouldn't need expensive diagnostics, drugs, treatments and nursing care."
The WTN X Prize team is accepting suggestions from the public for prize ideas. Go click on the WTN X Prize link and you will be presented with a form for submitting suggestions.
The X Prize success demonstrates that prize money can be a very effective tool for accelerating the advance of science and technology. I favor aging research prizes aimed at the development of effective rejuvenation treatments most of all. But another class of prizes that deserves support are prizes for achievements in developing new energy technologies. What would be useful milestones in the development of better energy technologies? Keep in mind that ideal milestones should be achievable by fairly small teams of engineers and scientists.
Dave Gobel of the Methuselah Foundation alerts me to the existence of a poorly publicized prize for a cheap DNA sequencer which is being offered by Craig Venter of Celera DNA sequencing fame. Venter is offering a half million dollars to the first team to produce a sequencer that can sequence an entire human genome for $1000 or less.
Dave also says that it has always been the plan for the Methuselah Foundation to offer more prizes for more goals related to rejuvenation and anti-aging therapies. Their obstacle is the need to raise the funds. They accept contributions on a web page.
The WTN X Prize initiate is a wonderful idea and I see it greatly helping the Methuselah Mouse Prize and other future prizes for longevity research. The more people who speak seriously about rejuvenation and serious anti-aging research the better - the largest obstacle in the path to the future of healthy life extension is the current lack of public support and understanding for the worthy goals of postponing age-related degeneration and extending the healthy human life span.
As a part of their annual awards, Discover is recognizing Cynthia Kenyon for her work in extending life span through genetic manipulation. "In 1993 Kenyon discovered mutant C. elegans that lived twice their normal life span of 20 days. She found the cause of their longevity: a gene called daf-2 had been turned down. She also discovered that another gene, called daf-16, promotes youthful vitality. Stimulated by this work, other researchers found that similar genes in fruit flies and mice control aging. These days Kenyon, a molecular biologist at the University of California at San Francisco, is investigating how to postpone aging in humans." Postponing aging means postponing age-related disease and frailty - a very worthwhile goal.
As reported at BioMed Central, the United Nations is once again close to banning therapeutic cloning - an effort backed by the current US administration. "A coalition of 125 scientific and patients' groups urged the United Nations on Wednesday to reject a global ban on stem cell research sought by the Bush administration and more than 50 other countries." Any ban on therapeutic cloning also blocks much of the most promising stem cell research into cures for age-related conditions. While countries like the UK are unlikely to sign, it would be a blow to supporters of freedom in scientific research. I strongly urge you to contact your elected representatives and demand that they oppose this anti-research treaty agreement.
In a long post at WorldChanging, the author opines on the implications of significantly extending the healthy human life span under a number of scenarios. Here's a paragraph made interesting in light of my recent comments on immortality and perceptions thereof:
[*I'm skirting around the otherwise obvious term "immortality" for a few reasons: I consider it inaccurate (an immortal would never die, while someone with a radically long life could still be crushed by a bus); it's mythical (that is, it's a term redolent with symbolism and non-rational implications for many people); and it's presumptuous (even if we figure out how to keep the body going indefinitely, there are still enough questions about how the mind works for me to be uncomfortable about the assumption that it could go on forever).]
For my money, I'd say that none of the offered scenarios for rejuvenative medical technology are quite what is likely to happen in the real world. The "holy fire" option is closest, though:
In this scenario, your older body is subject to a regimen of biotechnological and nanotechnological treatments that effectively "resets" you to the aforementioned healthy twentysomething body. After that, aging re-commences, and you would presumably need another aging reset half a century later.
Rejuvenation medicine of the next few decades will probably be a good deal more complex and ongoing - a mix of advanced diagnostics enabled by nanomedicine, regenerative medicine, personalized drugs, whole body gene therapies and similar treatments for other cellular mechanisms that change with age (such as telomere lengthening). It will no doubt be fairly expensive in the early years - all the more reason to start saving now.
Extending the human lifespan by 30, 50, 100, 500 years (or more) doesn't have an immediate and noticeable result.
It does for me! Not being dead or crippled by age-related degeneration is a wonderful state to be in, and I will certainly notice having a great deal more of it. That is true wealth - time and health.
On a related note, it is good to see that Aubrey de Grey's ideas regarding "acturial escape velocity" have escaped and are doing well in the wild. These are important concepts for people to grasp - that each advance in healthy life extension technology and life span means that you stand a better chance of benefiting from the next advance in line ... and the next, and the next, and so forth. The path to the far future is paved by small advances in medicine.
It's very likely that we will be the ones who get to decide how a world of radically long lives turns out. If we manage to survive the next decade, it's a good bet we'll be seeing the latter half of the twenty-first century. If we make it to 2075 (or so), it's hard to imagine researchers not having figured by then out how to live much longer still, barring some sort of planetary disaster. Radical longevity will be ours to choose, if we want it.
Developing radical life extension technology - in effect engineering an end to aging - rapidly enough to help those alive now is far from a given. As a species we are capable of many things that we have not yet accomplished. Medical research must be actively supported, funded and encouraged if it is to happen; in that sense, the future of healthy life extension is in all of our hands.
The first iteration of the Methuselah Foundation CafePress store is open. It is primarily intended - in conjunction with the Methuselah Mouse Prize Outreach Kit - to provide materials that will be helpful to volunteers and supporters. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to grow an effort like the Methuselah Mouse Prize for anti-aging research. Developing improvements that make it easier for people to talk about the prize is time well spent.
You may find one or two odds and ends - such as the Methuselah Mouse Prize poster - that you like even if you are not currently helping out at the Foundation.
In related news, we're getting close to launching that Methuselah Foundation site redesign promised back in June. Kevin Perrott was doing all the heavy lifting and it's looking really nice in beta right now.
Damage to mitochondria, our cellular powerhouses, is implicated in many age-related diseases - and thought to be one of the processes that causes aging itself. Basic mitochondrial research is thus important in the grand scheme of things. A Newswise press release notes recent advances in our understanding of mitochrondria: "Understanding the discrete molecular events that underlie dynamic mitochondrial behavior has the potential to reveal keen insights into the basic and essential cell-mitochondria relationship, leading to increased understanding of the aging process; and potential treatments and perhaps cures of those age-related scourges of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's."
A Boston Herald article suggests that Christopher Reeve's most enduring legacy will be to further inspire research into regenerative and stem cell medicine. "The particular nature of his injury and his vocal activism have brought to the forefront stem cell biology ... Christopher Reeve's death, in addition to the late President Reagan's, simply underscores the importance of this field and the need for there to be applications of stem cell biology." Christopher Reeve was one the few unarguably great men of modern times, an inspiration for patients and research advocates. He will be missed, but the wheels he set in motion continue to turn. "I think there are so many people now who have taken up the cause. It's given us so much more incentive and motivation."
(From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer). While we are on the subject of important truths, James Watson - nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA - had this to say: "To what extent research on stem cells will improve the quality of human life, I don't know, but we should be allowed to try." There is the fundamental answer to all political interference in research: we should be allowed to try. Freedom of research, just like freedom of speech and association, is vital for a progress and prosperity. Understanding stem cells - work that requires both embryonic and adult stem cell research - will lead to a real revolution in medicine. True regenerative therapies and cures for common age-related conditions are worth striving for.
A Guardian article hits on an important truth: "Social services too often treat old age as 'an illness for which there is no cure', according to research published today." While treating aging as an incurable illness on one hand, most organizations do not take the next logical step and call for research to develop therapies and a cure. Cancer was once incurable, but that state of affairs led to an enormous effort, still underway, to develop better medical technologies and effective therapies. The same is true for Alzheimer's. If we can see clearly enough to prioritize cures for specific age-related conditions, why not do the same for the root cause of degenerative conditions - the aging process itself?
It is with some sadness that I note the death of Christopher Reeve. In the decade since his injury, he became one of the most determined and influential advocates for stem cell and regenerative medicine research - an inspiration for the rest of us on many counts. I expect that the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation will continue much of his work in this area.
We pay too little attention to the deaths that occur every day, and too much attention to the deaths of celebrities. Stop and think for a moment about the tens of thousands of other people who will die today because we do not yet have working regenerative medicine, or the tens of thousands more who could be saved if we could intervene in the aging process. Each is just as much a loss of life and potential.
We must keep working towards better medicine, true regeneration, and a cure for aging.
After noting recent varieties of opposition to research likely to lead to longer, healthier lives - from Leon Kass and S. Jay Olshansky - I should say that it is good for advocates for healthy life extension and scientists working on healthy life extension technologies to engage their opponents. As Aubrey de Grey explains in a piece reprinted at the Longevity Meme:
The progress of ideas always has enormous inertia, on account of the emotional, intellectual and financial investment on the part of those who hold conventional views. Scientists, like others, find it difficult to write off that investment and embrace a new paradigm even when the argument for that new paradigm is very comprehensive. This manifests as a reluctance to consult relevant scientific literature, or even to entertain the idea that such literature is relevant in the first place. It also manifests as a preference for avoiding overt debate on such matters, since any such debate opens up the risk of being forced to acknowledge the superiority of the new paradigm. None of this is conscious, but it is a very powerful force opposing progress. In this case, the idea that reversing aging might be easier than slowing it down a bit is so counter-intuitive that many of my colleagues are inclined to dismiss it out of hand before taking the time to look at my argument in detail.
Scientists prefer to promote and discuss what they are working on. They aren't so keen to tell people that they would be working on something altogether more interesting or ambitious if only their funders had the imagination and courage to sponsor it, because that's a quick way to lose funding. Now, you might ask, why are funders so unambitious? In industry it's because of the dominance of short-term views: shareholders reward companies that can make money quickly and certainly with boring products, and so these companies will do so in preference to taking greater risks on ambitious products - even if the potential rewards are far greater. In the public sector, funders don't want to be perceived to be wasting taxpayer money on blue-sky work with no chance of success. So, the root problem here is the pessimism of voters. But, of course, that pessimism is due precisely to the public face that senior biogerontologists put on their research...
So people like Leon Kass and S. Jay Olshansky - who are prepared to debate in public to at least some extent - are far more helpful opponents for the healthy life extension community than the old guard in gerontology whose names do not end up in the press. Old, false (or just less useful) paradigms in science can only live on if their proponents avoid direct debate and the detailed examination of new ideas.
The San Francisco Chronicle has an update on polling and opinions on the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative for those of you who like to keep track of such things. More interesting to me is the reaction in New Jersey to the proposition: "On Nov. 2, if the bond referendum is approved, there is going to be a huge sucking sound heard from California -- shhhwooh. It will be the sound emitted as they pull every stem cell researcher in the U.S. to the West Coast." People involved in New Jersey efforts to found an embryonic stem cell research program are ramping up their efforts. "We're not just talking about a new field of science. It's a new industry ... New Jersey should be the center of it."
An interview (and related article) in the Straits Times accurately conveys S. Jay Olshansky's negative view on the prospects for healthy life extension research. He and biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey are on opposite ends of the spectrum - but I have yet to see Olshansky rigorously defend his claims regarding the impossibility of significant near term advances in healthy longevity. Unfortunately, viewpoints like that held by Olshansky often turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Why would anyone who holds this view seek or award funding in the area of serious anti-aging research? The prevalence of unjustifiably conservative views is a real problem within the aging research community.
Advance copies of the first Immortality Institute book, "The Scientific Conquest of Death," are now available for reviewers. From what I've seen during editing, I recommend it as a good read. The next project for the Institute is already well underway: An educational film about the healthy life extension community and the fight to cure aging. I understand that the Institute has recently obtained significant additional funding for this work from some well known members of the community, so it looks like full steam ahead with filming for the rest of the year. If you wish to be involved or interviewed, you should contact the Institute leadership before the film schedule is set in stone.
Forbes offers a reality check on the pace of stem cell research towards cures for age-related and other conditions. "Slow and steady" they say, although I'd debate the steady part of that - stem cell research has proceeded under the near-constant threat of local and national criminalization or other restrictions. The article is clear about the limitations of adult stem cells: "The greatest limitation of adult stem cells is that they can't regenerate all types of cells because they are specialized for definite cellular functions. Furthermore, it is impossible to extract certain adult stem cells, such as those that could regenerate brain tissue, without killing the donor." Overcoming these limitations requires embryonic stem cell research.
Now that we have paying advertisers, I should probably say something about our advertising policy. So here it is:
Fight Aging! does not endorse or support any product, service or cause advertised on this website. That said, we do make a reasonable effort to ensure that the sellers of pills, potions and nonsense you see written up in Quackwatch do not appear here. This is why we do not use Google Adsense or other similar automated ad-matching services. It is simply too hard to screen out the opportunists and frauds who are giving healthy life extension research a bad name.
All proceeds from advertising on Fight Aging! are donated to the Methuselah Foundation to help the Methuselah Mouse Prize for anti-aging research and other projects.
If you are interested in advertising on Fight Aging! please do contact Reason to obtain our rates and other relevant facts and figures.
As reported at Yahoo!, the X Prize Foundation and World Technology Network have launched a program to develop new research and technology prizes. By capitalizing on public support and understanding in the wake of the success of the X Prize, those involved hope to see many new industries invigorated and expanded. One such area is "aging deceleration: Extension of mammal life, or demonstrated evidence of aging reversal." As I've been saying for quite some time, serious anti-aging research is underappreciated, underfunded and will benefit greatly from an influx of research prize funding. The folks at the Methuselah Foundation and others planning similar prizes are taking note - expect more news on this front in the months ahead.
A study noted by the Life Extension Foundation News confirms what calorie restriction practitioners have been demonstrating for years: that even a little excess weight significantly raises your risk of suffering age-related conditions. "Even having a body mass index within the normal range exposed people to several serious illnesses ... men with BMIs between 22.0 and 24.4, the upper range of 'normal,' were significantly more likely to develop at least one of the weight-related illnesses than their leaner peers with BMIs between 18.5 and 21.9. Although BMIs below 25 are healthy, BMIs below 22 are healthier." Food for thought. Have you looked into calorie restriction yet?
Apparently he was instrumental in the president's ultimate decision on this matter, and now he's risen to defend a policy in shreds. Kass presents a reasoned case, but it falls apart in several places.
Ironically, though, Kass does invoke scientific opinion when it suits his argument, writing: "It is cruel to suggest that stem-cell-based therapies are 'at our fingertips' when our best scientists have made it clear that it will be at least several decades before anyone's disease or disability might be cured by this means." Well, yeah, but our best scientists are also fed up with Bush's policy and don't think it's adequate at all.
Leon Kass is a very smart guy and capable of subtle and nuanced argument. But alas, I don't find his latest defense of the Bush policy at all convincing, because it simply fails to listen to science except out of convenience.
Kass is just doing the job he was appointed to do - rubber stamp US administration restrictions on medical research.
The Bioethics Council, appointed by President Bush, is ostensibly an intellectual group that provides an "adequate moral and ethical lens through which to view particular developments in their proper scope and depth." In practice, the council is stacked with members who are strongly opposed - mostly on religious grounds - to embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, both vital to the developing field of regenerative medicine. The chairman, Leon Kass, has frequently gone on record to state his opposition to any research that would extend the healthy human life span.
The Bioethics Council is used by the current US administration to provide justification for anti-research policies that have already caused enormous damage to medical research. Despite the designed bias in the council against stem cell and therapeutic cloning research, the case for research is so strong that the council was not able to condemn it in their most recent official report, "Monitoring Stem Cell Research."
I'm hoping that the authors place far more emphasis on what we must do to attain real anti-aging medicine than on the old school health optimization techniques - based on supplements, lifestyle, and diet - that are available today. These techniques can help to optimize your natural longevity, but - with the exception of calorie restriction - nothing is proven to extend maximum life span in humans. Far too much effort is spent on tinkering with the motor oil rather than developing capabilities relating to major engine repairs...
Unfortunately, it sounds like Ray Kurzweil has been seduced by the dark side. Picking up on two items mentioned in a recent article on the book:
Kurzweil, a well-regarded scientist who invented the flatbed scanner and a reading machine for the blind, claimed his pills appear to be helping: Biological tests conducted at a clinic in Denver found his body resembles that of a man in his early forties, he claimed, rather than his true age of 56.
The claim startled many in the audience because there is no medically accepted way to measure aging. Most biological markers simply measure health.
I have to say that I'm disappointed - at least the author of the article does point out the responsible science that stands some distance from Kurzweil on these matters.
I've spoken about biomarkers and the difficulties inherent in determining the effects of potential anti-aging therapies previously here at Fight Aging! - I suggest you go and take a look. It's important to understand that many claims made in the anti-aging marketplace simply cannot be substantiated. As I've said elsewhere:
This is why a focus on medical research and funding is vital to healthy life extension. We are simply not there yet. If a tenth of the effort spent on redefining anti-aging, selling junk, or trying to optimize natural longevity was spent on the medicine of the future - like regenerative medicine or nanomedicine - just imagine where we could be by now! The medicine (and lifestyle choices like calorie restriction) that we have access to in the here and now are largely ineffective in the grand scheme of what is possible. Science can do far, far better in the long run, but getting there is going to take work, activism and support.
But back to the Kurzweil article:
He and Grossman recommend simple starches and foods low in sugar and high in anti-inflammatory agents such as fish and nuts. They advise taking all sorts of substances such as phosphatidylcholine, a cell-membrane component that people tend to lose as they age, making their skin sag.
In an interview, Kurzweil said he and Grossman also have developed their own line of products and will launch a Web site to sell them, including shake mixes and other meal-replacement products .
Such dietary supplements tend to be controversial in the medical community. David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said the only regimen that has shown real potential to slow aging to date is drastically reducing calorie intake.
I have to throw up my hands at this point. The world has more than enough people who are taking the Life Extension Foundation, A4M and similar paths. We don't need more sellers of vitamin shakes. I think that history demonstrates that when dedicated advocates for healthy life extension research start to focus on old school technologies, their fervor and original message becomes diluted and lost. They change into simple health advocates focused far more on selling largely ineffective present day technologies than supporting medical research goals for the future.
What we need are futurists like the Kurzweil who supports the Methuselah Mouse Prize for anti-aging research, the future of personalized genetic medicine and redesigning the human body for longer, healthier lives. We can do far better than vitamin shakes - but if we never convince people to look beyond pills, then the research necessary to win the fight against aging may never happen.
Forbes reports on what seems to be an important step forward in stem cell research - identifying the signalling molecules used by embryonic stem cells to spur growth and regeneration. As one scientist notes: "It is a little puzzling that we often get a relatively low number of cells that are incorporated in the damaged area, and yet get robust repair outcomes. In addition to replacing damaged cells, stem cells must bring something new with them." This may be the same or a similar mechanism by which adult stem cell therapies have accomplished regeneration. Many scientists in this area are hotly engaged in founding commercial ventures - and are thus not as forthcoming as they might be about the details of their work.
A wide-ranging overview article from BusinessWeek touches on many of the current areas of interest to healthy life extension advocates - if from the outsider's perspective. Centenarian studies, calorie restriction research, genetics and public policy are all given some thought. "Dr. Donald K. Ingram, head of the experimental gerontology lab at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), concedes it could be a decade or more before there is a fundamental breakthrough on life extension, and there may be considerable risks in tampering with the aging process. Nevertheless, he says, 'I think the discovery of some agent that would increase life span by 20 to 30 years is not unreasonable.'" This is now the moderate conservative viewpoint - which means that scientists like Aubrey de Grey have been making progress.
As noted at MSNBC, "a pill that could extend life by 10 years or more would surely dwarf sales of just about any other drug on the market." But how do you know that the substance you are working on actually extends life by 10 years? "Guarente says [Elixir Pharmaceutical's] initial product likely won't be an anti-aging pill, simply because it would be too difficult to ever win approval for such a drug - clinical trials could well take 70 years." The FDA and similar agencies make it impossible for companies in the US and many other countries to market real healthy life extension medicine - not that anyone has any such thing yet. This regulatory environment ensures that large companies won't fund the most promising longevity research.
Embryonic stem cell research is making progress despite legislative attacks, it seems - without political interference, we could have been much further ahead by now. Reuters AlertNet reports that UK company ReNeuron is claiming success in repairing stroke damage in rats "and plans to start testing on humans by the end of next year." The company is currently seeking funding to enable development of therapies based on their stem cell work and "also hopes to use stem cells to treat other diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and Parkinson's disease." With recent news from elsewhere in the world, it sounds like a variety of human trials for various embryonic stem cell therapies will be starting up in 2005 and 2006.
A very readable (even for the non-scientists amongst us) PDF review article on calorie restriction was pointed out on the CR Society mailing list recently. It dates from 2003, and gives a good account of research and scientific understanding of calorie restriction up until that point.
Calorie restriction (CR) extends life span and retards age-related chronic diseases in a variety of species, including rats, mice, fish, flies, worms, and yeast. The mechanism or mechanisms through which this occurs are unclear. CR reduces metabolic rate and oxidative stress, improves insulin sensitivity, and alters neuroendocrine and sympathetic nervous system function in animals. Whether prolonged CR increases life span (or improves biomarkers of aging) in humans is unknown. In experiments of nature, humans have been subjected to periods of nonvolitional partial starvation. However, the diets in almost all of these cases have been of poor quality. The absence of adequate information on the effects of good-quality, calorie-restricted diets in nonobese humans reflects the difficulties involved in conducting long-term studies in an environment so conducive to overfeeding. Such studies in free-living persons also raise ethical and methodologic issues. Future studies in nonobese humans should focus on the effects of prolonged CR on metabolic rate, on neuroendocrine adaptations, on diverse biomarkers of aging, and on predictors of chronic age-related diseases.
Those of us who are at least passingly familiar with the latest research into calorie restriction might be surprised by just how far scientists have come in the short time since this paper was written.
As the US presidential election - and the California ballot vote - draws near, the political debate over embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning enters its endgame for the year. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan summarizes and comments in an MSNBC article. While he focuses on federal funding restrictions, he does note - unlike most commentators - the much more serious matter of continued efforts to ban therapeutic cloning. Therapeutic cloning is an essential technology for much of the most promising research into regenerative medicine. Threatened anti-research legislation in the US and at the UN has scared away private funding and greatly damaged prospects for early breakthroughs in this field.
The mission of the ImmInst Film Project is to create a realistic impression of the scientific pursuit of healthy Life Extension. The goal is to produce and distribute a scientific documentary for educational purposes. The film will include authors from the ImmInst book The Scientific Conquest of Death and other individuals who are working to advance the life extension movement.
The backers have been generous for this project, and I'm looking forward to seeing the outcome - I might even be in danger of ending up on film sometime next month. You never know.
You can read the latest posts from Bruce Klein on his travels with a camera in the last page of a long thread in the Immortality Institute forum.
Arnold Kling, in an article at Tech Central Station, tells us that "technophysio evolution is the ability of the human species to lengthen its lifespan. This has dramatic effects on the need for saving." He then proceeds to outline the weaker case for reform of social security (and similar wealth transfer programs) based on a very modest increase in life span and existing problems in this largest of Ponzi schemes. However, as I have noted at Fight Aging!, the entire nature of retirement will be changed through the technologies of radical life extension. Existing wealth transfer systems are doomed to failure, but this is a good thing! In exchange, the old regain health, vitality and the ability to be productive citizens once more.
The latest Longevity Meme newsletter provides a good summary of the best of recent posts to the Fight Aging! blog. We've been watching the scientific debate over programmed aging and examining the financial calculations behind research prizes like the Methuselah Mouse Prize - amongst other topics. "If you put the pieces together, it would seem that a $62.5 million research prize can inspire enough funding to crack all the fundamental technological hurdles to intervening in the aging process - the groundwork to produce the medicine of radical life extension. How do we arrive at this figure? Take a look and see." If you're not reading Fight Aging! or haven't signed up for the newsletter then you're certainly missing out.
The Toronto Star reports on the efforts of tissue engineerers to grow the components of hearts, one piece at a time. "When you are born you have a certain number of heart cells. They get bigger but they really don't grow. So if a person's heart is damaged ideally we'd like to take a sample of their heart tissue, expand it and develop living heart cells' paths with their own tissue." Growing replacements for complex organs like the heart from a patient's own cells is the grail of current tissue engineering research. The ability to replace age-damaged organs or tissue as required offers the possibility of greatly extended healthy life spans.
Scientists - the people who know the most about what they are doing, and are therefore the best qualified to make choices - should decide on whether and how to persue stem cell research:
With presidential contender Senator John Kerry set to deliver a major speech today on stem cell research, the readers of Bio-IT World have also weighed in on the topic: 82 percent of respondents to a recent Bio-IT World poll say scientists should play the primary the major role in determining policy around the use of stems cell issues.
I think that this is an important point that gets glossed over in most discussions of politics. Why do we let politicians - who rarely know enough or even bother to find out the facts about the fields they interfere in - make important decisions? In a sensible, decentralized society, the people who know the most about any given subject would be making local decisions on how to proceed. This seems far better to me.
On a related topic, I was pointed to a good article on embryonic stem cell research, blastocysts, minds and personhood today. It's a sensible expression of common sense and well worth reading:
I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. But like Ponnuru, I enjoy philosophy and know that it depends upon terminological clarity. So let me state my position -- not necessarily that of everyone who defends ESC -- very clearly: a microscopic ball of undifferentiated cells is not a person.
My criteria for personhood would at the very least, though, entail that an entity have a mind. There is a reason, after all, that we think someone who loses an arm is still a person while someone who loses a head ceases to be one, and it's not just the fact that it's much harder to keep someone's heart and lungs pumping when he loses his head. It's that his mind -- which is what made him a person rather than just a big lump of flesh and blood -- is gone. You might hear people say, "He lost his leg, but thank goodness he survived!" I submit that you will never hear even the most ardent pro-lifer say, "His head was destroyed, but thank goodness he survived!" (not even in an era in which a headless body could be kept "alive" indefinitely on machines).
If minds are important, then there is an important and very real moral gulf between a walking, talking human being and a microscopic, mindless, nervous-system-less, undifferentiated ball of a few dozen cells. An argument could be made, using my premises, that a sufficiently developed fetus, with nerves and an incipient brain and the ability to feel pain, is a person and deserves protection -- but that is not the state of affairs with a newly-fertilized egg cell, or a blastocyst in the crucial early days, which is precisely when ESC researchers are interested in them. Since it is precisely undifferentiated cells that scientists want to use, there is no plausible slippery-slope danger of scientists saying "the next logical step is to carve up five-month-old fetuses, and then nine-year-old children" -- it is, by definition, those as yet undifferentiated cells that scientists are after for ESC research purposes.
Now that we've established a research prize with the final value of $62.5 million would likely generate on the order of $1 billion in research investments over the course of a decade, and that $1 billion is projected to be sufficient to develop the necessary medical breakthroughs for radical life extension, we can look at what is now the big, important question: how do we obtain $62.5 million?
The $10 million is backed by a "hole-in-one" insurance policy, similar to those taken out by golf courses for tournaments. In recent years, the premiums have been paid from contributions made by two Iranian-born telecom entrepreneurs: Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir Ansari. Both have said they would someday want to take spaceflights themselves.
"I'm on cloud nine," Anousheh Ansari said Sunday.
The insurance company may not be so enthusiastic. Diamandis declined to name the company, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch identified it as an insurance practice group within Bermuda-based XL Capital.
The insurance company has a representative on the judging team, and Diamandis was confident that there would be no snags, thanks to the "tremendous amount of advance work done with the insurance company and the judges and Scaled [Composites]."
The premiums are no doubt hefty and will become even higher for future research prizes if this one is won, as is looking likely. Examine your own insurance premiums and coverage to get some idea of the figures we would be talking about. Still, this is a good strategy for a prize that can involves a particular deadline and clearly defined event, like the X Prize. It allows you to name a big attractive sum of money at the outset and reduces the funding problems to paying insurance premiums.
Medical research is a different proposition, however, and the Methuselah Mouse Prize is structured as a rolling contest. Competing teams win a fraction of the total purse with each advance in healthy life span in laboratory mice. The larger the advance, the more they win.
In theory, one could step up with a $62.5 million prize for Aubrey de Grey's proposed first goal in mouse longevity:
The degree of control that I consider sufficient is the ability to take a cohort of mice of a strain whose normal life expectancy is three years, do nothing to them until they are two years old, and get them to live an average of three more years, i.e. tripling their remaining life expectancy.
Reaching this goal would take most of a decade, however, and the cost is beyond the reach of all but the largest organizations. An organization big enough to throw $1 billion at the problem - or even a sizeable fraction of that amount - is not going to be influenced into doing so by a mere $62.5 million. Large organizations are risk averse; they don't enter the game until the risky process of basic research is done and in the bag. When Merck and Pfizer start working on radical life extension treatments, we will have essentially already won - but that day is still a long way away.
A medical research prize like the Methuselah Mouse Prize is really aimed at energizing smaller organizations and groups - ones that can collaborate and compete to make small gains that add up over time. If each small gain is rewarded, then the incentives favor the sort of organizations we see doing the riskier, more speculative work in basic medical research.
So where do we get that $62.5 million? If we take a look at a PDF chart of donations to the largest US charities in 2000, or a much more in-depth report for 2003 from the NonProfit Times, you can see that the largest organizations take in many times this amount in a single year. So it's quite possible to take the traditional path of growing a nonprofit organization around the job of gathering donations for the Methuselah Mouse Prize, and this is the current strategy followed by the Methuselah Foundation.
If there is sufficient interest, I can elaborate on nonprofit strategies for raising large sums of money - and the strategies of the Methuselah Foundation - in a future post.
CBS News reports on the current state of research in regards to isolating adult stem cells from body fat. "To be sure, the research into fat-derived cells is still in very early stages and many questions remain. Katz, in fact, says he's not even convinced the cells deserve to be called stem cells, because he's not sure they really do turn into other kinds of cells when transplanted into the body. Nonetheless, he says they do show promise for being used someday to treat disease." Like previous work on adult stem cells and heart repair, there are open questions as to how this regeneration is accomplished. It does seem to work, however, and it's certainly a lot easier to harvest fat than bone marrow.
A long article from Israel21c has more on the use of stem cells to correct heart rate. "The versatile cells can serve as 'biological pacemakers', correcting faulty heart rhythms when injected into the failing hearts of pigs ... The Israeli breakthrough could result in developments that would offer relief for hundreds of thousands of people around the world who now use artificial pacemakers to regulate the beating of their heart." The researchers used human embryonic stem cells for this work, but even so there is still a fair way to go before human trials could begin. The team is also looking beyond this specific use: "One of our next focuses is trying to improve the function of the heart after a major heart attack."
While the possibilities offered by advanced nanomedicine in the decades ahead are staggering, the business community prefers to focus branding efforts on present and near future technologies. Thus new drugs, delivery techniques and diagnostic tools that make use of advances in nanoscale manufacturing and manipulation now come under the nanomedicine umbrella. There are some impressive advances already in this early nanomedicine. Vastly improved diagnostic capabilities make a big difference to patient outcomes, for example. Many of the major killers - heart disease, cancer, and so forth - can be successfully prevented or treated even now if risk factors and symptoms are caught early on.
So, given the projected $1 billion price tag for developing the necessary techniques for radical life extension in a mouse model, how big would the Methuselah Mouse Prize have to be in order to inspire this level of research funding?
The $10 million Ansari X Prize has generated something like $160 million in research investment in a field with traditionally high barriers to entry. If the ratio in serious anti-aging research is also 16:1, then the Methuselah Mouse Prize fund would have to stand at $62.5 million in order to generate $1 billion in competing funding.
This is a large figure, but not an unreasonably large figure. Now that the Ansari X Prize is almost won, interested parties in the aerospace industry are proposing a $50 million prize for the goal of privately developed orbital spacecraft. This progression from nothing to the $10 million X Prize to the $50 million America's Space Prize has taken place over only seven years, alongside the growth of an industry.
I misstated the projected research cost of Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) in a recent post. If we take a look at a breakdown of the proposed "Manhattan Project" to prototype all the technologies needed for radical life extension in mice and an interview at the Longevity Meme:
The type of work I hope the prize will encourage is late-onset interventions to repair or obviate accumulated molecular and cellular changes in already aged mice. This is the sort of research that is most relevant for human use. The seven treatments I mentioned earlier should, in combination, allow us to take two-year-old mice with a normal life expectancy of three years and make them live at least three more healthy years. This would certainly be something!
This goal should be possible within about 10 years with adequate funding, which I estimate at no more than US$100 million per year. Unlike the numbers for humans, I'm confident of this 10-year prediction because there are no arbitrarily hard problems to solve. In the case of human healthy life extension, safety matters mean that there are unknown levels of difficulty associated with research, particularly where it relates to gene therapy.
To translate work in mice to work in humans might require as much as ten times this level of funding - an educated guess at best, however. Regulatory hurdles for medical technology are onerous, and things always turn out to be more complicated than first anticipated. Still, $10 billion is a great deal of money if used wisely, and there is every reason to think that the scientific community could achieve radical life extension in humans when funded to this level.
Medical News Today reports that Advanced Cell Technology is to set up a laboratory for embryonic stem cell research in California. You may recall their recent success in deriving retinal cells from human embryonic stem cells and an proposed two year timeline for human trials to cure blindness. Advanced Cell Technology is a deliberately high-profile company - you can be sure that many more private research concerns are planning or making the same move, but without the accompanying fanfare and press release. This movement of resources is the expected result of a less restricted and less uncertain political environment. Just imagine what could be accomplished in absence of any political interference!
Scientific American takes a look at the state of stem cell research politics in the wake of a panel held earlier this week. Federal research funding, recent developments from Advanced Cell Technology and California Proposition 71 take center stage. The current US administration looks to be set on continuing its opposition to embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. The attempted bans on therapeutic cloning have caused great harm to private funding prospects over the past few years. Opponents of freedom in scientific research continue to display a callous disregard for the ongoing daily death toll from age-related conditions.