February 26 2008 / by memebox
Category: Health & Medicine Year: General Rating: 14
This interview was conducted by Venessa Posavec on Dec. 14, 2007
V: What do you do and how is that related to the future?
A: I’m a biologist, mainly, and I’m focused on the development of future therapies that will be able to postpone human aging a very great deal. By postpone, what I really mean is, repair the accumulating molecular and cellular damage that causes aging, and really is aging. The various things that happen, the side effects of our normal metabolic operations, so to speak, throughout our lives that will eventually cause things to go wrong with us.
V: And what is the Methuselah Foundation?
A: The Methuselah Foundation is the main vehicle through which I pursue these goals. It’s a 501©(3) nonprofit registered in Virginia and it was founded by me and a businessman called Dave Gobel who has a very distinguished career in a variety of different high tech industries over the years, so it’s very complimentary so to speak since I’m on the science side. We have been able to build up the foundation into a very prominent organization that both promotes the general merits of seriously combating aging, and also directly fund research in universities around the world to actually make that happen. We obtain the money for that research from the general public, and from wealthy individuals.
V: Where do you see the foundation heading in the future?
A: The main thing that it really has to do is to grow. At the moment we’re not nearly big enough. There’s masses of research that needs to be done, that isn’t being funded by anybody else, because people think it’s too ambitious or they don’t understand the goals or whatever, and it’s not being funded by us because we don’t have the money yet. My my main purpose, my main focus at the moment is to expand the foundation, to get more money in so that we can put more money out.
V: Now there have been some big names recently that have pledged significant amounts of money to the foundation. Are you seeing a general trend that people are coming around to the idea that we can truly end aging?
A: Definitely. I’ve been extremely fortunate over the past several years to have a lot of interest shown in the particular approaches to combating aging that I’ve been putting forward since about 2000. These are approaches which of course initially started out being very technical and being discussed really only within the scientific community, but as I began to formulate these ideas more and more precisely and more thoroughly, and to be asked to speak about them to more and more general audiences, so there have been more and more interest in this and of course the more that happens the more familiar people get about these ideas the more people get sufficiently enthusiastic to be actually interested in helping. Of course one big thing that’s happened recently that has accelerated that process a great deal is the fact that we had a book out very recently, a book published by me and my research assistant Michael Rae, published by St. Martins Press. It’s called Ending Aging, and it came out just three months ago, it’s already selling pretty well, and it’s certainly getting very good reviews so that seems to be making a big difference as well.
V: Explain how you came to the conclusion that aging is a curable disease vs. a process that just inevitably leads to death?
A: It wasn’t really a case of coming to the conclusion that aging is something that can be prevented, because it’s been obvious to me since my earliest days that this is an obvious inference, an obvious consequence of the fact that the human body is simply a machine. We know perfectly well that all simple man-made machines can have their useful healthy functional lifespans extended pretty much indefinitely just be doing sufficiently comprehensive maintenance on them. We have classic cars for example that are 100 years old, and they may look a bit old-fashioned, but they’re certainly not old in their own terms; they’re working just as well as when they were built, and that’s because we know how to do sufficiently comprehensive maintenance to keep them in a fit state for as long as we like. It’s the same with houses. I live in the UK where we have houses that are maybe a thousand years old, that have been working and fully intact and functional over that time, it’s the same deal. It’s the same deal with any machine that we take sufficiently good care of so long as we know how. So my goal is to develop the technologies to allow us to do sufficiently comprehensive maintenance on this much more complicated machine that we call the human body.
V: What is some exciting work on anti-aging and life extension being done in the field today?
A: There’s exciting work being done all over the place, there’s really almost too much to list. Some of the most well-known exciting work is in the area of stem cells, and of course as I think a lot of people already understand that doesn’t necessarily mean embryonic stem cells, but stem cell research in general, which is an extremely important part of regenerative medicine. Essentially what I do is an area or a range of areas within the field of regenerative medicine, because repair and maintenance of an aging human body or an aging body of another species for that matter is really regenerative medicine, and stem cell therapy is certainly a large part of that. But there are many other things that have a lot less publicity, things like ways to eliminate the indigestible molecules that accumulate and give us things like atherosclerosis and Macular degeneration, things like immunizing against the junk that accumulates in the spaces between our brain cells and (contributes?) to Alzheimer’s disease. Lots of different things are happening at the moment.
V: And what do you think are the social implications of a world without aging?
A: There are immensely many social implications, you can hardly think of anything that would not change in a post-aging world. And of course that being so, it’s very important for everybody, especially those people like me who are (getting?) into this field to be thinking about what those consequences would be, and how to make sure that those consequences are predominantly good and that any potentially bad consequences are (avoidable?) if minimized. But the good news is that the most dramatic consequences of all are the ones that are most unequivocally good. The first one of course is that we just won’t have any frailty anymore, we won’t have the problem of going decrepit and dependent and diseased and demented and so on as we get older. People will live as long as they like in a completely useful state, and that will have a most immense effect on alleviation of suffering of course. It will also have a most unbelievably large effect on the health of the economy, because diseased and decrepit people are extremely expensive . As most people know, most of the medical budget goes on keeping people alive in a bad way in their last years of life. And that money would be entirely saved, and the money that would not be saved is what’s spent on actually providing the therapies that, as usual, prevention is much better and more efficient than cure, so there will be plenty of extra money that will be available to spend on things that we don’t have money for at the moment.
V: What kind of ethical outcry do you expect from people who don’t think that we should tinker with nature, and that it’s unnatural for people to live hundreds, or even thousands, of years?
A: There won’t be an ethical outcry. We’re seeing an ethical debate about these things at the moment, but when these therapies become available, the reservations that people might have and concerns that people might have will be forgotten – not in the sense of being ignored, but in the sense of being seen not to outweigh the benefits. It will be just the same as has happened many times in the past when technologies come along and we’ve been able to see that the benefits outweigh the risks and the downsides and the debate that may have occurred before just disappears. We can think for example of in vitro fertilization, which was certainly something extremely controversial before it was done, but after it was done the debate went away more or less at once.
V: And do you think these rejuvenation therapies will be available for all people, or will a long and healthy lifespan be more of a luxury that only the rich can enjoy?
A: I’m quite sure that this will be available to absolutely everybody. And the reason I’m sure, is because people will regard it as sufficiently important that it needs to be available to everybody. We can look at the situation with, for example, basic education at the moment. Every Western society, (or every?) tax averse society like the U.S. makes basic education free at the point of delivery irrespective of the ability to pay simply because we appreciate that it’s a fundamental human right to get a good start in life. Now, the same applies here. At the moment, we don’t regard medical care as really reaching that level of fundamentalness, so to speak. In some countries, like where I live, there is universal and national healthcare, but in a lot of countries there isn’t, but that’s really because at the moment the healthcare we’re able to give, in very technical terms, simply isn’t very good. We can’t actually give very many people very many extra years of healthy life with the medical technology that we have today, whereas these technologies will be able to give everybody a very great deal of extra life, and that will of course mean that the value that the public place on it will be correspondingly greater, and I think that there will be absolutely no question in people’s minds that it’s something that everybody’s entitled to.
V: Do you have any suggestions for what measure people can take today to slow down the aging process?
A: There’s really two possibilities that one might be able to take. One is to slow down their own aging now so that they are in a better state by the time the therapies that I’m working on come along than they otherwise would be. The other possibility is to do what they can to hasten the arrival of the things I’m working on, to make those things arrive sooner so they’re in a better state simply because they’re still younger than they would otherwise be. And at the moment, i can tell you that there isn’t much chance of much progress on option #1. At the moment, nothing that we have that’s available today will make much difference – except for the obvious things that everybody knows in terms of avoiding shortening one’s life like not smoking, and keeping a good constant body weight and so on. The hastening of the research, however, is something that everybody can make a difference to. If you’re a journalist, you can get me on the radio for example. If you’re a wealthy individual, you can give money to the Methuselah Foundation to hasten the research. If you’re someone who knows a wealthy individual or a journalist or anyone then there’s things you can do. More or less anybody can do something just to heighten awareness of the crusade that’s going on to make these things happen, and the more awareness there is, the more enthusiasm there will be, and the more the pace of research will pick up, and the sooner it will succeed.
V: What kind of breakthroughs are going to have to happen in order for us to achieve extreme life extension?
A: Well, the really good news, and reason why I’m pretty optimistic about the time frames for all of this, is that there are no absolutely fundamental breakthroughs that we still need, at least I don’t think there are. There are plenty of little technical advances that need to be made, things that need to get a little bit better than they are at the moment, like delivering of engineered genes into the body with gene therapy, things like manipulation of stem cell down particular developmental pathways so that they become the particular kinds of cells that we want them to become, things like identification of enzymes that break down particular molecules that we can’t naturally break down, there’s a whole bunch of little technical things like this. All of them we have some idea how to do already, all of them we’re making good progress on, and it’s really just a matter of speeding up the filling in of the details.
V: Can you lay out a roadmap for us of when you see certain events occurring over time that will address the seven forms of aging that you address in your book?
A: I can certainly lay out a speculative time frame, but I do want to emphasize that it is speculative, because we’re talking something in the region of 25 or 30 years before we actually get to the end of this time frame, and as with any technology, a time frame that’s that (full of distance?) could be very wrong. But, I think that within about 10 years from now, we have a very good chance of having developed all of the seven major components of aging, developed therapies that repair them, in mice, in such a manner that they actually work well. Now, that means that we’ll be able to take mice that are already in middle age, which for mice means about two years old, and give them one of these therapies having done nothing to them at all before that time, and thereby rejuvenate them sufficiently comprehensively that they will live healthy lives for another two years before carrying on going downhill. That’s the sort of degree of postponement of aging that I think we need, in order to give a really robust and irrefutable proof of concept that we have the problem cracked. In other words, we’re taking an animal which is relatively similar to humans, another mammal, we have a sufficiently good idea of what all the important components of aging are, and of how to actually stop them, that we can have a real effect on the whole of aging as measured by extension of healthy lifespan. After that _ we could reach in 10 years, which is of course subject to funding, I think it will take between 10 and it could even be 100 years to translate that technology to humans. And the reason that’s so open is because even though humans and mice are fairly similar, there are still a lot of little subtle differences, and some of those differences may surprise us. But if you ask me for a 50/50 estimate, an estimate of how long I think it would take us to have a 50/50 chance of getting from the mouse results, from that proof of concept, to get it to work in humans, then I would say 15 – 20 years starting from the mice, so in other words, 25 – 30 years starting from now.
V: So you founded the Methuselah Mouse Prize in order to do this research now. What kind of advances have you seen as a result of that competition?
A: Well, we in the Methuselah Foundation have two major initiatives, of which the Methuselah Mouse Prize is only one. Incidentally, we call the Methuselah Mouse Prize the M-Prize now, just to keep it simple. Now, the M-Prize is a way of incentivizing people to follow their hunches, so to speak – try what they think might work to postpone aging in various different ways, and we think it’s important to do that because even though we in the foundation with me as the chief science officer have a pretty good idea of what we think is going to work against aging, we appreciate that this is science, that there is respect for technology, and we might be wrong, and therefore it’s important to encourage other people to follow their own ideas as well. Furthermore, the M-Prize has been very successful in simply raising the profile of life extension research in a good way, in a way that didn’t trivialize us in any way, and so that’s also very much helped the cause. But the other thing that we do, the direct funding of research that we think is very important and it isn’t being funded in any other way. That’s having just as big an effect, because that’s of course in some sense less high profile, it’s funding things that would take a lot of time explaining the technical importance of, in many cases, but still a really important part of the whole process. Even though, as I mentioned earlier on, at this point we’re not nearly big enough to be able to be funding even a small minority of the things that we’d like to fund.
V: What do you think is the potential upper age limit for people who are alive today?
A: At this point I think it’s fair to say there’s a good chance that people who are alive today, and are still young, children today, there’s a good chance that they have no upper limit on their lifespan. This is, again, coming back to machines, like cars or houses, there is no inherent limit on how long a classic car will live, classic cars just don’t have a mortality rate anymore because we know how to fix them, and carry on fixing them up as long as we like. By definition, a classic car has to have been built before 1905, but 100 years from now, that will still be the definition, 1905, because there’s no reason why it should change. It’s going to be just the same with the human body.
V: Do you believe that we’re merging with our technology, and that eventually physical life extension will become a non-issue if we enter this era of posthumanity?
A: That’s really out of my area of expertise. I keep an open mind about these things, but at this point, I feel that there’s so much we don’t know about the nature of consciousness, and how the brain actually produces consciousness, so to speak, that’s it very hard to say how far we could go in that general direction.
V: What trends are you aware of that people should be looking at?
A: In respect to my own field, I think there are two types of trends that people need to be looking at. One is scientific, and the other is technophilic/technophobic – in other words, people’s attitude towards future technology. On the scientific side, clearly it’s important for people to be looking at the rate at which biotechnology is advancing, and to be paying attention to things like, what the rate of advance in stem cell therapy is likely to mean in terms of the ability to do comprehensive tissue engineering, for example, or to do other things against age-related diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, that require stem cell therapy. In the more social context, in attitudes to science aspect, I think it’s important for people to look at the trends with regard to the way in which people become comfortable with technologies. There are of course some very conspicuous cases where things have gone the other way, where new technologies have come along and the public have reacted very badly to them, and of course different countries have seen that with different technologies. I think that sometimes the public has been justified in that negative reaction, that sometimes there have been vested interests in industries for example that have been pushing things too fast. But other times it’s been a case of the public being poorly informed early on, and getting the wrong idea as a result of perhaps other vested interests wanting the technology to be opposed, so I think it’s important for people to look at the trends with regard to the acceptance of technology, and when it comes to biotechnology, I think the trends are very encouraging by and large, especially biotechnology that has very close relationship to health.
V: And what are some of the big opportunities that the future holds?
A: The sky’s the limit with regard to the opportunities the future holds. I think that a post-aging world gives so many opportunities that it’s almost impossible to know where to start.
V: And as we move forward in time, what are some potential risks?
A: There are risks associated with the transition to a post-aging world , I think that those risks are probably greater than the risks associated with the post-aging world after we’ve got that. Perhaps the biggest risk associated with the transition to a post-aging world is the possibility that the technology will not immediately become available universally. I think we have one thing going for us, which is that there will be a period of at least a decade, probably a good deal longer, when everybody knows the technology is coming, they just don’t know how soon, and that will be a period when society and policymakers around the world can respond to that desire for these things by reacting appropriately so that when the technologies do come along, which of course will be in fits and starts, it can be applied and disseminated to everyone who needs them as quickly as possible. A good bit of forward planning before the technologies come along would certainly (benefit?) at that point.
V: Can you list some specific predictions for the year 2008.
A: For 2008, I think we’re going to carry on seeing an avalanche of reports of breakthroughs in stem cell therapies. I don’t know exactly whether those breakthroughs will predominantly be on the medical side or on the pre-medical side – in other words, in the laboratory. But, either way, we will begin to appreciate that stem cells are coming into control, we are getting to the point where we can manipulate cells to behave in the way we’d like them to, before putting them into the body, so when we put them in the body they can engage in a much more powerful regenerative process than they would naturally do, than the body naturally undertakes. That’ll be a big one. There may, if we’re lucky, be some breakthroughs in gene therapy as well. Gene therapy of course has had a very rocky road over the past 15 years, with some years looked like they were progressing to be extremely (gloomy?), some years when it seemed as though the whole thing was never going to work and it was going to be too dangerous and so on. I think we’re coming now to the point where there are sufficiently many good ideas out there that are being followed, that it’s only a matter of time before a really big breakthrough is made with regard to gene therapy that’s really safe and really effective, and 2008 could be the year.
V: Again for 2008 – Do you see any disruptive events occurring that people really don’t see coming?
A: Well, there are not very many years in which no disruptive events occur, yea, but by definition I don’t know what they’re going to be.
V: Do you have any specific prediction for the next 5 years, through 2012?
A: I think in the next 5 years we have a very good chance of seeing a complete phase change in people’s attitude to what aging is. In other words, to the distinction, or lack of it, between aging and age-related diseases. I think the reason that’s probably going to happen is because even quite conservative mainstream biologists who study aging have now begun to appreciate that that’s the correct method to be giving people. People who work on the biology of aging have known forever that’s it’s not really biologically useful or biologically accurate to regard aging as distinct from age-related diseases, but rather that aging is just the collective early stage of the age-related diseases. But for a long time, it was felt to be somewhat politically useful or easy to understand or something to regard aging as simply separate, something that’s completely different from age-related diseases. That’s now changing, and I think that if it changes in what sort of words the mainstream gerontology uses, when you get them on the radio or the television, then it’s going to be a change of attitude as well – and a very important change because that’s really the essential first step towards getting people to understanding that aging is bad for you and we need to do something about it.
V: And what about for the next 10 years, what predictions do you have through 2017?
A: I think that 10 years is the sort of time frame where, as I mentioned earlier on, we have a good chance of actually developing all of the various age reversal technologies that we need in mice, and therefore we will be at the point, there’s a good probability I think, by 2017, of having mice that can be comprehensively rejuvenated and thereby kept alive for a good deal extra time in a good healthy state, thereby convincing people that not only is aging bad for you, but that it can actually be majorly effected and postponed even starting late in life in an animal that is quite similar anatomically to the human.