Scientific Information

Wednesday, January 19th, 2000

YOU ARE CURRENTLY SEEING BLOG POSTS IN PROPER CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER. While in this mode, the links at the bottom and top of each page are not correctly labeled. However, the left pointing arrow always advances forward in time, and the right pointing arrow retreats.

A natural phenomenon, certainly

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

I hasten to add that I don’t mean to suggest there are supernatural beings in the world. Rather, it is simply the case that there is an “aging clock” built into organisms that makes them get old on a certain schedule depending on the species. A mutation might shut down the clock. Such a person would grow to maturity, and from then on have the appearance of someone in their mid-20s forever. (That is to say, unless they are injured.)

I’m going to interview some biologists to get more information on this essential topic, which I will post soon. — Stephen

What a biologist told me

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

I finally had a chance to talk to a biologist, as I promised I would do.  She is a leading investigator into what is called “the aging clock.”  According to this theory — and, she hastens to add, it’s only a theory — advanced organisms have a type of programmed aging built into their systems.  This can be seen most dramatically by comparing common pigeons with a similar sized bird called the Japanese quail.  A Japanese quail begins age at a year and a half, losing tail feathers and so on.  But in a pigeon, those signs don’t appear for about fifteen years.  That’s a factor of ten. The birds are otherwise very similar, and so it is reasonable to hypothesize that the difference in life span is due to a built in biological control mechanism.  Now, if we apply the same factor of ten to ourselves, might we not come up with someone who seems in a practical sense “immortal?”  Or, what if in some of them the aging clock is stopped entirely?  A person like that would never age at all.

It would have to be a rare mutation (or set of mutations.)  But it is not impossible. Even a dyed-in-the wool skeptic like me can consider a possibility such as this.

And, if such a set of mutations were discovered, it could lead to an intervention: Using a gene altering retrovirus, these genes could in theory be inserted into ordinary mortals, like you and me. (Biologists already know how to build retroviruses to deliver a genetic payload, though some practical problems remain.) — Stephen

A whole set of fascinating questions

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Strattera, your post raises a whole set of fascinating questions. There are enormous practical difficulties for a person who does not age to move through our society without being identified. I think we’ve already established that personal security would be of immense importance to such a person: they have eternity to lose, whereas we have only a finite life span at risk. But the current era makes anonymity difficult. It appears that the person you and Flyss met has taken the approach of acquiring great power, as opposed to “the Aussie,” who seems merely to hide.

You also raise an interesting biological question. If the aging clock is disabled, or slowed, would that in some way allow regeneration of damaged tissue? Certainly, if this does not happen, one would expect an immortal to gradually accumulate wear and tear — and would that include such things as arthritis? I’ll need to check with a biologist friend of mine. – Stephen

Life expectancy is way up. But that doesn’t mean we’re living longer!

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Stephen asked me to look up some data relevant to our recent discussion and report it here. (He’s still on the run, and his Internet access is limited.)

He wants me to point out a common misconception about advances in life expectancy. What he said surprised me. I had the same misconception as everyone else. I thought since life expectancy has gone up, it must mean that we’re all living longer. But it turns out that it isn’t true. Even though life expectancy has gone up dramatically, people aren’t living very much longer at all nowadays than they were a century ago.

I know that sounds like a paradox. But Stephen turned out to be right. He pretty much had the numbers in his head, but I looked up some published statistics so I could report facts rather than information from his encyclopedic brain. I’m using data from the US to create this report. World data is even more dramatic, but it’s harder to pin down.

First, look at life expectancy at birth:

  • 1890:  42 expected years at birth
  • 1990: 72 expected years at birth

This is an amazing increase of 30 years of life per individual! But does in mean we’re living longer? Actually, no. Look at life expectancy at age 60.

  • 1890: 14.7 expected years at age 60
  • 1990: 18.7 expected years at age 60

This is an increase of only 3 life years per person! In other words, though fewer people made it to 60 in the past, once they did they lived basically as long as we do today.

I had no idea. — Strattera

Step 1 in the revolution

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Continuing from my last post.

Among the purely biological, non-supernatural approaches to attaining indefinite life extension, the best known and most worked out is that of Aubrey de Grey. The name of his approach captures its flavor: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS)

These are “strategies,” or lines of research, not guaranteed methods. The technique involved engineering, that least idealized of all branches of science. The aim is not immortality but greatly reduced aging.

One can take issue with certain of these strategies, and I intend to. But, broadly speaking, this is clearly the approach most likely to succeed.  It will be incremental, not sudden, and come in pieces not as a whole. As a thought experiment, imagine this scenario:

(1) It becomes possible via stem cells, to maintain the elastin in skin, thus eliminating the laxity that leads to wrinkles.  This is combined with methods for reversing sun damage leading to eternally youthful appearance.

(2) Similar methods (stem cells to restore joint fluid and cartilage) are used to reverse osteoarthritis, eliminating the joint pain that cripples so many and irritates most. Bone thinning is also stopped. (This is possible with currently available medications.)

(3) Age related mental decline is stopped by preventing the mini-strokes that lead to the most common cause of memory and cognitive deficits in seniors; Alzheimer’s disease is successfully overcome via an approach yet to be determined.

(4) Vision loss is entirely stopped through a combination of biological and technological fixes; hearing loss is reversed via cochlear implants (possible today, though expensive)

These together would lead to seniors who look young, have no joint pain, maintain full mental function, and can see and hear clearly. All of these are within reach. This is most likely the first step in the revolution.

Note that these “cosmetic changes” will have life extension consequences, as much of aging involves the sequellae of mental confusion, loss of hearing and vision, and difficulty in maintaining physical activity. But, in general, this is an anti-aging strategy, not a life extension one. For that, we need to consider some more dramatic methods. (Continued in my next post) — Stephen

Engineering the body

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Continued from my last post.

I had mentioned Aubrey de Grey’s Strategies for Delayed Senescence, or SENS. These consist of a set of seven research approaches, about which the SENS foundation says the following:

It is important to understand that these seven ‘planks’ are a description of SENS, rather than a definition, and could, in theory, change or grow as we progress in our research efforts and deepen our understanding of the challenges which face us, and their solutions.”

I would prefer to address SENS on these terms. However, one must deal with the fact that within the SENS foundation there is a strong tendency to fall into habits of guru worship and doctrinal certainty.  This is a natural human temptation, but it is unfortunate as it weakens a very strong underlying argument.

Keeping this in mind, the seven planks of SENS may be summarized and critiqued in very simplified form as follows:

(1) OncoSens: To delay death, cancer must be prevented. This is probably the most difficult aspect of the program. The specific techniques of interest to the SENSF may or may not be the most fruitful for dealing with cancer. Ultimately, this set of diseases involved mistakes in the copying of information when cells divide, and, as such, is a hard problem to solve from scratch.  The body itself uses a variety of ad hoc methods to address the problem; we may need to augment them.

(2) MitoSens: This component of SENS is truly staggering and original. The mitochondria are, in a sense, cells within our cells, the remnants of ancient more primeval life forms that our own single-celled ancestors gobbled up and kept alive. (This is not controversial in mainstream science.) However, the DNA in the mitochondria is less protected from damage than the DNA in the cell nucleus. Since gradual decay of mitochondria may play a major role in aging, why not move mitochondrial DNA to the cell nucleus? This could be accomplished via therapeutic retroviruses, for example.

(3) LysoSens: This approach is based on the notion that many problems come from accumulated “junk: within cells. Some planks of this theory may be currently falling apart, but there is no doubt some truth to it. It may be possible to introduce external processes to remove this junk.

(4) AmyloSens: A similar problem occurs with accumulations outside cells, and similar critiques and solutions apply.

(5) RepleniSens: There is very little doubt that many aspects of aging are caused by loss of entire cell lines. Treatment for this is probably not far from the realm of currently known science, and could lead, among other things, to the benefits I described in this post.

(6) ApoptoSens: Certain cells are meant to die, to “apoptose.” When they do not, they may need help with their sepuku. There are numerous means proposed for accomplishing this.

(7) GlycoSens: Cells may become entangled with each other, leading to brittleness and other problems. This too is amenable to an engineering fix. (To be continued.) — Stephen

Conclusion: We can and will do this

Friday, July 9th, 2010

In my last post, I described the seven planks of Aubrey de Grey’s approach to achieving indefinite life span. I also suggested that many of the specifics in these approaches may be incorrect. It is very easy to be overconfident about what we know about the body; the entire history of medicine could be described as a narrative of such overconfidence. Thus, I do not necessarily believe that these seven planks are in fact precisely the way forward. What they are instead is a means of looking at the problem as solvable. Dr. de Grey is telling us is, “Don’t just explore. Aim at accomplishing!”

One might therefore compare him to Francis Bacon: In his Novum Organum, Bacon laid out the general direction that science would take for the next several centuries, and opened up the vistas in which it would succeed. He was writing in 1620, and got many details wrong. But his fundamental perspective was entirely right.

Thus, various specific components of SENS may include errors: e.g, telomere shortening, amyloid accumulation and mitochondrial free radical damage may all be red herrings. But the overall drive is undoubtedly correct: We can and will do this. — Stephen