An Interview With Nir Barzilai

As you might know, the Royal Society recently held a meeting on "the new science of aging." Amongst those attending was researcher Nir Barzilai, who has been investigating genetics and metabolism associated with human longevity for some years. One example is his work with long-lived members of the Ashkenazi Jewish population. The UK press recently published a short interview with Barzilai:

[Barzilai] studied 500 Jewish people between 95 and 112. He said: "These people smoked, they are overweight, they have high cholesterol." Qualifying his remarks, he said about 30 per cent of them were obese, while 30 per cent of them had smoked to the age of 95. "They are protected from the environment by their genotype," he said. Living a healthy life might help most people increase their life expectancy by a few years, but it would not help those who wanted to live much longer, he said.


"When they eventually die, they die of the same things that people die of in their 70s or 80s," he said, "it's just that they die 30 years later". Identifying these genes opened the doorway to developing longevity drugs which mimicked their effects, he said.

Prof Barzilai and his team have already identified a number of such genes among the centenarians. Laboratories are now working on creating a drug which mimics the effects of three of them - two that increase the production of so-called 'good' cholesterol in the body, which reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, and a third that helps prevent diabetes. Testing could begin by 2012, he said, with it appearing on the market "within five or 10 years".

He predicted: "People will take a pill, starting at 40, and their lives will be longer."

This is, in a nutshell, the goal of the dominant camp in gerontology: a long-term project to incrementally push out the average human life span much closer to what is presently the maximum. This will be accomplished through the existing institutional processes of drug discovery and development, producing and commercializing treatments that can interfere with the operation of human metabolism and push it into more advantageous configurations.

This is also the slow path to a poor end goal, as I've argued many a time in the past. It won't do much to help those people already old when the therapies arrive. The researchers who work on this strategy are doing so because they don't believe there is a better way forward. Fortunately they are wrong. Unfortunately, comparatively few people are working on better projects, based on ongoing periodic repair of cellular and biochemical damage rather than changing metabolism to slow down damage accumulation. But if you've been following along at home, you know all this already.

Here is another important quote from the article:

He also argued that ageing itself needed to be classed as a disease, in order to stimulate investment in drugs which delayed a range of age-related diseases.

As you may or may not be aware, regulatory bodies such as the FDA in the US forbid the treatment of aging. They do this by means of only approving treatments for named and defined diseases, and not considering aging or any of its root causes to be a disease. This is an enormous problem, even compared to the vast damage the FDA does to other areas of medical science simply by existing. When people are forbidden by law from selling a treatment for aging, then there will be few investors lining up to fund research and development of promising science. We will never know just how much farther advanced the science of engineered longevity might be today if the FDA and its counterparts elsewhere in the world didn't exist.


it's low hanging fruit, though.

As in, available in a few years.

for many people, this may increase their lifespan by say, 20 years.

a worthy endeavor.

Posted by: jay at May 13th, 2010 9:18 AM
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