September 18, 2006
PayPal Co-Founder Donates To Reverse Aging
Good news. Big money is starting to support research to conquer aging and make us young again.
Peter A. Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of online payments system PayPal, and Founder and Managing Member of Clarium Capital Management, a San Francisco-based hedge fund, today announced his pledge of $3.5 Million to support scientific research into the alleviation and eventual reversal of the debilities caused by aging, to be conducted under the auspices of the Methuselah Foundation, a charity co-founded and Chaired by Dr. Aubrey de Grey.
Mr. Thiel commented, "Rapid advances in biological science foretell of a treasure trove of discoveries this century, including dramatically improved health and longevity for all. I'm backing Dr. de Grey, because I believe that his revolutionary approach to aging research will accelerate this process, allowing many people alive today to enjoy radically longer and healthier lives for themselves and their loved ones."
Mr. Thiel will donate a total of $500,000 over the next three years to fund pilot research projects intended to deliver early stage validation of the "SENS" approach to combating the debilitation caused by aging.
Additionally, from now until the end of 2009, Mr. Thiel promises to match every Dollar donated to the Methuselah Foundation for SENS research with a 50 cent matching contribution from himself, up to a maximum of $3 Million of matching funds.
Dr. de Grey said, "I am extremely grateful to Peter for his bold and visionary initiative. I have been working with leading biologists and biochemists around the world in identifying promising research projects, and with this generous donation we will go to work straightaway."
SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) is a set of approaches to repair the body and reverse the aging process to make bodies fully young again. Click through on one of the SENS links and read all about it if the term is new to you.
I expect Thiel's donations to be the first of many very large donations aimed at reversing the aging process. The large number of multi-millionaires are very sharp people who know they really can't take their money with them when they die. So why not use a piece of their wealth to take a stab at making their bodies young again?
The full reversal of the aging process is an achievable goal. We will develop the biotechnologies to grow replacement parts, to do gene therapy, to send in stem cells to do repairs, and to remove the junk that accumulates in cells and between cells as we age. Daily announcements from biological resesarch labs demonstrate progress toward many of the technologies needed to reverse the aging process. Some people who are alive today will live to see the conquest of aging and the end of death from old age.
How's the Methuselah Mouse contest going? Any progress?
This paper and this one seem to cast a lot of doubt on the proposition that SENS is a realistic research program. What are your thoughts?
The $500k notwithstanding, the way he put up the $3 million is great! He is basically using the fact that people with net worths in the range of tens of millions generally follow the lead of people with net worths in the range of hundreds or thousands of millions.
Ultimately, of course, Bill Gates needs to use this approach to leverage his status as the richest man to get people of lesser means to back prize awards.
I really don't know why the Gates Foundation not only refuses induce support for prize awards with challenge grants like this, but actively attacks the very concept of prize awards by using the word "challenge" to describe a series of grants:
All he is challenging people to do is write up a better grant proposal... not to actually solve the problem.
The whole idea of prize awards is they challenge people to actually make objectively measurable progress toward valuable goals.
This is really great news. Self made men like the paypal co-founer are usually smart and visionary. It took thinking outside the box and into the future to come up with the paypal idea. And the market rewarded him for his advancement.
Every dollar invested today into any type of anti-aging medicine research legitimizes the field, and makes further investment more likely. It also gets the organizations going, and people working full time towards the goal. Which makes a stable base.
All great. Then again, diverting funds of just one B2 bomber to age science would be about the equivalent of 1000 such donations.
I wonder why the Technology Review exchange caused you to think anyone raised any serious doubt? Several groups tried to claim a $20,000 reward, and all they had to do was demonstrate that SENS had no scientific backing. They universally failed.
In fact, from what I saw, none of them even tried to address the science, which tells me they acknowledge its validity.
None of the groups who tried were able to claim the prize.
Do challenges remain to overcome for SENS? Yes. Is it possible that some challenge will prove insurmountable in a short timeframe? Anything is possible. However, the science suggests we are at a stage where we will benefit by tackling this engineering problem regardless of the specifics of the final outcome.
Bob, can you comment on the specific criticisms of SENS in the papers I referenced? The criticisms were very detailed and specifically addressed the list of proposals that constitute the SENS research project.
BTW the paper I cited apparently did win 1/2 of the prize money.
This is most excellent news.
Any criticism of SENS research at this point is really shooting into the dark, because frankly, not enough money has even been put into this research to really find the actual (and not merely hypothetical) obstacles to success.
It is quite incomprehensible to me that people are so very slow to even support this research.
The more progress that is made - the more people will wake up and stop bankrolling rediculous, pointless wars - exercises merely meant to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor - with the added "benefit" of population control.
The Second Rennisance period of Man cannot start soon enough...
Whilst some of the papers may have had valid criticisms (it has been a while since I read them) they didn't satisfy the challenge which was to show that SENS was so unscientific that it is unworthy of debate.
It would be silly to think that SENS is completely correct in its proposals at this time, I'm sure some of its arguments may turn out to be flawed when experimental work gets there, but then other solutions to issues that arise can be sought. The point is the challenge shows that it has enough basis to be a starting point for experimental research.
Lastly you are incorrect about it winning 1/2 the money, the independent panel of judges decided that none of the papers had been convincing enough to win the prize. Technology review then decided to give their half of the money to the authors of that one paper completely outside of the challenge and therefore in no way qualifies that paper as winning anything. If anything it just supports the technology review editors bias against de grey which has been stated in the past.
I read all of the papers. I could find no challenge to any of the science. For each of the seven strategies identified, Aubrey de Grey cites relevant work in biology pointing to promising interventions. If you can point to a single argument directed at the science Dr. de Grey cites, I would be happy to consider your challenge. I could identify no such argument.
Each of the contest entries was sophist rhetoric comprising handwaving and character assassination with no challenge to the science whatsoever. The publisher of Technology Review found the rhetoric in one entry more persuasive and gave the entry some money regardless of the judges' conclusions--seemingly more to satisfy his own ego than for any other reason--just as he created the contest in the first place to satisfy his own ego. All I could conclude from that is the publisher of Technology Review impeached his own intellectual honesty.
I would characterize Aubrey de Grey's SENS proposal as optimistic realism. At best, one of the papers argued a case that pessimistic realism suggests it will take longer to achieve the same goals. Regardless, a realistic analysis suggests the time is ripe for a large-scale engineering project to test the SENS hypothesis. The scientific community spends many billions of dollars to build huge particle accelerators to test hypotheses with far less import to daily human life and has spent more pursuing the worthy engineering goal of fusion power(PDF warning) over a period spanning several decades than Aubrey de Grey suggests spending to pursue long healthy vibrant life over a single decade. (Germany's fusion spending alone could fund Aubrey de Grey's SENS proposal.)
Stop and consider that optimism suggests we will master fusion in about the same length of time pessimism suggests we can end aging. We currently spend 10 times as much to study fusion as Aubrey de Grey suggests we should spend to cure aging.
What will cheap energy in 150 years mean to you if you die from old age before then?
What will cheap energy in 150 years mean to you if you die from old age before then?
Yes Bob, I will be dead of old age long before then, and so will you, and so will Mr. De Grey. And no, none of us will be "downloaded" into some kind of computer circuit either. And all the kool-aid chugging around here won't change that one bit. Estep et. al.'s paper makes it clear that SENS is deluded wishful thinking of the highest order that would do a born-again Christian proud.
I would suggest that all of you give up this eschatological religious thinking pretending to be science, and learn how to live in the only time you actually have available to you instead of dreaming all these absurd fantasies of biological immortality. A good round of Buddhist-style meditation and inquiry into the nature of the self would definitely be in order. . .
Estep et. al. spend far too much time huffing and puffing. They bring up cargo cults and say things like:
Any claim regarding extreme extension of life span in higher organisms must be regarded with
extreme skepticism, and the evidentiary and logical support for such a claim must be as
extraordinary as the claim itself. Of course, there is a long history of pseudoscientific claims
of miracle cures, and fountains and elixirs of youth. Nevertheless, we believe the future will
bring biomedical advances that are today almost unimaginable. How will the non-expert
separate the false promises of pseudoscience from the likely outcomes of rigorously applied
science and engineering? The long history of pseudoscientific claims shows us there are
obvious identifying features of pseudoscience that are rarely or never associated with real
science or engineering.
Why must it be regarded with extreme skepticism? First, Aubrey isn't saying he's done it yet. He's not selling an elixir you can buy today. He's basically saying that it is a solvable problem and he lays out a list of sub-problems which, if solved, would solve the aging problem.
Take their words and rearrange them a bit to make a similar criticism pre-Kitty Hawk of Orvill and Wilbur Wright. If the Wright Brothers had claimed they could some day fly I imagine someone saying "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Well, I come at it from the direction of a guy that Estep et. al. Estep et. al. quote: Richard Feynman. Well, I have another Feynman quote that is far more applicable. It comes from his great essay Dec. 29, 1959 There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics.
The biological example of writing information on a small scale has inspired me to think of something that should be possible. Biology is not simply writing information; it is doing something about it. A biological system can be exceedingly small. Many of the cells are very tiny, but they are very active; they manufacture various substances; they walk around; they wiggle; and they do all kinds of marvelous things---all on a very small scale. Also, they store information. Consider the possibility that we too can make a thing very small which does what we want---that we can manufacture an object that maneuvers at that level!
At the atomic level, we have new kinds of forces and new kinds of possibilities, new kinds of effects. The problems of manufacture and reproduction of materials will be quite different. I am, as I said, inspired by the biological phenomena in which chemical forces are used in repetitious fashion to produce all kinds of weird effects (one of which is the author).
The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.
Why can't aging be cured? We are developing the ability to maneuver things atom by atom. We are developing the ability to grow replacement organs. We are developing the ability to send in genes to reprogram cells. What part of the SENS program is physically impossible? Many parts of it today are already showing up in research. Labs are working on replacmement parts. Labs are working on ways to get rid of accumulated extracellular junk.
I think in a way Estep et. al. are cherry picking. Some SENS therapies are harder than others. They aim at the full body gene therapies. But we can get decades of additional life without doing full body gene therapy and during those decades we can solve the gene therapy problems.
Estep et. al. point to the WILT (Whole Body Interdiction of Lengthening of Telomeres) therapy as something very hard to do right now:
This requires multiple independent gene deletion events for each of several trillion cells of many different types. To accomplish this in such a large number of cells without causing serious side effects, these deletion events must be extraordinarily efficient and specific. Any expert in gene therapy or genome engineering can attest to the fact that, for even one such event in such a large number of cells, the most specific and efficient methods currently available for allelic deletion or replacement fall many orders of magnitude short of this requirement, even in vitro. To propose that technology allowing in vivo somatic genome manipulations of this sort will be available in the near future is completely outside the realm of responsible speculation. For those with sufficient knowledge and training, it is difficult to contemplate an enzyme or method with suitable specificity and efficiency to safely accomplish such a task. Finding enzymes or vectors with greater specificity and efficiency for DNA manipulation or delivery does not follow the predictable developmental schedules of other technological advances, such as those described by Moore’s Law, and we do not expect to find these several orders of magnitude any time soon—if ever.
I'm bothered by "if ever" claims. We are going to develop greater and greater abilities to manipulate matter at the smallest scale. The laws of physics do not preclude this. So it will happen.
First off, yes, gene therapy is hard now. Yes, we need improvements in penetration rates that are on the scale of orders of magnitude if we are to reach all cells. But cance research suggests that alot of cancer comes from stem cells and some cancers probably come from cells which were relatively recently changed from stem cells into differentiated cells (I say that because stem cells divide more rapidly and therefore accumulate DNA mutations more rapidly and so older stem cells produce differentiated cells with more mutations). But if we just replace aged stem cells with youthful stem cells that have the telomerase enzyme deletion then the problem size becomes orders of magnitude smaller. That solution doesn't provide 100% coverage. But it would probably reduce cancer rates substantially.
Given that we need to replace aged stem cells anyway and that stem cells growing in a lab are easier to genetically manipulate the problem of full body gene therapy delivery can be avoided while still delivering a major portion of the potential WILT benefit.
As for Moore's Law effects: If no gene therapy research was conducted for 10 years at the end of the 10 years the problem of gene therapy would become far easier to solve. Why? Because semiconductor and nanotechnology would advance and people returning to do gene therapy would find they have much better tools. Gene therapy is going to become far easier to do because biotech is being accelerated by nanotech advances which are not being made by biologists. Biotechnology piggybacks on advances made in other technological fields.
I say this about WILT as a person who actually shares the lack of enthusiasm that Estep et. al. have for it. WILT might not help. I also expect cancer to get cured in other ways.
Microbial hydrolases: Again, this is difficult to do because it involves gene therapy done to large numbers of cells. Gene therapy is probably the hardest SENS component. But they make a point about potential side effects that I think misses an obvious strategy for dealing with it: Do not have the hydrolases turned on all the time.
The hardest part of SENS is rejuvenation of individual cells. That makes brain rejuvenation the hardest rejuve problem. We will be able to grow and manufacture (e.g. artificial knees and hips) replacement parts for most of the rest of the body. We will be able to provide replacement youthful stem cells to help restore bones and the vascular system. But we need to make our neurons and glial cells young again. That'll be hard and take much longer.
I see a problem people during the early aging reversal life extending stage where people will have bodies that are much younger than their brains.
I gotta quibble with one claim Estep et. al. make:
One example is the discovery of Advanced
Glycosylation End-products (AGE), and the pioneering work in the development of AGE
breakers, a therapy for reducing or repairing an existing pathology [43-45]. This is the work of
gerontologists, and is the only one of SENS’ suggested solutions that actually exists, albeit in
Gene and cell therapies exist in both pre-clinical and clinical forms. We've also recently witnessed growth of replacement bladders. See my post First Bioengineered Bladders Work In Humans. Anthony Atala's team is working on growing and building many body parts. They are doing amazing work.
The big argument I can see about the timeline for achieving various SENS techniques comes down to the difficulty of full body gene therapy delivery. But some SENS therapies do not require gene therapy and some require gene therapy on much more limited numbers of cells (e.g. cells in culture to train them before reintroduction into the body).
Estep et al largely agree with the SENS proponents:
"We believe the future will bring advances that are today almost unimaginable."
"most of these speculations are reasonable and defensible; they are part of the normal optimistic and progressive nature of scientific discourse."
"we believe the future will bring biomedical advances that are today almost unimaginable."
While they claim they set out to address the science behind SENS, they ignore it altogether. They then proceed to list some general ad hominem rules of thumb for identifying pseudo-science of which they admit "Naturally, we are aware of legitimate exceptions to certain aspects of some of these features."
In terms of their "general features", only item #4 has any scientific validity, and they make no attempt whatsoever to address #4 in the remainder of their entry. In fact, they admit that the engineering plan includes "extrapolations of experimental work being done by others" (as all engineering plans do) and then dismiss the plan with mere handwaving.
What very little they offer as pretense of scientific argument consists largely of hyperbolic misstatement of Aubrey de Grey's proposals and observations to build straw men they can resoundingly beat up. However, such rhetoric is as fallacious as the remainder of their sophistry.
I find Estep et al anti-empirical: While speculating on the existence of aging factors beyond the seven already identified, they actively discourage a plan that would measure for any such factors.
I note you and Darin presented links to Estepal et al's sophistry, but you did not include any link to Aubrey's rebuttal of Estepal et al.
Finally, I note in your comment above you follow their example of fallacious sophistry. Personally, I have no interest in uploading or downloading or otherwise killing off my functioning brain in favour of some fantasy, and I have no knowledge of any such nonsense in the SENS proposals. I suggest you drop the ad hominem and the straw man building because in the end they amount to uninteresting mental masturbation.
Pseudoscientists universally fall into either of two categories: 1) those who willfully ignore contradicting fact and 2) those who prefer complex hypotheses where simple hypotheses suffice. One can objectively measure each group without resorting to ad hominem, straw men or any other fallacy.