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Friday, 27 November 2015

Can We Live Forever - Edinburgh Science Festival

This is the first of two blogs written on the back of my Edinburgh Science Festival talk earlier this year. The first about ageing research generally, the second is about the drugs.

I was delighted (well one has to say that) to be invited to take part in the debate on drugs to treat ageing along with Prof Tom Kirkwood and  Lynne Cox At the Edinburgh Science Festival. Tom is, in my opinion just about as world expertly as you can even get on ageing and Lynne works directly on rapamycin so I was at first surprised to be invited along to join them. ...but then there is currently quite a lot of hysteria and nonsense published in newspapers about these drugs (rapamycin, resveratrol, metformin etc) and I suppose I am well known to be unable to help myself for ranting on about this!! So I guess that is why I was asked. That being a long winded way of saying, that whilst I would have loved to have shown up and said "its all very promising and exciting" (which it isn't), but even if I believed it, that was not my remit!
So what is the status of ageing research? In the words of the debate... "Can We Live Forever"? Now lets translate "forever" to "for a thousand years or so". Can we? Well that we can is the claims of some very famous writers on the topic.
In 2004 Aubrey de Grey famously told the BBC that the first person to live to 1000 has already reached 60. Now Aubrey de Grey is a fine writer and (read his bio on Wikipedia) has become quite famous for this, but lets face it, with a name like Aubrey de Grey and a hansom beard like that you've kind of got to be haven't you!
"The first person to live for 1000 years may already be 60 years old".  Or they might not be of course.

I frankly don't believe this for a moment. Sadly, I expect many people who were 60 in 2004 have probably died already and those that haven't now have a life expectancy, on average, of about 15 years. Sorry guys. But the claim got attention, wealthy people who are desperate to live for ever, probably plough money into the research Institute and hopefully something medically useful will come out of it. Albeit, not immortality. Some big noisy writers on the topic of living forever include Ray Kurzweil, I say "writers" deliberately. I don't see a lot of evidence that some are actually real scientists (??). Their thesis is (my interpretation) if you believe every newspaper headline about life prolonging strategies (drinking loads of red wine, avoiding salt, eating buckets of vitamins and antioxidants, avoiding calories as far as possible) it will prolong your life for the decades necessary for someone to find a total "cure" for ageing. I think that is deluded, desperate and dangerous.

Deluded? It's just scientifically without foundation. Just because a vitamin deficiency causes illness, it doesn't mean a massive excess is beneficial. Chemical balance between oxidation and reduction is a normal part of animal (including human) biochemistry and you muck it up at your peril. 
Desperate? My impression is that they are irrationally keen to live on forever. Why? To me it's like, well money is nice, but do you really need all the money in the world to be happy? The medical issue in the world is people and our pets dying early. ...and disease, chronic pain and disability in the elderly. ...but if I accept that they honestly desire to live forever (as opposed to exploiting desperate and ill people by persuading them to by the books in full knowledge its nonsense)... this methodology is rubbish anyway!! 
Dangerous? Their bottom line is that we should ignore official medical advice and do loads of extreme home remedy interventions which will probably do more harm than good.

So do I believe we can live for 1000 years?  Well I read a lot of science fiction and really this is where we are now. There is no foreseeable "cure" for ageing as such because it is not a disease.  Ageing is probably not an evolved feature involving genes which age you that can be deleted, more it is a case that EVERY gene has been geared to the survival of the young for long enough to breed. Beyond that, we are evolutionarily ignored.  Changing ALL the genes to allow infinite life is sci-fi and the one-drug-to-treat-them-all idea is ridiculous. To change breeding habits of humans is out of the question, ...but in animal models where we can work for generations of creatures I think we could double or triple life expectancy. I'm thinking pedigree dogs.  Take the poor Bernese with a life expectancy of 6 years.  If you only bred from long lived animal lines (looking back at the Dam and Sir's ancestry) I think you would pretty soon (dozens of years) be able to get these creatures to live MUCH longer ...and of course bringing some longer-lived breed blood lines into the pure breed would potentially change the breed characteristics little, but speed the process up a lot. So why does nobody do this? Go Figure.