Wanted: Half Billion Dollars To Jumpstart Eternal Youthfulness Research
The New York Times has an article by James Gorman about University of Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey's appearance at the Pop!Tech conference.
Getting old and dying are engineering problems. Aging can be reversed and death defeated. People already alive will live a thousand years or longer.
He was at pains to argue that what he calls "negligible senescence," and what the average person would call living forever, is inevitable. His proposed war on aging, he said, is intended to make it happen sooner and make it happen right.
Aubrey says he only needs a half billion dollars to start the coming explosion in anti-aging research.
Mr. de Grey has no illusions about the challenge he faces. He wants
to establish an institute to direct research, he said, adding that he
probably needs $500 million to achieve the goal of using mouse
research to kick-start a global research explosion on human aging.
That includes the prize fund.
If anyone is in the Washington DC area be aware that on November 5, 2003 Aubrey de Grey will be debating the prospects for rolling back aging at an AAAS meeting.
WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 1, 2003 (PRIMEZONE) -- The Methuselah Foundation is proud to announce a landmark debate between two pioneering scientists on not just how, but when, science will reverse the aging process -- hosted by the AAAS and funded by the Alliance for Aging Research.
In a November 5th debate at the American Association for Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave, 11 AM, Dr. Aubrey de Grey, University of Cambridge, will discuss the very real possibility of a modern day medical fountain-of-youth with Dr. Richard Sprott, Executive Director of the Ellison Medical Foundation. Dr. de Grey is a Pioneering Biogerentologist, the Senior Science Advisor to the Methuselah foundation, and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Biomedical Gerontology and the American Aging Association.
These two leading biogerontologists will debate the implications of recent advances in aging and anti-aging research, and set forth a timeline for reversal of aging and its associated diseases. Morton Kondracke, Executive Editor of Roll Call and author of Saving Milly, a personal chronicle of his wife's battle with Parkinson's disease, will moderate.
Some people claim that we can't extend human life by hundreds or thousands of years because biological systems are too complicated or the problems are too complicated. The term "complicated" in this context means several separate things and it is worth it to try to break them apart. Here is my first stab attempt to describe what might be meant by the term "too complicated" when used by anti-aging therapy pessimists:
- Too complicated to understand. Even if we could somehow collect data on every single thing that happens in cells some would argue that our minds just won't be able to figure out all the myriad causes and effects and how they all interact with each other. Well, we have ever faster computers that can be used to process the data and to run simulations. We also have increasingly larger numbers of smart people becoming scientists all over the world. My judgement is that humans can get a handle on all that happens within and between cells and to understand the ramifications.
- Too complicated to measure. The idea here is that we just can't measure everything that needs to be measured to get the data we need to analyse in order to be able to understand cells. Well, the trend has been that every year our ability to measure biological systems increases as new types of instruments are developed and existing types of instruments become faster and more sensitive. We have all sorts of instruments to work with such as MRI machines, DNA sequencing machines, DNA microarrays, and microfluidics devices. The advances in semiconductors, nanotechnology, and other areas look like they will increase our ability to measure by orders of magnitude. Measurement does not look like it will be the roadblock.
- Too complicated to manipulate. The argument here is that even if we can figure out what we can to fix it will turn out to be impossible to get into organisms and fix things. This argument fails for a number of reasons. For many types of problems we won't need to fix a particuilar part. We will just replace it. If we can grow replacement internal organs then all those parts won't need to be fixed. Then the argument becomes that it will turn out to be too hard to grow replacement organs. But early indications so far is that organ growth will turn out to be a solvable problem. The biggest problem is the brain. We can't replace the brain without effectively killing the old identity. So will it become possible to fix aged brain cells in situ? That is the hardest manipulation problem of all.
Aubrey argues that we don't really need to understand everything that goes wrong in aging. We just need to be able to fix it. He is quite right to argue that we should be approaching the problem of human aging with a mentality more like that of an engineer or an auto mechanic. We can develop techniques to fix things without understanding every last detail. Therefore the "too complicated to understand" argument is even less of an objection.
Still, even if we just want to fix things there is value in developing greater understanding in particular areas. The ability to measure what goes on in cells as they differentiate is very important for developing the ability to fix and replace old parts because we need a way to measure the results of our attempts to turn cells into other cell types. But advances in measuring epigenetic information and gene expression promise to make the study of cellular differentiation progressively easier to do. If we can measure something then we can test out ways to manipulate it. Instrumentation advances are very important for the advance of biological science and biotechnology. Fortunately, the steady advances in semiconductors and nanotechnology assure that the instrumentation advances will continue to come at a fairly rapid pace.
Update: It is also possible to watch the debate remotely as a webcast.
Use of expressions like "eternal youthfulness" plays into the hands of people like Leon Kass who appear to want to make a caricature of our efforts at life extension by saying that we aim literally at eternal life. The second-hand accounts I've read have Kass setting up a straw man, "the elimination of death," and then showing how awful such striving, let alone its success, would be according to his lights. His argument is a straw-man argument fallacy because he knocks down a proposal that, in its literal form, has few defenders in the first place. He appears to wish to present himself as defeating life-extensionists in argument by defeating life-extensionists in effigy. I think we're much better off if we aim our speaking and writing at delighting nearly everyone with the prospect of a moderate and believable near-term benefit, say, an additional 10 years of true youth, an additional 20 years of healthy middle age, and an additional 10 years of fairly healthy old age. Anyone is welcome to come up with a specific formula better than the one I've just thrown together; my point is that we should avoid any formula that makes it easy to caricature us or that lends credibility to Kass's straw-man argument fallacy.
I am for the anti-aging research.
The idea of a magic cure for age and sickness is a simple-minded fantasy, so I don't worry about pharmaceutical companies going out of business by a single cure-all.
Of course, there will be people who won't be interested in rejuvenation therapy, but many people will pay for it eagerly. I know plenty of men who go bald while others take hair pills to prevent baldness. I think that it should be a matter of choice. I choose the hair pills. I would also choose growth hormone stimulation, anti-aging skin cream (and I stay out of the sun), telomerase regulation, organ cloning, and whatever else I can afford to make me look and feel young. I would also be interrested in treatments that can change my physique. I bet that would be as popular as color contacts and Lasik and hair color treatment and breast implants. Does any of this hurt the pharmacy companies? It all counts as consumerism and boosts the economy.