Live Long and Wealthy

Live forever here on earth?

Scientists say they’ll soon extend life ‘well beyond 120’  (Paraphrased from Article published in the Guardian)


In an office not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, with a beard reaching almost to his navel, Aubrey de Grey is enjoying the new buzz about defeating ageing. For more than 10 years, he has he has worked to inspire the world to embark on a scientific quest of eliminating aging and extending healthy lifespan indefinitely (he is on the Palo Alto Longevity Prize board). It is a difficult job because he considers the world to be in a “pro-ageing trance”, happy to accept that ageing is unavoidable.  He believes that the reality is that it’s simply a “medical problem” that science can solve. Just as a vintage car can be kept in good condition indefinitely with periodic preventative maintenance, the same can be true of the human body.. We are, after all, biological machines, says de Grey.

His claims about the possibilities (he has said the first person who will live to 1,000 years is probably already alive), and some unconventional and unproven ideas about the science behind aging, have long made de Grey unpopular with mainstream academics studying ageing. But the appearance of Calico and others suggests the world might be coming around to his side, he says. “There is an increasing number of people realising that the concept of anti-aging medicine that actually works is going to be the biggest industry that ever existed by some huge margin and that it just might be foreseeable.”

Since 2009, de Grey has been chief scientific officer at his own charity, theStrategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens) Research Foundation. Including an annual contribution (about $600,000 a year) from Peter Thiel, a billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist. as well as funds from his own inheritance of about $5m of research annually. Some is done in-house, the rest sponsored to outside institutions. 

De Grey isn’t the only one who sees a new flowering of anti-aging research. “Radical life extension isn’t consigned to the realm of cranks and science fiction writers any more,” says David Masci, a researcher at the Pew Research Centre. Masci recently wrote a report on the topic looking at the scientific and ethical dimensions of radical life extension. “Serious people are doing research in this area and serious thinkers are thinking about this .”

Although funding pledges have been low compared to early hopes, billionaires – not just from the technology industry – have long supported research into the biology of aging. Yet it has mostly been aimed at extending “healthspan”, the years in which you are free of frailty or disease, rather than lifespan. Of course, an obvious effect is that life would also be extended (healthy people live longer).

“If a consequence of increasing health is that life is extended, that’s a good thing, but the most important part is keeping people healthy as long as possible,” says Kevin Lee, a director of the Ellison Medical Foundation, founded in 1997 by tech billionaire Larry Ellison. Ellison has been the field’s largest private funder, spending $45m annually. (The Paul F. Glenn Foundation for Medical Research is another.) Whereas much biomedical research concentrates on trying to cure individual diseases scientists in this small field hunt for something larger. They investigate the details of the aging process with a view to finding ways to prevent it at its root, thereby fending off the whole slew of diseases that come along with aging. Life expectancy has risen in developed countries from about 47 in 1900 to about 80 today, largely due to advances in curing childhood diseases. But those longer lives come with their share of health issues.  Age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s are more prevalent than ever. (Aging or our environment and lifestyle choices?)

The standard medical approach – curing one disease at a time – only makes that worse, says Jay Olshansky, a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Public Health. Olshansky runs a project called the Longevity Dividend Initiative, which makes the case for funding aging research to increase healthspan on health and economic grounds. “I would like to see a cure for heart disease or cancer,” he says. “But it would lead to a dramatic escalation in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease.” (I wonder why?)

By tackling aging at the root they could be dealt with as one, reducing frailty and disability and lowering all age-related disease risks simultaneously, says Olshansky. Evidence is now building that this bolder, age-delaying approach may work. Scientists have already successfully intervened in the aging process of a variety of animal species and researchers say there is some evidence to believe it could be achieved in people. “We have really turned a corner,” says Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that ageing research was interesting but unlikely to lead to anything practical. “We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the lifespan of a mouse. That’s not the question any more, it’s can we do this in humans? And I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” says David Sinclair, a researcher based at Harvard.

Reason for optimism comes after several different approaches have yielded promising results. Some existing drugs, such as the diabetes drug metformin, have serendipitously turned out to display age-defying effects. Several drugs are in development that mimic the mechanisms of calorie restricted diets that cause lab animals to live longer. Others copy the effects of genes that occur in long-lived people. One drug already in clinical trials is rapamycin, which is normally used to aid organ transplants and treat rare cancers. It has been shown to extend the life of mice by 25%, and protect them against diseases of aging including cancer and neurodegeneration.

In 2003, Sinclair published evidence that high doses of resveratrol extend the healthy lives of yeast cells. After Sirtris, a company co-founded by Sinclair, showed that resveratrol-inspired compounds had favorable effects in mice, it was bought by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720m in 2008. Although development has proved more complicated than first thought, GSK is planning a large clinical trial this year, says Sinclair. He is now working on another drug that has a different way of activating the same pathway.

One of the more unusual approaches being tested is using blood from the young to reinvigorate the old. The idea was borne out in experiments which showedblood plasma from young mice restored mental capabilities of old mice. A human trial under way is testing whether Alzhemier’s patients who receive blood transfusions from young people experience a similar effect. Tony Wyss-Coray, a researcher at Stanford leading the work, says that if it works he hopes to isolate factors in the blood that drive the effect and then try to make a drug that does a similar thing. (Since publishing his work in mice, many wealthy individuals have contacted Wyss-Coray wondering if it might help them live longer.)

James Kirkland, a researcher who studies aging at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now – more than six of which had been written up in scientific journals – that extended the lifespan or healthspan of mice. The aim is to begin tests on humans, but clinical studies of aging are difficult because of the length of our lives.  None the less, they are testing the drugs against single conditions in elderly patients and looking for signs of improvements in other conditions at the same time. Kennedy notes that in mice treated with rapamycin, some age-related effects, such as cataracts, don’t slow down. “I don’t know any one drug is going to do everything,” he says. As to when you might begin treatment, Kennedy imagines that in future you could start treatment sometime between the age of 40 and 50 “because it keeps you healthy 10 years longer”. (What would happen if one started treatment earlier?)
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With treatments at such an early stage, we can only guess as to when they come to market and  how far they will stretch human life. Many researchers refuse to speculate. But Kirkland says the informal ambition in his field is to increase healthspan by two to three years in the next decade or more. 

Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is one of the pessimists on this subject. “Based on the biology that we know today, somewhere between 100 and 120 there is a roof in play and I challenge if we can get beyond it.” Venter is one of the optimists. “I don’t see any absolute biological limit on human age,” he says, arguing that cellular immortality – in effect running the clock backwards – should be possible. “We can expect biological processes to eventually get rid of years. Whether this will happen this century or not, I can’t tell you”. Such ideas are just speculation for now. But John Troyer, who studies death and technology at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, says we need to take them seriously. “You want to think about it now before you are in the middle of an enormous mess.”

What happens if we all live to 100, 110, 120 or beyond? Society will start to look very different. “People working and living longer might make it more difficult for a new generation to get into the labour force or find houses,” says Troyer. And, with aging delayed, how many children are we talking about as being a normal family? “There is a very strong likelihood there would be an impact on things like family structures.” A 2003 American president’s Council on Bioethics reportlooked at some of these issues suggesting there may be repercussions for individual psychology, too. 
One of the “virtues of mortality” it pointed out is that it may instill a desire to make each day count. Would knowing you had longer to live decrease your willingness to make the most of life? De Grey acknowledges potential practical challenges but cheerily says society would adapt, for example by having fewer children, and with people able to decide when to end their lives. There are pressing questions too about who would benefit if and when these interventions become available. Will immortality be just  for the super rich or will  the cost be pushed down and make treatment affordable? 

Will health insurers in other countries pay for drugs that extend peoples lives? The medical cost of caring for people in their twilight years would fall if they remained healthier longer, but delayed aging will also mean more people draw pensions and state benefits. Advocates of life extension say these challenges don’t negate the moral imperative. If the period of healthy life can be extended, then doing so is the humanitarian thing to do, says Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “There seems to be no moral argument not to,” he says. Troyer agrees but asks whether living longer does necessarily mean you will be healthier – what does “healthy” or “healthier” mean in this context? he asks.

Weather scienctists succeed and how we evolve is to be seen. Even if they don’t succeed, we may still benefit.  Aviator Charles Lindbergh tried to cheat death by devising ways to replace human organs with machines. He didn’t succeed, but one of his discoveries did develop into the heart-lung machine so crucial for open-heart surgery. In the quest to defeat aging, even the fruits of failure may be bountiful.

The original article may be found at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/11/-sp-live-forever-extend-life-calico-google-longevity