By John Nosta | 3 February 2013
Living forever — Two bold, yet different perspectives
You might have heard this quote by Aubrey de Grey. It’s nothing new…and I wonder just how much closer to 150 that person might already be. But I got to thinking, what would be the impact of technology and specifically that of digital health.
Longevity — The physiologic basis
But first it might be interesting to review some of de Grey’s thinking about regarding the nature of aging. He calls them “The Seven Deadly Things”.
- Mutations — in Chromosomes causing cancer due to nuclear mutations/epimutations:
These are changes to the nuclear DNA (nDNA), the molecule that contains our genetic information, or to proteins which bind to the nDNA. Certain mutations can lead to cancer, and, according to de Grey, non-cancerous mutations and epimutations do not contribute to aging within a normal lifespan, so cancer is the only endpoint of these types of damage that must be addressed.
- Mutations — in Mitochondria:
Mitochondria are components in our cells that are important for energy production. They contain their own genetic material, and mutations to their DNA can affect a cell’s ability to function properly. Indirectly, these mutations may accelerate many aspects of aging.
- Junk — inside of cells, aka intracellular aggregates:
Our cells are constantly breaking down proteins and other molecules that are no longer useful or which can be harmful. Those molecules which can’t be digested simply accumulate as junk inside our cells. Atherosclerosis, macular degeneration and all kinds of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease) are associated with this problem.
- Junk — outside of cells, aka extracellular aggregates:
Harmful junk protein can also accumulate outside of our cells. The amyloid senile plaque seen in the brains of Alzheimer’spatients is one example.
- Cells — too few, aka cellular loss:
Some of the cells in our bodies cannot be replaced, or can only be replaced very slowly — more slowly than they die. This decrease in cell number causes the heart to become weaker with age, and it also causes Parkinson’s disease and impairs theimmune system.
- Cells — too many, aka Cell senescence:
This is a phenomenon where the cells are no longer able to divide, but also do not die and let others divide. They may also do other things that they’re not supposed to, like secreting proteins that could be harmful. Cell senescence has been proposed as cause or consequence of type 2 diabetes.Immune senescence is also caused by this.
- Extracellular protein crosslinks:
Cells are held together by special linking proteins. When too many cross-links form between cells in a tissue, the tissue can lose its elasticity and cause problems including arteriosclerosis and presbyopia.
So, I got to ask Dr. de Grey some questions to get a more up-to-date sense of his thinking. Here are some of his thoughts on longevity in the context of today’s changing technological and medical enviormnment.
Do you see the convergence of technology and health as a significant event with regards to longevity?
I wouldn’t say I really regard it as an “event” at all. I think medicine is best viewed as simply a subset of technology — technology for restoring or maintaining people’s health. There is a continuing process of interchange and cross-fertilisation between different branches of technology, and that includes things like the development of non-biological approaches to medical problems, but I don’t see any real sea-change.
How does your background as a software engineer impact your thinking today?
Quite a lot — and it especially impacted my thinking in the first several years of my time as a biomedical gerontologist. It let me look at the problem of aging somewhat differently than lifelong biologists had been doing.
Please comment on the myth of aging how how we need not accept it as “just part of getting old”.
It’s always been a mystery to me why this isn’t totally obvious to everyone. Do we let cars fall apart when they get old? – yes in general, but not if we really want them not to — that’s why we have 50 year old VW Beetles driving around, and even vintage cars. It’s bizarre that people don’t see that the exact same thing is true of the machine we call the human body, just that that machine is a lot more complicated so the development of sufficiently comprehensive preventative maintenance is a lot more challenging.
Could you briefly explain the nature of free radicals and the role in aging?
Free radicals come in a lot of flavours, and a number of them are created by the body. Some of them are good for us, but others are harmful, because they react with and damage molecules that we need for survival, such as our DNA. The body has a massive array of defences against these problems, which can be grouped into four categories — tricks to minimise the rate at which these toxic free radicals come into existence in the first place, enzymes and compounds that react harmlessly with them before they can react harmfully with something else, chemical tricks that make the harmful reactions happen less easily, and systems that repair the resulting damage after it’s occurred — but those tricks are not completely comprehensive, so some damage still occurs and accumulates throughout life. We’d like to stop that happening, and we could theoretically do it by enhancing to perfection any one (or more) of those four types of defence. My view is that the last one, repairing damage post hoc, is the most practical. Eliminating free radical production would involve completely redesigning aspects of our metabolism, especially the way we use oxygen to extract energy from food. It would also have the problem that even the bad free radicals are also good in some ways, so we actually need them around somewhat; this is also the problem with perfecting the elimination of free radicals via harmless reactions. Ramifying our cells so that the reactions just don’t occur is also tantamount to completely redesigning the body, So we’re left with perfecting repair.
The digital health and quantified self movement are increasingly gaining steam. Do you see this an a critical step forward in the quest for longevity?
Not really, no. It’s valuable, but only temporarily. That’s because all personalised medicine is only valuable temporarily, while the treatments for such-and-such a condition are only modestly effective and can thereby be made more effective by being tuned to the specifics of the patient. We don’t have personalised polio vaccines, because we don’t need them – the same vaccine just works perfectly, on everyone.
Your famous quote, “the first person to live to 150 has already been born” really caught my eye. Is this a guess or do you have some data to support this?
First, I’ve always been fastidious in only saying that the first such person is PROBABLY alive today. I would estimate the chance at 90%, though that could fall as low as 70% if funding for the relevant research in the coming decade or two is not sharply increased. No, no data — just informed intuition as to how much progress remains to be made to develop therapies that will work well enough to make that happen.
Cognition and Alzheimer’s disease is a critical issue in a aging population. Are there emerging or current strategies to help reduce or eliminate its incidence?
Absolutely — but there’s still a long way to go. Alzheimer’s is a very complex disease, involving the accumulation of a few different types of molecular and cellular damage, all of which we’ll need to repair. There’s very promising progress in using vaccines to stimulate the immune system to repair some types, and other types may yield to stem cell therapy, but a cure is not going to appear next year.
Do you personally use any technology or device to help in wellness is disease management?
Does the wait for “extensive data” and “controlled trials” adversely impact innovation in aging research?
Yes, but it adversely impacts innovation across all medical research. There’s a huge need for greater creativity in the regulatory process, and that’s coming: “adaptive licensing” is a big theme in that area right now.
What are some of your expectations for the future? Any bold predictions that might catch up off guard?
I think my longevity predictions are quite bold enough!
Longevity–a technological perspective
The other resonant voice in the longevity discussion is Ray Kurwweil. His take on life extension, while inclusive of physiology, is very much focused on the role of technology and the impact it can impact many facets of life–from diagnosis to organ replacement. His bio–taken from his website–brings his expertise into perspective:
“Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.”
But what I found interesting is that Dr. Kurzweil has made an interesting and bold prediction — we will live forever! His recent interview in The New York Times, he established the techno-future where nanobots zoomed through our arteries and veins acting a vigilant seekers of disease and insult.
His vision of immortality is bold and makes living to 150 seem like being a kid!
He’s stated that Moore’s Law will no longer be applicable to our world and that new technologies will — like those little creatures humming around your blood vessels — will change the game. Robotics nanotechnology, and high-speed computational neuroscience will become the new reality. And with it, comes a new version of the something between 150 years old and infinity. Here’s a glimpse into that future:
Within a quarter century, nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence. It will then soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge. Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains, and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses (like The Matrix), “experience beaming” (like “Being John Malkovich”), and vastly enhanced human intelligence. The result will be an intimate merger between the technology — creating species and the technological evolutionary process it spawned.
Maybe Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner weren’t that far off with their famous persona from the comedy skit – The Two Thousand Year Old Man?
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