LONGEVITY MEME NEWSLETTER
April 04 2005
The Longevity Meme Newsletter is a weekly e-mail containing news, opinions and happenings for people interested in healthy life extension: making use of diet, lifestyle choices, technology and proven medical advances to live healthy, longer lives.
- (Almost) Live From BIOMEDEX
- Fear of Change and the Human Condition
- Latest Healthy Life Extension Headlines
(ALMOST) LIVE FROM BIOMEDEX
April Smith, Methuselah Foundation fundraiser, was at the BIOMEDEX biotech show last week. Aubrey de Grey and S. Jay Olshansky both gave presentations on longevity and aging at the event - not quite a debate, unfortunately. There will be video of Aubrey de Grey's presentation online in due course, so stay tuned. April Smith found the time to compose a pair of entertaining and informative posts:
"Olshansky didn't take de Grey on when it comes to biology. Instead he tried to convince the audience that radically extended lifespans should not be our goal. Rather, he suggested that we should focus on three things: a) Improving public health b) postponing the period of time when people are in age-related decline c) improving people's functioning right now. ... Now here's where I disagree with Dr. Olshansky: While I think that we should be putting energy and public health into ending obesity, I don't think that we should do that to the exclusion of focusing medical research dollars on a real cure for aging. And I don't think that talking about the foreseeability of radical anti-aging medicine is going to discourage people from taking on the obesity crisis."
Quite. We stand at a very important point in the history of medical research; for the first time we are within reach of intervening meaningfully in the aging process. We should jump at the chance; if we don't direct major funding towards directed anti-aging research then all of us reading this newsletter today will age, suffer and die. That would not be good - and I don't think it becomes any better if we're all thin when it happens.
As always, you can read more about Aubrey de Grey's proposals for the future of serious anti-aging research at his Cambridge University website:
FEAR OF CHANGE AND THE HUMAN CONDITION
Is there no state of being so bad that it outweighs the fear of change that lurks in the dark corners of the human condition? A round of articles hit the press in the last week - with titles like "Longevity is Killing Us" and "The Coming Death Shortage" (I wish I were joking about that one, trust me) - to suggest that extending the healthy human life span is a horrible, terrible thing. You can peruse these dubious works of art and my comments at the following pages:
Advocacy is an inherently frustrating business at the best of times, but never more so than when watching intelligent people arguing for age-related death and suffering as the very epitome of existence. Their points and convolutions could just as well have been made about the consequences of future progress in medical science back in 1900 - we've made great strides since then and the world doesn't seem to have ended, nor has society fallen apart at the seams. One might even go so far as to suggest that the lot of the average person has been greatly improved, and that further improvement lies ahead:
Change is good - especially change brought by improvements in medicine and the lengthening of lives. It is saddening that so many people do not believe this to be the case.
The highlights and headlines from the past week follow below.
Remember - if you like this newsletter, the chances are that your friends will find it useful too. Forward it on, or post a copy to your favorite online communities. Encourage the people you know to pitch in and make a difference to the future of health and longevity!
Founder, Longevity Meme
LATEST HEALTHY LIFE EXTENSION HEADLINES
Structure And Control Of Sirtuins (April 03 2005)
ScienceDaily reports on progress in understanding how sirtuin enzymes - connected to longevity, metabolism and the mechanisms of calorie restriction - work and can be controlled. "Molecules that mimic nicotinamide and block sirtuin's activity might be useful in treating diabetes, based on Puigserver's recent discoveries. Or the structural clues could be used to do the opposite, to turn up sirtuin's activity, which might restart a tumor suppressor gene called p53 that is erroneously shut off in many cancers. But those are just two examples." One of the reasons this research is funded is that it can be presented as the search for cures rather than the search for longevity - sadly, the stigma is still there for serious anti-aging science.
Our Good Old Days (April 03 2005)
In the wake of a number of truly terrible op-ed pieces on increasing longevity, here is a somewhat better column from the Observer. "Certainly there are challenges ahead as lives lengthen. Pensions, for example, need a radical rethink ... But is this really so dreadful, so long as it is introduced fairly? We enjoy longer lives and better health than our grandparents, and continuing in work gives you a better income ... The building of a society that celebrates age is not an act of charity. Combating ageism and its ills is not about 'them and us' - it's 'us and us'. You will be old too. Bend the ears of politicians now and we will all share the benefits. We owe it not only to ourselves but to the generations before us, who fought to overcome the scourge of early death so that we now enjoy the right to become old."
Aging Science At The Smithsonian (April 02 2005)
Steven Austad is one of the speakers in a six week series of public presentations on aging science at the Smithsonian, starting later this month. While not focused on longevity per se, it's a good example of the way in which longevity and the possibilities of healthy life extension seep into any discussion of aging research. It is also a good example of the degree to which mainstream gerontology and aging research is walled off from any discussion of using this research as a platform for serious anti-aging studies. This has always seemed a little silly - if we're not studying aging because we want to do something about it, then why do the research in the first place?
Towards Artificial Eyes (April 02 2005)
As biotechnology and regenerative medicine advances, scientists are also making strides in the development of complex prosthetics and other artifical replacements for age-damaged body parts. As RxPG News reports, the quest to develop an artifical eye is closer to fruition than you might imagine. Researchers have "published a design of an optoelectronic retinal prosthesis system that can stimulate the retina with resolution corresponding to a visual acuity of 20/80 - sharp enough to orient yourself toward objects, recognize faces, read large fonts, watch TV and, perhaps most important, lead an independent life. The researchers hope their device may someday bring artificial vision to those blind due to retinal degeneration. They are testing their system in rats, but human trials are at least three years away."
Calorie Restriction In The Economist (April 01 2005)
The Economist discusses recent research into calorie restriction, suggesting that even small reductions in calorie intake have potentially large effects on an organism. "Their [study] suggests that significant gains in longevity might be made by a mere 5% reduction in calorie intake. The study was done on mice rather than people. But the ubiquity of previous calorie-restriction results suggests the same outcome might well occur in other species, possibly including humans. However, you would have to fast on alternate days." Full-press calorie restriction can only extend healthy life span by 30% or so in mice, so my definition of "significant" may be different - but still, interesting research.
Massachusetts Legislative Update (April 01 2005)
(From Boston.com). It seems that legislation to approve embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning will pass in Massachusetts. "The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that promotes embryonic stem cell research in the Bay State, rejecting by a veto-proof margin Governor Mitt Romney's attempt to prohibit a research technique that involves the cloning of human cells." The state Senate has already approved a similar bill by an equally large margin. "Scientists in Massachusetts are already doing embryonic stem cell research. But the bill would remove the current requirement that the researchers get approval from the local district attorney to work with embryos, and would give the state Department of Public Health some regulatory control over their research."
Oh No! Living Longer, How Terrible! (March 31 2005)
You'll find a real classic of anti-longevity sentiment at the Washington Dispatch. Living longer, healthier lives, how terrible some people think it would be! Despite years of advocacy and education, many basic errors in thinking about healthy life extension (and society and economics in general for that matter) remain widespread, especially amongst the wonks concerned with social security. This one in particular doesn't seem to understand that longer lives mean longer, healthier lives - and more years of work and savings. The underlying sentiment that it is better for people to suffer and die than to change a broken system is distressingly common. Change happens - in this case, wonderful change leading to longer lives and healthier people. Be prepared for the future and you'll do just fine.
More On Thyroxine Research (March 31 2005)
The BBC has more on recent research into metabolism, healthy life extension and the hormone thyroxine. While the potential of an improved metabolism to lead to a somewhat extended healthy life span is demonstrated by calorie restriction, tinkering with thyroxine on an ad hoc basis - as for any hormone - seems to be a potentially dangerous proposition. "We know thyroxine affects your metabolic rate. The key is getting the right dose. ... Having an over-active thyroid gland puts you at a three-fold risk of potentially fatal heart disorders and a three to four-fold risk of osteoporosis. An over-active thyroid causes considerable morbidity in the ageing population. ... he warned people who had even a slightly higher level of thyroxine were at risk of ill health."
Current Longevity Research (March 30 2005)
The Indian Express surveys the better known longevity research currently taking place around the world: genetic engineering, calorie restriction mimetics and various means of preventing damage caused by free radicals produced by our metabolism. What all these strands of research have in common is that they are most likely not the best way forward to a cure for aging. While this research may lead to a few decades of extended healthy life span by slowing age-related degeneration, it do not go anywhere near as far as is thought to be possible. Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey argues, for example, that it is at least as easy to reverse aging as it is to simply slow it.
A Cure For Arthritis? (March 30 2005)
Nature reports that scientists have brought osteoarthritis, an all too common age-related condition, to a halt in mice: "The researchers investigated a family of enzymes, called aggrecanases, that are thought to contribute to osteoarthritis by chewing up a vital component of cartilage that makes it tough and elastic. The teams showed that mice genetically engineered to lack a working form of one such enzyme, ADAMTS5, seem impervious to arthritis. ... Various enzymes come and go and all turn out to be dead ends. But now we might be on to something. ... The researchers are particularly hopeful because the mice lacking the working enzyme showed no signs of problems elsewhere in their bodies."
Pluripotent Stem Cells Everywhere (March 29 2005)
Betterhumans notes more progress in the discovery and manipulation of pluripotent adult stem cells. "Stem cells from hair follicles can develop into neurons, muscle and more, suggesting that hair is a potent and accessible source of cells for regenerating tissues." Judging from progress to date, I would expect to see more reserves of potentially very useful stem cells found in the adult body - research into regenerative medicine should benefit accordingly. Therapies most likely to be accelerated by this and similar lines of research are those aiming to replace comparatively small populations of damaged cells in the body - good examples of the type are cures for age-related diabetes or Parkinson's.
Why Cryonics? (March 29 2005)
You'll find a good essay on the history, practice and science of cryonics over at Kuro5hin. "Together, function and structure allow for life. Cryonics does not preserve all biological functions - vital functions like brain activity and heart-beat are over when modern medicine pronounces a person dead. But cryonics does preserve structure, and this is what makes it so important as a life-saving procedure. It may seem fanciful that death can be stopped as a result of cryonics, but the practice has scientific support." Cryonics is an experiment with an uncertain chance of success - but it is the best option open for the unfortunate millions who will die from age-related degeneration before real anti-aging medicine can be developed and deployed.
Recent Progeria Research (March 28 2005)
KeralaNext.com provides a good summary of recent research into Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, a condition of greatly accelerated aging. The genetic cause was recently identified - this offers hope for a cure in the years ahead, as well as increased understanding of the normal aging process. "Low levels of HDL, or the 'good' cholesterol, play a role in the development of heart disease in children with progeria. ... Dr. Smoot said that the next step in research will be to understand the relationship between the lamin A protein and HDL cholesterol levels. Such research, she said, could have 'huge implications for everybody. Aging and heart disease are the two most significant issues for most people in Western society, so anything we learn along the way might provide clues for the general population.'"
Your Financial Future And Longevity (March 28 2005)
The Financial Times is running an alternately insightful and obtuse article on increasing longevity and what that means for personal finance and over-regulated pension or social security schemes. As is all too common in this sort of article, increased longevity is presented as a bad thing due to the changes it will bring. Living healthily for longer, how terrible the bean counters think it would be! This is an excellent example of the way in which systems come to be given more weight and priority than the people they are supposed to serve. The lesson here is to plan your future under the assumption that the idiots in charge do not have your best interests in mind and are not going to be around to pick up the pieces.