A Short Interview With Researcher João Pedro de Magalhães

João Pedro de Magalhães is the researcher behind the excellent senescence.info site, the Animal Aging and Longevity Database, the Aging Gene Database, and sundry other projects. He presently heads the Integrative Genomics of Ageing Group at the University of Liverpool, and is one of the modern generation of life scientists unafraid to declare in public that the goal of the field should be nothing less than to cure aging. Many more people of this vision and drive are needed in the field of aging research if we are to see more rapid progress towards rejuvenation biotechnology.

I noticed an interview with de Magalhães in the Argentinian Spanish language press today that gives an executive summary of some of his views; the English version is quoted below, tidied up from its machine translation to make things a little more clear.

João Pedro de Magalhães: "I do not see why we could not abolish old age"

When asked about the scientific evidence supporting current theories on aging, João Pedro de Magalhães, a professor and researcher at the University of Liverpool, does not depart from the scientific literature. But this "scientist, philosopher and dreamer" as he defines himself chooses also to imagine a future in which we can manipulate the biological machinery of aging. Via email, de Magalhães provided the following answers to our questions.

[Lanacion]: What, in his opinion, is the most likely explanation for the causes of aging?

[de Magalhães]: Possibly the theory of DNA damage is the most accepted, although not proven. The hypothesis explaining this progresses due to free radicals [unstable atoms that damage our cells] has been widely attacked. The process of telomere shortening could also contribute to aging, but is far from proven. In fact, almost all the important discoveries of cellular or molecular biology have led to a new family of hypotheses about aging. But the difficulties inherent in the study of this stage of life - such as the lack of suitable models - make it costly. Moreover, the results are often controversial, and discriminating between cause and effect is often impossible ...

[Lanacion]: Do all organisms age?

[de Magalhães]: Actually, no. It's fascinating, but some species appear not to age. For example, turtles are showing no signs of aging: some live up to 138 years and, in particular, the Galapagos reach the 177. There are fish that live more than one hundred and bats that weigh 10 grams and are 34 years old.

[Lanacion]: Is it an oxymoron to talk about healthy aging?

[de Magalhães]: For me it is only possible to a certain degree, because aging will end in death and that will never be nice or pleasant. Personally, I think we can improve health in older and delay aging, but unless you fully mend our biology, health and aging will always be opposites.

[Lanacion]: Why do you have to try to keep prolonging life? To what extent? Is there a limit?

[de Magalhães]: Yes. Preserving life and health should be the main goal of biomedical research, and already we have benefited tremendously from it in recent decades. Today, there are obvious limitations to how much we can delay aging and extend life, but with the current scientific and technological progress I see no reason why we can not abolish aging. As the researcher and advocate Aubrey de Grey says, aging is "a barbaric phenomenon that should not be tolerated in polite society." However, the current anti-aging treatments do not reduce the rate of the aging process or extend the life expectancy by any more than quitting smoking, physical activity, or having a good diet and access to modern medicine. The only way to achieve a further 50% increase in longevity is to find ways to stop the aging process in itself.

For the goal of stopping the aging process, I favor the SENS vision: a set of biotechnologies that can be described in some detail today, and which - once realized - will repair or make irrelevant the known forms of fundamental biological damage present in old tissue but not in young tissue. The only thing holding the various labs and researchers involved in SENS to a slow pace is a comparative lack of funding - money is absolutely the limiting factor on progress in therapies to repair aging at this time.