Longevity Meme Newsletter, October 26 2009

October 26 2009

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.



- TEDMED 2009 and BIL:PIL
- Economics, Attitudes, and Medical Progress
- Discussion
- Latest Healthy Life Extension Headlines


Advocates for longevity science will be amongst those speaking at the TEDMED conference and BIL:PIL unconference in San Diego, California, at the end of this month:


"If you're in the area, you should definitely take time to drop in on BIL:PIL. I notice that folk from the LifeStar Institute will be attending both events, and biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey is presenting. ... You'll find a few other interesting speakers in the TEDMED lineup, such as David Sinclair of Sirtris and Anthony Atala, the tissue engineer, who is giving a presentation entitled "Can we grow organs instead of transplanting them?" In addition to the speakers, these conferences are a great place to network with potential movers and shakers of the next generation of the aging research community - such as the LifeStar Institute group mentioned above. Foundations are being laid and opinions shaped, spurred on by tangible progress in longevity science in the laboratory."


Some thoughts on where we stand and where the state of medical research and development is heading:


"GNP is Gross National Product, more or less the sum value of all services and products produced in a year by the inhabitants of a given nation. The value is staggeringly large for the US, somewhere north of $11 trillion. Many wars and worse upheavals have been instigated by politicians - and supported by a populace - in reaction to or anticipation of change of a few percentage points of GNP. ... A 1997 analysis of the economic costs of musculoskeletal disorders in 5 industrialized countries (Australia, Canada, France, United Kingdom, and United States), in which osteoarthritis was the most common of these disorders, found a rising trend of costs that had, by then, reached between 1% and 2.5% of the gross national product of these countries."

Politicians and the societies that support them have inflicted great geopolitical upheavals upon themselves and their neighbors in - often useless - efforts to avert costs of this magnitude in connection to metals, oil, and economic slumps. Yet you don't see this sort of fiery urgency and upheaval happen all that often in medicine. Medical progress and costs of present disease simply fail to ignite the same intensity of interest and support as war, commodity markets, and nationalism.


"Competition is only thing that keeps human beings striving for improvement: businessmen striving to please their customers, funds flowing to research and development. The fear of your lunch eaten by the competition and your customers deserting you is what drives people onward to build better products, and what leads to good customer service. In a competitive market, everyone operates in a constant state of anticipating the next improvement - and investors, researchers, and business owners toil to try to ensure that they themselves are the ones offering that improvement.

"This is true in every market, be it shoes, computers, or medical technology. The shoe marketplace is free, cutthroat, and churning with innovation, for example - the arms race of earnest competition provides wide choice and good prices for customers. The market for medical technology is, sadly, a very different story. This is a critical time in the evolution of biotechnology and medical science. Enormous advances are possible in the years ahead, including significant extension of the healthy human life span, yet this marketplace is not open and competitive. Everywhere is the hand of government, suppressing competition, forbidding all that is not expressly permitted, and dragging the potential for progress down into the gutter."

The results are clearly visible throughout the medical industry: high prices, less customer choice, poor customer service, and bad products. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. The greatest costs are invisible: the commercial development and new innovation in medicine that could have happened in past decades but didn't, thanks the stultifying effects of regulation, suppression of competition, and other forms of government intervention.


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!




A look at some scientific studies of the present bounds of human longevity from Courant: "It's becoming clear that people who break through the 90-plus barrier represent a physical elite, markedly different from the elderly who typically die younger than them. Far from gaining a longer burden of disability, their extra years are often healthy ones. They have a remarkable ability to live through, delay or entirely escape a host of diseases that kill off most of their peers. Supercentenarians - people aged 110 or over - are even better examples of aging gracefully. ... As a demographic group, they basically didn't exist in the 1970s or '80s. They have some sort of genetic booster rocket and they seem to be functioning better for longer periods of time than centenarians. ... The average supercentenarian had freely gone about their daily life until the age of 105 or so, some five to 10 years longer even than centenarians, who are themselves the physical equivalent of people eight to 10 years their junior. This isn't just good news for the oldest old and for society in general; it also provides clues about how more of us might achieve a long and healthy old age."

Here is a Google Tech Talk video of Gregory Benford discussing his latest venture, Genescient, which seems to be close to commercializing its first results: "Genescient is the world's first computational biology company founded on the use of artificial biological selection to cure the diseases of aging. Our laboratory animals have been selected for longevity through 750 generations for the equivalent of 15,000 human years. I will describe Genescient's multiple pathways toward accelerating human longevity, with parallel enhancements of vigor and function. Genescient applies 21st century genomic technology to identify, screen and develop benign therapeutic substances at precise doses, to defeat the diseases of aging. Our singular approach addresses the complex genomic networks that underlie aging and aging-associated diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. I shall display some results and our first product, due in 2009."

Human biochemistry isn't as well set up for regeneration as it might be, particularly in the case of nerve damage. But medical technology will one day change all that: "The inflammatory response following a spinal cord injury appears to be set up to cause extra tissue damage instead of promoting healing ... The injury opens tissue to the external environment, increasing the potential to be exposed to pathogens. The immune system doesn't care that the spinal cord is damaged - it just wants to keep the organism alive. And neurons want to regrow, but when they try to grow their axons, they hit a wall of inflammatory cells that they can't get past or that are working against them. ... All of the responding cells in question are macrophages, but the study revealed that they have slightly different characteristics that define their functions. The research suggests that changing the balance of how these cells are activated in favor of the anti-inflammatory macrophages could be a potential treatment strategy. ... if we could minimize damage caused by inflammation, that would be helpful. Each axon that dies gets you closer to a threshold where you lose function. If we could just keep axons and neurons alive, we may have a better chance at promoting recovery."

Evolved human biochemistry is suboptimal in some intriguing ways - we don't heal as well as some other species, for example. Here, EurekAlert! notes that our biochemistry is not as radiation-resistant as it might be either: "More than half of all cancer patients are treated at least in part with radiation ... But the same radiation that kills cancer cells can also destroy healthy ones, causing side effects such as nausea and vomiting, skin sores and rashes, and weakness and fatigue. Long-term radiation exposure can lead to the scarring and death of normal tissue. [Researchers] have identified a biochemical signaling pathway that can profoundly influence what happens to both cancerous and healthy cells when they are exposed to radiation. In mouse experiments, they found that blocking a molecule called thrombospondin-1 from binding to its cell surface receptor, called CD47, affords normal tissues nearly complete protection from both standard and very high doses of radiation. ... We almost couldn't believe what we were seeing. This dramatic protective effect occurred in skin, muscle and bone marrow cells, which is very encouraging. Cells that might have died of radiation exposure remained viable and functional when pre-treated with agents that interfere with the thrombospondin-1/CD47 pathway." Given enough time, many beneficial changes to human biochemistry will be possible and affordable.

Researchers continue to uncover the biochemistry of regeneration: "Biologists long have marveled at the ability of some animals to re-grow lost body parts. Newts, for example, can lose a leg and grow a new one identical to the original. Zebrafish can re-grow fins. These animals and others also can repair damaged heart tissue and injured structures in the eye. In contrast, humans have only rudimentary regenerative abilities, so scientists hoping eventually to develop ways of repairing or replacing damaged body parts are keenly interested in understanding in detail how the process of regeneration works. Using zebrafish as a model, researchers [have] found that some of the same genes underlie the process in different types of tissues. Genes involved in fin regeneration and heart repair are also required for rebuilding damaged light receptors in the eye, they found, suggesting that a common molecular mechanism guides the process, no matter what body part is damaged." A common mechanism, if confirmed, would mean that the task of introducing this sort of regenerative capacity into humans will be simpler than thought.

Via EurekAlert!: "Over-expressing a gene that lets brain cells communicate just a fraction of a second longer makes a smarter rat ... Dubbed Hobbie-J after a smart rat that stars in a Chinese cartoon book, the transgenic rat was able to remember novel objects, such as a toy she played with, three times longer than the average Long Evans female rat, which is considered the smartest rat strain. ... This adds to the notion that NR2B is a universal switch for memory formation ... The finding also further validates NR2B as a drug target for improving memory in healthy individuals as well as those struggling with Alzheimer's or mild dementia ... NR2B is a subunit of NMBA receptors, which are like small pores on brain cells that let in electrically-charged ions that increase the activity and communication of neurons. Dr. Tsien refers to NR2B as the 'juvenile' form of the receptor because its levels decline after puberty and the adult counterpart, NR2A, becomes more prevalent. While the juvenile form keeps communication between brain cells open maybe just a hundred milliseconds longer, that's enough to significantly enhance learning and memory and why young people tend to do both better."

Matters connected with death - and a good portion of modern medical practice, such as major surgery - tend to be unpleasant and upsetting. For reasons evolutionary and cultural most people are repulsed by the details, preferring to pretend politely that such things don't exist. But if we are to make progress in branches of medicine such as cryonics, then we can't let natural repugnance hold back research and development: "Human beings are largely unaware about the gruesome nature of death. Humans also shy away from the mutilation that occurs during hospital surgery. Hollywood films portray cryonics in a glamorous high-tech manner that makes it appear that one's body can easily be placed into a capsule and frozen for future revival. Reality is that cryopreservation involves complex surgery whereby tubes are inserted into major arteries and veins in order to deliver special anti-freeze solutions into the brain. The purpose is to reduce or eliminate freezing damage and other types of damage to brain cells. The process involves introducing stabilizing drugs and a special solution in the field and a major procedure in an operating room. There's nothing pretty about human cryopreservation [or indeed any form of surgery], but as you'll read, the alternatives are truly ghastly. ... Most people are in denial about what will happen to their bodies when they die. They over react when they hear of someone's head being surgically and chemically treated to protect brain cell injury during cryo-preservation. Overlooked is that any other [course of action will result] in far more ghastly results for the victim of death."

Now this is what we'd like to see more of in the press: there's nothing new in this BBC article insofar as science and technology goes, but the way it is presented is all in terms of lengthening health life and repairing the damage of aging. That is still fairly novel. When this way of looking at things becomes widespread, half the battle is won: "Half of babies now born in the UK will reach 100, thanks to higher living standards, but our bodies are wearing out at the same rate. To achieve '50 active years after 50', experts at Leeds University are spending £50m over five years looking at innovative solutions. They plan to provide pensioners with own-grown tissues and durable implants. New hips, knees and heart valves are the starting points, but eventually they envisage most of the body parts that flounder with age could be upgraded. ... The concept is to make transplantable tissues, and eventually organs, that the body can make its own, getting round the problem of rejection. So far they have managed to make fully functioning heart valves using the technique. ... experts elsewhere [are] also working on similar regenerative therapies, but grown entirely outside of the body, to ensure that people can continue being as active during their second half-century as they were in their first."

Aubrey de Grey's videos at Big Think made it onto the Independent's website recently: "At a certain point in time - perhaps sooner than most people think - the ever-increasing average human lifespan will begin accelerating faster than people age. This moment, according to anti-aging expert Aubrey de Grey, will be more important than the Singularity - when the human race achieves this 'longevity escape velocity,' we will essentially become immortal. And de Grey, who is in his mid-40s, argues that this moment has a 50/50 chance of occurring in time for him to live forever. Crazy talk? Maybe not - de Grey shared with Big Think some surprising aging research and explained why there are no more major breakthroughs necessary for us to defeat aging for good. He even provided a vision of how we might defeat cancer. De Grey's optimistic vision brings up some interesting questions; most importantly, wouldn't an ageless society present a logistical nightmare? Aubrey de Grey is confident that arguments about economic difficulties and overpopulation in an ageless society are unwarranted; he does, however, believe that society would change dramatically, but mostly for the better."

Advances in infrastructure drive the pace of research: making tools better, cheaper, and faster means that established research groups can do more, and more new research groups can afford to enter the field. Here is some good news on that front: researchers have "developed a method that dramatically improves the efficiency of creating stem cells from human adult tissue ... The new technique, which uses three small drug-like chemicals, is 200 times more efficient and twice as fast as conventional methods for transforming adult human cells into stem cells (in this case called 'induced pluripotent stem cells' or 'iPS cells'). ... In developing the improved method, Ding drew on his knowledge of biology. He decided he would focus his efforts on manipulating a naturally occurring process in cells, in particular in a type of adult cell called fibroblasts, which give rise to connective tissue. This naturally occurring process - called MET (mesenchymal to ephithelial cell transition) - pushes fibroblasts closer to a stem-cell-like state. If he could manipulate such a fundamental process to encourage MET and the formation of stem cells, Ding reasoned, such a method would be both safer and more direct than hijacking other aspects of biology, for example those directly involved in cancer. ... the safety profile of the new method is highly promising. Not only is the method based on natural biological processes, [but] also the type of molecules used have all been tested in humans."



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