The Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) volunteers have produced an excellent series of interviews of late, with many of the researchers of note involved in work aimed at better treating and understanding aging. João Pedro de Magalhães is one of the very long-standing members of the original small community of life extension advocates that emerged from the online transhumanist forums of the 1990s. From that small but highly influential movement a surprisingly large number of individuals become scientists or advocates or leaders or entrepreneurs of one sort or another involved in efforts to bring aging under medical control. The list includes Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation, Anders Sandberg at the Future of Humanity Institute, Max More now running the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a good many other people and ventures, too many to list, and of course João de Magalhães, now with his own lab in the UK, and still maintaining a very helpful website on the science of aging after all these years.
Insofar as transhumanist ideals of artificial general intelligence, molecular manufacturing, radical life extension, and the transformation of the human condition have spread out into the broader melange of ideas in our culture, then the original members of the community can count themselves a success. You can't take too many steps through the vast and many-threaded conversation constantly taking place between the peoples of the world today without running into some sign of transhumanist ideas and goals. These concepts, accepted and integrated now, were strange, fringe, new, and assembled by just a handful of folk some thirty plus years ago. Then they escaped into fiction and the growing internet, and it all took off from there. At some point this will make for an interesting study in the history of ideas and people, how they interact - how the goal of radical life extension and human rejuvenation moved from science fiction to reality in half a lifetime.
How do you think we age; are we programmed to die, do we wear out, or is the truth a mixture of both?
I don't think we wear out. Humans and complex animals are made of cells and molecules that, by and large, have some turnover; we can replace most of our components, so I don't think it's correct to see aging as wearing out, at least not in complex animals like humans. That said, I do think that some forms of cumulative damage contribute to the aging process, such as DNA damage. I also think that there are programmatic aspects to aging. That is, I think that genetic programs coordinating some aspects of growth and development persist into adulthood and become detrimental as forms of antagonistic pleiotropy. It is probably a combination of molecular damage and the inadvertent actions of genetic programs that causes aging.
There seems to be an increasing suggestion in academia that directly targeting the underlying aging processes is the most promising strategy.
Absolutely; this is something that biogerontologists have been arguing for a very long time. I also think that the graying of the population means that there is a growing awareness of the need to develop approaches to tackle the process of aging and associated pathologies.
There also seems to be an increasing amount of investment in rejuvenation biotechnology in the last year; what has happened in science to encourage this commitment?
There's more than one reason to explain this recent excitement in anti-aging biotech. One reason is the aforementioned graying of the population, making anti-aging interventions commercially very appealing. In addition, the discoveries of the past couple of decades showing that the process of aging is plastic and can be manipulated in model organisms has generated tremendous excitement. Even in mice, we can tweak one gene and extend lifespan by nearly 50%, retarding a multitude of age-related pathologies. If we could do that in humans, that would mean making people not only live longer but stay healthy for longer. Again, from a financial perspective, that would have huge implications, and any company that were to develop a true anti-aging intervention would make huge profits. My recent review of the business of anti-aging science discusses this topic in more detail.
What is the biggest bottleneck to progress in aging research, in your view?
Most scientists would say lack of funding, but while having more funding would certainly accelerate progress, I think it would only help so much. This is because experiments in aging, and potential human clinical trials, are intrinsically time-consuming. That is not going to change with more funding. I would argue that the biggest bottleneck to progress in aging is the nature of the aging process itself in that it takes quite a long time, which, in turn, means that studies and trials will also take a long time.