Ouroboros’ Chris Patil: answers to life extension questions I.

Ouroboros is a weblog mainly for people in the life sciences focusing on the different aspects of aging research through scanning articles published in peer-review journals. The blogger behind is Chris Patil, a postdoctoral fellow, currently working with Judith Campisi in the Life Sciences division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, California. If Fight Aging! is the life extension movement itself, than Ouroboros is the high-end scientific basis of it. The second part is about the technological question of LE, and the third is the answer to what can blogs do for LE.

ouroboros1. What is the story of your life extension commitment?

I got interested in the prospect of life extension very early in my undergraduate education, before I knew much about biology and before I was even sure I wanted to be a biologist (I had originally planned to study chemistry or chemical engineering).

I had read a few articles about DNA damage, mitochondria and aging, which had of course convinced me that mitochondrial DNA damage was the causative force in all human aging (18-year-olds with no scientific training are remarkably easy to convince of anything), and it seemed obvious that all we’d have to do is go in and repair mitochondrial DNA in every cell of the body, and cure aging. Et voilà. It seemed painfully obvious and trivially simple to me.

Meanwhile I’d realized that most of what had interested me about chemistry was actually about biology, so I decided to become a biologist instead of a chemist. Over time I developed the idea of eventually working on the biology of aging with an eye toward life extension research. I’ve taken a lot of detours along the way but never strayed too far: I worked on DNA repair, and then cellular stress, and finally I’m studying cellular senescence.

2. Is it a commitment for moderate or maximum life extension?

No one ever hits higher than they aim, so I think we should aim for maximum. It’s very hard to predict the future so I don’t spend much energy trying to project current trends and extrapolate future progress. There are gigantic operational hurdles with the development of life extension therapy (how do you know it’s working in real time, without waiting for people to start dying? how do you get the drugs approved in the current legal climate), and I expect that any progress will be necessarily incremental.

I’ll risk making myself unpopular with the readership and say that studying the biology of aging is more important at present than deciding that we understand given aspects of aging well enough to start developing human therapeutics. For example, as I blogged recently, a lot of evidence suggests that accelerating autophagy might slow aging, but even newer evidence suggests that increased autophagy kills neurons in late life. So if we’d jumped on the autophagy train and developed therapeutics based on the earlier observations, we might have ended up with a bunch of lab rats (or, perish the thought, human trial subjects) with beautiful young bodies and brains made of swiss cheese — all because we didn’t have the patience to wait.

On the other hand, no one’s going to send us an email and let us know when it’s time, so we have to use our best judgment. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t push forward. Rather, we need to keep in mind that (a) nothing in the human biology of aging is a “solved problem”, and (b) it’s important to have good animal studies before we start feeding novel compounds to humans based on our hopeful interpretations of very new findings.

3. What is your favourite argument supporting human life extension?

On the ideological side, I just think it’s a waste to have to die. It takes us a long time to figure this “life” thing out, and I find the moving-goalposts aspect of aging and decrepitude very frustrating. Additionally, there are so many things that I’d like to see with my own eyes, not just my imagination, things that require what we now think of as generations of time: planetary exploration, for one. Fixing the planet we’ve got, for another.

On the practical side, aging doesn’t seem necessary. The machine of our bodies is great at renewing itself early in our lives, and we know of lots of ways to keep it in good shape for a long time (exercise being my favorite example; and while I’m less convinced than some, I think calorie restriction is very promising). It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine prolonging the process of renewal substantially, if not indefinitely.

5. When?

Earlier this year I attended the Singularity Summit at Stanford. As I sat there watching Ray Kurzweil and others throw a rapid series of log-log plots up on the screen and extrapolate madly from current trends, I mostly thought they sounded like hacks.

So while I’m willing to say things like “stem cells will be in the clinic in five to ten years,” I’m not going to even bother making specific projections about life extension therapy. It will happen when it happens. I’m convinced by the argument that the best strategy is to keep one’s body as healthy as possible so that one has the best chance of taking advantage of new therapies when they become available.