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A Cure for Aging?

Interview with Jonathan Weiner, author of <i>Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality</i>

Feel like there are never enough hours in the day? That you’re getting old faster than you’d prefer? Maybe, then, you’d like to tack a few extra years on your life. And as long as you’re at it, might as well go for broke. Why bother adding just five or 10 years when you could shoot for 100, 500 or even 1,000 extra years?

Immortality is where science fiction meets modern science meets the stuff of legend. And yet new research suggests that it might be possible—that is, in the next few decades—to “cure” aging, as if it were just any other disease. One group of prominent gerontologists is urging the world to take up an initiative the size of the space program to battle what they call the coming “global aging crisis.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Weiner wades into this nascent field with his latest book, Long for This World. He takes readers on a journey that spans centuries—from Adam and Eve to the most promising cutting-edge molecular biology. He introduces readers to Aubrey de Grey, a long-bearded eccentric who guzzles dark ale in a Cambridge pub while pushing the boundaries of aging research.

With Weiner's storyteller’s ability to explain complex chemistry using everyday metaphor, his book about the quest for immortality reads like The Da Vinci Code. But it has enormous implications for our nation’s science priorities—and offers a glimpse of mind-boggling possibilities.

He spoke with the AARP Bulletin.

Q. The quest for immortality is as old as man. Do you feel like you fully understand the biology of aging, or have you just scratched the surface?

A. I don’t think anybody on earth understands the biology of aging. I get it about as well as one can after years spent talking to the world’s leading experts, but they’re shaking their heads, too.

Q. Are there any creatures right now that come close to being immortal?

A. There are. One of them is the hydra—not the mythical one—which live in ponds and puddles. They last until the water dries up. They can regenerate each one of their cells using stem cells. They age so negligibly that it’s practical immortality.

Q. Why can’t we be more like that hydra?

A. We’re so much more complicated than the hydra. It doesn’t have consciousness or memory, the gifts we have from our big brains. Our brains and our memories can’t regenerate themselves perfectly forever, the way hydras can replace their stalk or tentacles ad infinitum.

Q. But we do regenerate constantly. In fact, you offer readers a powerful image—each of us is the phoenix.

A. At the molecular level, we are burning ourselves up and being reborn, almost every second of our lives. If only we could do that again and again, we would have the immortal life of the phoenix.

Q. It’s easy to assume that our days on earth are finite. But once you read about the current advances and realize immortality might actually be achievable, something quite magical shifts in your perspective.

A. We’re talking about two big questions: “Can we?” and “Should we?” And whether we should is at least as hard to deal with as whether we can.

Q. How so?

A. Because you’re changing everything. Would you even be the same person if you lived 1,000 years? Would you even be human? Most of our institutions would have to adjust. Would you want to promise your spouse “forever” if you thought you were going to live 1,000 years? It would certainly give more couples cold feet at the altar.

Q. But there are an incredible number of good reasons to want a much longer life.

A. Absolutely. You’d still have the youth and energy to reinvent yourself. You wouldn’t be stuck in choices you didn’t like. You could start over. So radical life extension is not black and white—it’s a fascinating mix of fantasy and nightmare.

Q. Which are the most promising theories on aging?

A. The leading molecular theories are:

  • Chronic inflammation, which seems like it’s clearly bad for you.
  • The error catastrophe theory still has life in it. That’s the theory that our cells are gradually accumulating mutations as we get older, and even those that don’t lead to tumors can still derail the works.
  • There’s the garbage catastrophe hypothesis, which theorizes that our cells are filling up with junk—the submicroscopic waste our cells can’t clear out. The more molecular junk there is, the less efficient cells are, and the more frail we grow.

Q. Are there other kinds of theories?

A. There are also evolutionary theories, such as the disposable soma theory that holds that humans didn’t evolve to live forever because we were going to get chewed up by a lion or freeze to death before we got back to the cave. So evolution never worried much about what the body suffered after our 20s, it created a disposable body; all that matters is that you grow up to the age of reproduction.

Q. The disposable soma theory seems to ignore one not-so-minor detail: how beneficial grandparents are to their children.

A. That’s right, and the grandmother hypothesis is also alive and well. That’s the theory that we live so much longer than the other primates because we can pass on our culture and wisdom as we grow older, that we have value long past the age of reproduction. It’s a virtuous cycle—the more culture we have to pass on, the more value we have, so the longer we live. Families with long-lived, helpful grandparents do better than families who don’t.

Q. You spend a lot of time talking about the work of theoretical biologist Aubrey de Grey, the fairly controversial gerontologist.

A. Aubrey has a gigantic beard, always a beer in his hand and talks a mile a minute. But I don’t want to just make him out to be a joke. I don’t think he’s going to be remembered as one of an infinitely long line of charlatans going back to Dr. Faust.

(Read about the author’s final conversation with de Grey in this excerpt from Long for This World.)

Q. Which theory of his seems to hold the most promise?

A. He and a group of eminent gerontologists published a big policy paper. They argue that we need to be pushing research on all these fronts—looking at calorie restriction [CR] and drugs like resveratrol that mimic what calorie restriction might do. That’s where a lot of the serious research money is now—in the search for calorie restriction mimetics. And then there’s Aubrey, who is promoting a less fashionable approach that may turn out to be the better strategy. Aubrey thinks we shouldn’t intervene in metabolism, like the CR mimetics, but instead focus on cleaning up the junk metabolism produces.

Q. He makes it sound so easy! Clean up all the garbage in the cells, and suddenly we can cure any disease. Is there anything to it?

A. At least in principle, it’s an easier strategy than tinkering with our metabolism. As he says, the junk is inert. If you could clean up the junk, maybe the body would function much more smoothly for much longer. Serious gerontologists are willing to talk about that as a plausible strategy. But he’s awfully optimistic about how quickly we can get from here to there—maybe in as little as 15 years.

Q. Some of his ideas for how to become immortal are terrifying, almost abhorrent.

A. He thinks we can destroy our cells’ ability to regenerate themselves, and put that ability in the hands of doctors. The process is called WILT, and even Aubrey acknowledges that it’s creepy. But I think he pushes the approach because it at least suggests one way that we can cure aging—that even cancer isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. It’s a hopeful idea. But in many ways it’s ugly, repellent and fantastical—and makes most gerontologists really mad.

Q. How would it work?

A. First, doctors would have to kill all of our stem cells, using chemotherapy. Then they’d replace them with genetically engineered stem cells that could not turn cancerous. They’d give you fresh stem cells—using bone marrow transplants and other procedures—every 10 years or so, for however long you live, potentially thousands of years. Without those additional procedures your body would wear out fast.

Q. It seems like nature has gone out of its way to make us finite.

A. The theory of aging has really supplanted that idea. We have exquisite examples of engineering design from head to toe—the way the eye sees, the hand picks up objects. But aging is not that way. The maintenance work goes beautifully when we’re 10, it still goes well when we’re 20, and then it gradually gets less efficient. It’s not that we were designed to fall apart, but evolution was looking the other way. Evolution was focusing on getting us to our early 20s, since very few people lived past that age. Now it’s up to us to decide how much we want to take care of ourselves.

Q. The National Institutes of Health spends as little as $10 million per year to research biological aging. That’s a far cry from what we’re spending on medical care for the elderly—Medicare’s annual budget, for example, is $430 billion and rising.

A. And it might even be less than $10 million. Everybody accepts the need to search for a cure for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But we still have trouble imagining it might make sense to look for a cure for aging. Yet you can make the case that slowing aging would provide a wonderful attack on all those diseases at once. After all, the single biggest risk factor for late-onset diseases is your later years.

Q. Then why is the study of aging such a tiny field?

A. This whole field should be better known. Here we are talking about the central problem of human existence—mortality. We now have drugs that seem to be pointing toward treatments for aging. And they’re not quackery anymore, they’re real. I think that changes everything.

Christie Findlay lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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