The Vegas Group, a Retrospective

Looking back from the perspective of 2035, I guess we should all be surprised that it took so long. The Vegas Group came together formally sometime in 2016, though the first kick-off meeting was the year prior at one of the bi-annual conventions for longevity research held in California. By that time, more than a dozen gene manipulations and other biotechnologies had been shown to significantly extend life in mice, but no progress was being made to develop these technologies for human use. The Vegas Group was a natural outgrowth of a decade of advocacy and anticipation for human enhancement technologies, coupled with the frustrating realization that no such technologies would be meaningfully developed, never mind made available to the public, under the regulatory regimes then in place in the US and Europe.

There were initial fractures in the Vegas Group around the course of political change versus direct action - which led to the formation of another influential movement discussed elsewhere - but by 2017 the direct action contingent of the Vegas Group consisted of about a hundred people all told. Their declared objective was a distributed collaborative effort to (a) develop human versions of the most successful longevity and metabolic enhancements demonstrated in mice, and (b) cultivate hospitable medical groups in the Asia-Pacific countries. When these technologies were developed, the founding members would cast lots and carefully test upon themselves, in rotation, and though the agency of medical centers in Asia. In doing this the hope was to spur change in the public view and greater progress in the commercialization of these technologies - and of course to gain access to manipulations that were greatly extending life in mice. "Pulling the big red lever," as one of the founders said, a venture where altruism and greed collide to best effect.

By this time, biotechnologies had become cheap enough to enable a growing amateur development community, akin to the hackers of the 1970s and open source movement of the 1990s and onward, and it is this community, stirred up and cultivated by the core Vegas Group, that ensured success. It was a challenge, a middle finger to US authorities who were at that time attempting to shut down the open biotech movements, and a tangible way to prove that the "priesthood of the universities is done and gone." Of course, members of that priesthood pitched in to help, some to the detriment of their careers, others clandestinely.

By 2019, the first round of therapies took place amongst the founding Vegas Group members. This happened to some local fanfare in Singapore, milked for effect by the sponsoring parties. About half of the modifications to genes and repair procedures for the damage of aging were successful, as shown by assays and testing, but no serious side-effects occurred - a lot of prestige in the broader amateur biotech community rested on getting that part right at least. So there, in 2019, you have some of the first humans walking around with replaced mitochondria, cleaned-out cells, manipulated myostatin genes, addition of bacterial genes to eliminate obesity, and so forth. Strangely, it met with less interest in the mainstream press than you might expect - the pop-sci and scientific press release services wouldn't touch it.

Really, that's when the accident should have happened, but with the benefit of hindsight I think that people became complacent. The seventeen deaths in 2021 were avoidable - some of the Vegas Group were emboldened by earlier successes and rushed a new discovery, underestimating the risk. By that time more than fifty people - a core of the original Vegas Group, new members, and new offshoots of the group elsewhere in the world - had been successfully modified in ways demonstrated to extend life or improve the functioning of biochemistry in mice, and were leading normal lives. A few of the older group members had died, but not of any cause linked to their experimental treatments. The methods for making these modifications to humans were freely available online, and within the reach of perhaps a few hundred skilled amateur biotechnologists. They had promptly been outlawed by most European and the US regulatory authorities.

The commercial outgrowth of the Vegas Group was by this time also underway. Two companies affiliated with the original founding members and two more working independently on the science were striding towards commercial offerings of the technologies. None were based in the US, of course, and all but one were structured to take advantage of the trends in medical tourism from America and Europe. Even at ruinous early-adopter rates, as a luxury good for the wealthy, two of these companies went on to make their founders fabulously wealthy in a very short time.

Sadly, it was to be another decade before we came to where we are today - the first signs that US regulators might finally cease their prohibition of longevity-inducing and other enhancement technologies now offered widely in Asia and safely used by ever-increasing numbers of people.

From the perspective of the mainstream US scientific community, we still don't know if these alterations work as advertised on human longevity. The case is pretty much open and closed on calorie restriction in humans and other primates now, finally, after decades of debate and new data, but it may be 2055 before researchers are willing to move beyond measurement of markers and biochemical changes to acknowledge actual benefits to life expectancy to the procedures pioneered by the Vegas Group. Meanwhile, people are improving themselves.

Strangely, the Vegas Group has faded from view, a historical curiosity of the online cyclopedias that is now supplanted in the "official" histories by the companies that rose up from their efforts. As a sign of success, being forgotten in the wake of the vessel you help to launch has something going for it - burying the daredevils is the first action of a successful industry setting up for the long term.


I hate to say this but, having observed SENS since it came onto the scene a few years ago, what you describe above is the only way it is ever going to get done.
You can forget any hope of widespread popular support - people simply refuse to let their aspirations get inflated.
Therefore, SENS will only be brought to fruition by a handful of "wildcatters."
Roll on the OpenSource Biotechechnology movement I say.

Posted by: Tom Chellew at July 29th, 2009 2:13 AM

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