LONGEVITY MEME NEWSLETTER
August 29 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.
- Klotho Unbound - Another Longevity Gene
- The Timescale of Research
- Latest Healthy Life Extension Headlines
KLOTHO UNBOUND - ANOTHER LONGEVITY GENE
As I'm sure many of you noticed, given all the media attention last week, a new gene has been added to the short list of known ways to extend life span in mice. Overexpression of the klotho gene extends life span by 20-30%, in the same ballpark as calorie restriction, and quite possibly through similar or overlapping effects on metabolism. See the following Fight Aging! post for more details:
The klotho gene has been known and associated with the aging process since 1998 or so, but only in the sense that it had been first correlated with life span in humans and then used to produce accelerated aging in mice. As a general rule, accelerated aging in laboratory animals does not excite gerontologists - there are many known mechanisms by which this can be achieved, and very few of them can be turned around to extend life span. Klotho has joined a fairly small and select club in this respect.
The new results for the klotho gene should be of great interest to those parts of the research community already engaged in work on metabolism and longevity, such as groups working on the science of calorie restriction. I, for one, look forward to seeing how long klotho mice can live in good health when calorie restricted - I'm sure a number of researchers are already working on that grant proposal.
Now to be the curmudgeon: studies like this are chiefly of use in illuminating the biochemical mechanisms of aging and metabolism. There is no such thing as useless information in cellular biochemistry, but practical anti-aging medicine for those of us who have burned through two-thirds or more of our life already will probably not come from comparatively modest tweaks - genetic or otherwise - to metabolic processes. All these do is slow the rate at which age-related damage accumulates, something that decreases in utility the later in our lives it starts.
So: do we encourage metabolic science aimed at slowing aging, or do we encourage work on technologies capable of reversing or halting aging later in life? This is something of a false choice, since we can certainly do both, but I wouldn't want people to think that klotho represents enormous progress towards extended life spans in those humans reading this newsletter today. Most likely it doesn't, but it is a step in the right direction in the sense that it opens the door to an increased understanding of aging. It is worth thinking about your own, personal priorities for the future of healthy life extension medicine, however. For an argument that we already know enough to get started on developing methods of reversing and repairing the effects of aging, klotho or no klotho, you might want to look at the work of biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey:
THE TIMESCALE OF RESEARCH
It took seven years to travel from the initial association of the klotho gene with aging and life span through several rounds of grant writing, mouse breeding and research to the present day. If you look at another topical branch of research, that aimed at enabling mammals to heal more like lizards, you'll see that it also has a seven or eight year history from initial laboratory work through to breeding transgenic mice that can regrow toes, tails and portions of other organs. More on those transgenic mice and the prospects for bringing limb regrowth to humans here:
Do limb-regrowing, organ-healing mice live longer? We'll have to wait and see. But this should give you a sense of just how long it takes to get things done in longevity research, even in this modern world of bioinformatics, simulated cells and ever faster science:
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
Michael Rose On Calorie Restriction (August 28 2005)
(From Reuters AlertNet). Biologist Michael Rose, known for his work on aging in flies, is a calorie restriction (CR) skeptic, it would seem. He and John Phelan have developed a mathematical model that predicts a "lifetime of low-calorie dieting would only extend human life span by about 7 percent, unlike smaller animals, whose life spans are affected more by the effects of starvation. ... Longevity is not a trait that exists in isolation; it evolves as part of a complex life history, with a wide range of underpinning physiological mechanisms involving, among other things, chronic disease processes." I'm sure this will kick off another active discussion on just how to measure the effects of calorie restriction on human longevity without waiting and counting years, but it's safe to say that the numerous health benefits of CR are well proven.
As In Lizards, So In Mice (August 28 2005)
Very good news for the branch of regenerative medicine that attempts to mimic the ability of certain lizards to regenerate entire body parts. The Australian reports that researchers "have created 'miracle mice' that can regenerate amputated limbs or damaged vital organs, making them able to recover from injuries that would kill or permanently disable normal animals. The experimental animals are unique among mammals in their ability to regrow their heart, toes, joints and tail. And when cells from the test mouse are injected into ordinary mice, they too acquire the ability to regenerate." It appears that this is "controlled by about a dozen genes. Professor Heber-Katz says she is still researching the genes' exact functions, but it seems almost certain humans have comparable genes." Wow. Full details to be presented at the SENS conference.
Stem Cell Therapy For Heart Attacks (August 27 2005)
Mrytle Beach Online carries wire reporting on an first generation adult stem cell therapy for heart attack victims practiced in Japan: "The patient's heart function recovered to the extent that he could live without the artificial heart. ... Under the treatment, bone marrow cells are extracted then transplanted into the damaged ventricle of the heart. ... Researchers are still unsure how bone marrow cells transplanted into the heart work. Further studies are needed to determine whether stem cells contained in bone marrow transform into cardiac muscle cells or blood vessel cells, or whether stem cells simply assist cardiac muscle cells to develop." They seem set to carry on: "I believe that we've established a treatment that is safe and side-effect free. The treatment will save patients who are unsuitable for transplants. We intend to use this treatment in clinical practice."
The Diseases Of Civilization (August 27 2005)
From Medical News Today, a concise explanation as to why excess food and inactivity are very bad for our healthy and life span. "Human beings are genetically adapted to conditions of scanty and irregular nutrition. In case of food abundance this advantage turned into a significant part of population's predisposition to 'diseases of civilization'. ... During the era of civilization, the major part of mankind passed to abundant nutrition without starvation periods which were quite natural previously and without significant spending of muscular energy." This change in usage of the complex biochemical machinery of our bodies leads to common age-related disease, suffering and shortened life spans. Fortunately, all of this is within our ability to control - exercise, supplementation and calorie restriction are your friends.
Klotho Revisited (August 26 2005)
MSNBC has one of the better popular articles on the latest study of the Klotho gene in mice. Those of you with longer memories may recall that Klotho was first associated with longevity and the aging process - in both humans and mice - a few years ago. Now scientists have established that overexpression of Klotho in mice extends life span by a good 20-30%. "You have lots of ways to shorten the life of an animal, but it's hard to get an animal to live longer. You can kick a radio to make it not work so well, but it's hard to make it work better. It's quite a wonderful discovery." A curmudgeonly caution: this, like calorie restriction research, is basically a way of tuning our complex metabolic machinery for better performance over time. It's not anti-aging medicine to the level of SENS or similar proposals.
Fear Of Death And Muddled Thinking (August 26 2005)
Robin Hanson has put up an interesting PDF-format paper on how the fear of death leads people to do precisely the wrong things to extend their healthy life spans. "Humans clearly have trouble thinking about death. This trouble is often invoked to explain behavior like delays in writing wills or buying life insurance, or interest in odd medical and religious beliefs. But the problem is far worse than most people imagine. Fear of death makes us spend fifteen percent of our wealth on medicine, from which we get little or no health benefit, while we neglect things like exercise, which offer large health benefits." People are also failing to understand and support the best branches of research into working anti-aging medicine - lack of foresight and planning for the future in this matter is not good.
Wired On Calorie Restriction (August 25 2005)
Wired is carrying a mixed article on calorie restriction (CR); while they managed to find my comments at Fight Aging! on Aubrey de Grey's views of CR, it seems they missed the human studies demonstrating impressive health benefits. Sadly, the piece fixates on the normal (circa 2000, that is) mainstream media talking points related to eating less for health reasons. Still, CR is making headway in public awareness: "With the oldest members of the baby boomer generation about to turn 60, demographic trend watchers aren't surprised to see a rise in interest surrounding diet and health pursuits associated with extending life expectancy ... caloric restriction, an age-extending technique that has been shown to work quite well on mice and other organisms, is an increasingly popular option."
The Slow Spread Of Ideas (August 25 2005)
The ideas of healthy life extension - and the notion that we are close to greatly extending the healthy human life span, if only the funding were there - arrive but slowly in some quarters. The Washington Post illustrates this point with an article on changes in retirement and work at later ages - miniscule changes in the grand scheme of what is to come, but still unwelcome news to some people. I think this fact illustrates the current set of problems well: "In the late 1920s, the chief actuary of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. put a cap of 65 on life expectancy." The same blindness to advancing medical technology - even in the absence of major investment in the development of working anti-aging medicine - is at work now. Change is coming, and since it'll involve longer, healthier lives, how can it be bad?
The Long Tomorrow (August 25 2005)
Researcher Michael Rose's new book is out, entitled "The Long Tomorrow, How Advances in Evolutionary Biology Can Help Us Postpone Aging." From the blurb: "The conquest of aging is now within our grasp. It hasn't arrived yet, [but] a scientific juggernaut has started rolling and is picking up speed. A long tomorrow is coming. ... Michael Rose is more qualified than anyone currently working in the field of aging to write about the evolutionary development of aging in biological organisms, and he presents us here with a clear, easy-to-digest overview of the field. We meet the leaders and the busy-bee scientists; the believers and the nay-sayers. His final summary of the possibilities for postponing human aging is one of the most accurate and believable to appear in recent years." You may recall that Rose penned one of the essays in the Immortality Institute's "Scientific Conquest of Death."
The State of Stem Cell Funding (August 24 2005)
Ronald Bailey takes a US-focused look at the state of funding for stem cell research in his latest piece for Reason Online. Many proposals for comparatively large-scale state funding programs are under discussion, but very little has actually been accomplished yet, even in those states where the proposals passed. Par for the course in public funding; waste, expensive battles and slow progress. Private and philanthropic funding - always underreported, since finding out about it requires actual work on the part of journalists - is starting to pick up, however, now that the political environment is slightly less openly hostile. "For example, the Starr Foundation is providing $50 million over three years for human embryonic stem-cell research at three New York City medical institutions."
We Will Live Longer (August 24 2005)
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports on comments from Leroy Hood, founder of the Institute for Systems Biology: "Hood is predicting that technology and medicine will improve within two decades to increase a person's life by 10 to 20 years. ... It takes five years for people to get anything. The first few times they hear it, they can think of a thousand reasons why it's wrong. Then, after they've heard it a few more times, it starts to sound more logical. If you're a missionary, you've got to be patient with your congregation. We are at the very beginning stages of thinking about this. ... You see what drives the change? Technology. If we invent the technologies that enable this, everything else gets dragged right along. That is one of the fundamental rules of civilization. I think it will make medicine less costly, infinitely more efficient. I think within 20 to 25 years, we'll be living productively 10 to 20 years longer."
Exercise Capacity, Life Expectancy (August 23 2005)
The Life Extension Foundation News notes that "One of the best studies to date on why we should exercise was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine on Aug. 4. Yet the terminology and data were so complex that the significance may have gone unnoticed. ... In previous studies, exercise capacity had been shown to be a strong predictor of mortality in women. But this study was even more definitive. Women whose exercise capacity was less than 85 percent of the formula-predicted value were twice as likely to die within eight years. The study offers a powerful reason to pay attention to our own fitness level. A mere 15 percent deficiency can do more than promote weight gain. It can have a profound and serious impact on life expectancy."
Embryonic Stem Cells To Lung Cells (August 23 2005)
ScienceBlog reports on yet another advance in our ability to control stem cell differentiation: "Scientists have successfully converted human embryonic stem cells into lung cells ... This is a very exciting development, and could be a huge step towards being able to build human lungs for transplantation or to repair lungs severely damaged by incurable diseases such as cancer. ... Following further laboratory tests, the researchers plan to use their findings to treat problems such as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a condition which causes the lining of the cells to fall off, and which currently kills many intensive care patients. By injecting stem cells that will become lung cells, they hope to be able to repopulate the lung lining."
Stem Cell Heart Therapies Spreading (August 22 2005)
(From the Cape Times). Trials and studies of first generation stem cell therapies for damaged hearts are spreading. This latest is from South Africa: "A number of South Africans are said to be the first guinea pigs in the medical trial aimed at creating an alternative to the heart transplant. It has been conducted over the past eight months, although it has not yet been peer-reviewed." The patients are reported to have "showed marked improvement over the past few months. Stem cells were reportedly harvested from tissue in the adult patients' thigh muscles, grown in a laboratory and injected into their damaged heart muscles." As always, remember that "one must be careful not to sensationalise research that hasn't been peer-reviewed yet."
The Cold, Hard Facts (August 22 2005)
The Chicago Tribune looks into cryonics, an experimental set of technologies that remain the only shot at a longer, healthier life - at some future date - for people too old to wait for working healthy life extension medicine: "There are now at least five cryonics facilities in the United States, of which Alcor claims to be the largest. The oldest one, the American Cryonics Society ("Freezing people for more than three decades") was founded in 1969 in Cupertino, Calif. The newest company, Suspended Animation, recently received zoning permission to open a facility in Boynton Beach, Fla., which puts it at the heart of a burgeoning retiree market that presumably has the most urgent need of such services." If you want more details on cryonics, heading over to the Alcor website is a better bet than reading the article - important details have a way of getting lost in translation.
Reprogramming Cells, Yet More Progress (August 22 2005)
The Washington Post reports that "scientists for the first time have turned ordinary skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells ... The technique uses laboratory-grown human embryonic stem cells [to] "reprogram" the genes in a person's skin cell, turning that skin cell into an embryonic stem cell itself." Cells are just finite state machines, albeit very complex ones, and a great many doors in medicine open as researchers understand how to manipulate cellular states and programming. This is a promising advance, but is still just a proof of concept; the manipulated cells contain "the DNA of the person who donated the skin cell and also the DNA that was in the initial embryonic stem cell." That extra DNA must be removed, which is a "substantial technical barrier."