Twenty Minutes to Argue that Work on Radical Life Extension is Valid Research
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Yesterday, a commenter wrote:

If you only had 20 minutes, what would you do to convince an intelligent (college educated or professional) audience of the significance of life extension beyond 120 years? Assume they do not commit the tithonus error and are rational enough to understand that probably do want to live indefinitely so long as the quality of life meets their own standard. The problem then becomes convincing others that it is indeed possible to live very very long lives. However, how can you convince someone that extreme life extension is scientificially valid research? It seems like some persons will dismiss the possibility because their is no such empirical example, just as planets outside our solar system were not outright denied, but ignored.

Given twenty minutes, it is really only possible to set forth an outline of a position, and show people where to look for the supporting evidence. But an outline might look something like this:

  • Consider that there is a very wide range of life spans between even very similar species. Take the naked mole rat, a mammal that lives for nine times as long as similarly sized rat species. Or the larger whales, mammals that can live for nearly two centuries. Very long-lived mammals are possible at any body size, and their longevity is a matter of their particular evolved genome and metabolism. More esoteric species are even more long-lived: four centuries for some clams, for example, and no-one knows how long lobsters and some urchins can live because they appear to be essentially ageless.
  • But evolution has clearly not selected for extended healthy life in many species, a broad range of mammals included. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are now something like twenty different ways of extending mouse life span by 10% to 60%. Many of these are modest genetic engineering projects: a single gene, or few genes altered, well within what we'd expect evolution to accomplish on its own.
  • We should not expect primates, humans included, to be exceptional in this regard. While we are long-lived in comparison to many mammals, we are far outclassed by a good many other species.
  • An animal such as a mammal is a complex system built of many interacting subsystems, which are in turn built out of many redundant parts. The general behavior of systems of this nature is well described by reliability theory: mean time to failure grows small as a system ages because it accumulates damage that knocks out its redundant components. Aging and all that comes with it - frailty, disease, organ failure, and ultimately death - is the result of accumulated damage and the flailing of damaged systems.
  • At the lowest level, we are machines: our cells are finely turned, reactive, programmable, self-repairing machinery. The nuts, bolts, cogs, and pistons are proteins built according to the patterns encoded in our genes. Over time cells build up damage in the form of broken, malformed, or unwanted proteins, some of which can be repaired or removed, and some of which cannot. This damage is a natural consequence of the operation of our metabolism: it is accumulating slowly within everyone's body right now. Everything that happens to us in aging ultimately stems from a build-up of broken, worn, misplaced, and errant parts of our biological machinery.
  • All means of extending longevity demonstrated to date in mammals in the laboratory are essentially forms of damage reduction. They reduce the rate at which damage accumulates over time: by creating greater damage resistance, attenuating the effects of damaging processes in our metabolism, or spurring cells and the immune system to greater natural vigilance, repair, and recycling efforts. Less damage per unit time is exactly a slowing of aging.
  • But if slowing down the build-up of damage is good, how much better will it be to repair and remove that damage completely? Consider that the only differences between a young body and an old body are (a) levels of damage and (b) the disarray of biological systems and organs reacting to that damage. Complete repair of damage is one and the same with rejuvenation.
  • There is a fortunate confluence of purpose between research to repair the biochemical damage of aging and research into therapies for age-related diseases. These diseases are caused by the varying forms of biochemical damage that create the condition that we see as aging; a therapy that repaired a specific form of damage would be beneficial for everyone who suffered from the diseases it causes. It would lift some of the burden of aging, restoring a body some way towards its youthful state, and this would be beneficial for everyone who is old.
  • But we do not have to be hypothetical when talking about the forms of biological damage that cause aging, or ways to approach the development of therapies that can remove that damage. The damages of aging are in fact well documented in many of the varied life science and medical fields, and are summarized in the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence:
  • Some tissues lose cells with advancing age, like the heart and areas of the brain. Stem cell research and regenerative medicine are already providing very promising answers to degeneration through cell loss.

    We must eliminate the telomere-related mechanisms that lead to cancer. de Grey suggests selectively modifying our telomere elongation genes by tissue type using targeted gene therapies.

    Mitochondrial DNA is outside the cellular nucleus and accumulates damage with age that impairs its critical functions. de Grey suggests using gene therapy to copy mitochondrial DNA into the cellular nucleus. Other strategies for manipulating and repairing damaged mitochondrial DNA in situ were demonstrated for the first time in 2005.

    Some of the proteins outside our cells, such as those vital to artery walls and skin elasticity, are created early in our life and never recycled or recycled very slowly. These long-lived proteins are susceptible to chemical reactions that degrade their effectiveness. Scientists can search for suitable enzymes or compounds to break down problem proteins that the body cannot handle.

    Certain classes of senescent cell accumulate where they are not wanted, such as in the joints. We could in principle use immune therapies to tailor our immune systems to destroy cells as they become senescent and thus prevent any related problems.

    As we age, junk material known as amyloid accumulates outside cells. Immune therapies (vaccines) are currently under development for Alzheimer's, a condition featuring prominent amyloid plaques, and similar efforts could be applied to other classes of extracellular junk material.

    Junk material builds up within non-dividing, long-life span cells, impairing functions and causing damage. The biochemistry of this junk is fairly well understood; the problem lies in developing a therapy to break down the unwanted material. de Grey suggests searching for suitable non-toxic microbial enzymes in soil bacteria that could be safely introduced into human cells.

  • It is not so hard for people nowadays to visualize the transformative power of regenerative medicine. This is a field in full swing, to the accompaniment of large-scale publicity and public support. There is the ability to renew aging cells, such as nerve cells in the retina that are never naturally replaced and slowly give way to cause age-related blindness - a way to give a renewed life span to small but vital bodily systems. Or the ability to grow and transplant completely new organs to replace age-worn hearts, kidneys, livers, or lungs - but this just scratches the surface of what will soon be possible.
  • Yet regenerative medicine is one field of seven in the list above. Each of the others has the potential to be just as transformative to health and longevity. By removing the damage that degrades a range of bodily systems, a body can be moved closer to the state it was in when young. Systems that were flailing and causing problems of their own can be restored to a healthy state, and return to contributing to health rather than damaging it.
  • You don't have to take my word for it, of course. Regenerative medicine and organ building is a thriving growth field, populated by thousands of highly skilled researchers who are well aware of the benefits their work will bring to the elderly and the damaged. In labs around the world, and to a lesser degree, work is slowly proceeding on each of the other other six fields above.
  • Within the broad life science research community it is now taken as a given that extending healthy longevity is serious, meaningful science. Billions of dollars have already been invested into research and development for early stage longevity science. The arguments are over how it will be accomplished, and what is possible to achieve within our lifetimes.

That seems to be a decent first pass at the topic. It needs refinement, but you're all welcome to have a go at it.

Comments

Great!

You didn't mention a few topics but twenty minutes is a tough yet manageable talk length (look at TED - only ten minutes!).

I will refine it and let you know what the reaction is among various groups, especially those who know the challenges better than I.

People understand passion and conviction when conveyed with overwhelming evidence. Most atheists have few strong moral convictions and so we have few enemies. We shouldn't fear taking a moral stand because if we don't than the default position of an indifferent universe awaits everyone.

Posted by: Matthew at August 7, 2010 12:51 AM

The reason people oppose life extension being a voluntary choice for OTHERS to make is :

They are so afraid of dying, that they have created elaborate denial/bargaining mechanisms in their mind, and the prospect of abandoning what they have invested so heavily in is outside of their comfort zone.

It is sort of like telling a socialist the fact that socialism is far more rigged in favor of the super-rich than capitalism is.

Posted by: GK (The Futurist) at August 8, 2010 2:19 PM

As a long believer in extending life, I feel that the most important incentive for seeking this is never mentioned. It is related to quality of life and our economy.

Our world appears headed for a long term depression. Associated perils may be the lack of our government's ability to pay social security obligations, medicare or welfare costs. Many of us may never be able to collect expected pensions.

If each of us then have to take care of ourselves, how do we do this? To be aged, infirm and broke would be a death sentence. We must not only take good care of ourselves, we must seek any form of restorative medicine that may work. We can take advantage of those remedies that have helped in animal research. An example would be taking melatonin that has the effect of extending the lives of laboratory animals twenty percent. There are many other examples.

As a former publisher of a medical journal, I have felt that information should be available to laymen who do not have access to medical archives that may assist in achieving a longer and healthier life.

Posted by: Ray Elliott at August 8, 2010 2:33 PM

Matthew wrote:

Most atheists have few strong moral convictions and so we have few enemies. We shouldn't fear taking a moral stand because if we don't than the default position of an indifferent universe awaits everyone.

I hope that the quest for regenerative medicine is not just followed by atheists. The removal of death by aging will not remove death from our experience. And it should not remove one's belief in God nor one's belief in life after death. If death by aging is removed, then the "statistics of infinity" dictate that we will all eventually die by accidental or some other means. To me, a non-atheist, treating aging would be the equivalent of treating any other life threatening disease, which I think is the view espoused in this forum.

Posted by: WCT at August 9, 2010 9:54 AM

As far as possibility, my main argument is that the body is not as complex as people think. There are only 30k genes after all, and most cells spend most of their time doing the exact same thing over and over again. People ignore this because they don't really want to believe that they are machines.

Posted by: William Nelson at August 9, 2010 11:21 AM

Sólo hay unos 26.000 genes y las células pasan la mayor parte de su tiempo haciendo la misma cosa una y otra vez. No debería ser tan complicado conseguir una duplicación celular sin errores, una vez que sepamos bien como es todo el proceso...¿no creen?. Aquellos que estén en contra de vivir mas tiempo, ya sea por motivos religiosos, morales, ó de cualquier tipo, recuerden que siempre tendrán la opción de no hacer nada, y de esta forma, nadie interferirá con sus ideas. Esto ya esta sucediendo mucho con la gente que no se cuida el colesterol y la presión sanguínea, ya sea por ignorancia u otro motivo, ellos terminan falleciendo mucho antes que el resto. SALUDOS!

Posted by: eduardo at April 15, 2012 1:26 PM

I'd add to your argument that there are vast economic benefits from life extension. Currently, religious faith founded on wishful thinking in an afterlife is the biggest roadblock toward the science of life extension. However, even if only a small percentage of the population both wanted and was able to live longer, all of society would benefit economically from their extended productivity.

Think how much better off mankind would have been if Newton, Einstein, Beethoven, Aristotle, etc. had been able to work unburdened by senescence not just for a few decades, but for hundreds of years. Imagine how much more NASA would have achieved if Wernher von Braun was still around to lead it. Even highly productive business and corporations suffer, few last beyond a couple generations after the zeal and ambition of their founders dies with them. We would all benefit if titans of industry like Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett could live longer.

Fighting death isn’t just a benefit to the immediate individual, but it’s a benefit to all of mankind if that individual is even slightly productive at net. Death regularly robs society of its most productive members, even today just as we reach our peak of professional expertise and experience we’re forced into retirement due to our ailing bodies. Perhaps at 45 you’d want to change careers by going back to school to become a doctor, such is fiscally irrational now, but it wouldn’t be a problem if we could be productive and active until your 150 and beyond. Look at the various AIDS inflicted states of Africa with abnormally low life spans, their economies flat-line and even shrink as death prevents them maintaining an experienced workforce – just as someone is at the peak of productivity they die and the cycle of retraining must start over with the young.

Posted by: Jadon Gutierrez at March 27, 2014 4:10 PM
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