Moderate life extension: yes, maximum: no, interview with Huber Warner

huber warnerHuber R. Warner is a biochemist by profession and he initiated and participated in the development of many research areas including: cellular senescence, oxidative stress, apoptosis, functional genomics, the intervention testing program, and premature aging models. He currently serves on the editorial board of Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, is the editor of the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences, and is a fellow of the Gerontological Society of America. In latest Rejuvenation Research there is a valuable discussion between Warner and de Grey about the SENS project.

1. What is the story of your contra maximum life extension commitment?

I worked at the National Institutes of Health in the USA managing a grant program to fund research on the biology of aging for 21 years (1984-2005). As a member of the Federal government, I learned to be careful when speaking about science and health issues so as not to mislead the public about what had been experimentally proven vs. what was merely promising, hypothetical, or in progress.

2. Do you support moderate life extension? If not, what are your arguments against it?

I’m not against life extension, as numerous experiments with animal models have shown that increased longevity is routinely accompanied by increased health span, something that probably no one is against. However, we felt we had to be careful how we framed our goals, especially when speaking to legislators, as life span extension can conjure up the image of an exploding number of older frail people hanging around draining the resources of the government.

3. What is your (strongest) argument against maximum life extension? What are the problems with the present technological drafts of maximum life extension?

I believe that arguments for maximum (I’m not sure what you mean by this word) extension are irresponsible, and provide false hope to those who want to live for hundreds of years, a goal I see as not remotely possible. My argument is mostly a belief that biology is too messy and stochastic for us to be able to fix all the things that go wrong continuously in living systems. The argument made by Aubrey de Grey that we now know all the damage that needs to be dealt with to slow, stop or even reverse ageing seems overly optimistic to me. His intention to prevent cancer by inhibiting telomerase activity in all cells is sure to have critical unintended consequences for stem cells and our ability to mount an adequate immune response, in my opinion. Stem cells are what allow us to live as long as we do without developing major pathology, and our immune system allows us to resist bacteria and viruses, that we are exposed to constantly (just think about what happens in AIDS!). To me, this is the most controversial plank in his SENS agenda.

Update: Although telomerase-deficient mice have reduced cancer incidence, some cancer still occurs in these mice. 11.29.

4. What can You do against the type of life extension you do not prefer?

Continue to support careful and hypothesis-driven science.

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5 thoughts on “Moderate life extension: yes, maximum: no, interview with Huber Warner

  1. In my experience, the arguments of the anti-life extension (and anti-SENS in particular) gerontologists always make it obvious that they haven’t bothered to read Aubrey de Grey’s publications. Warner is no exception.

    “My argument is mostly a belief that biology is too messy and stochastic for us to be able to fix all the things that go wrong continuously in living systems. The argument made by Aubrey de Grey that we now know all the damage that needs to be dealt with to slow, stop or even reverse ageing seems hopelessly optimistic to me.”

    Firstly, Aubrey de Grey hasn’t ever stated what Warner claims. What de Grey actually argues is that we know enough about aging that given sufficient funding (1 billion over the first 10 years and more thereafter) we have a reasonable chance of reaching escape velocity (which does not require anywhere near a complete understanding of aging from the start). He also admits that there is no garantee that even with this funding anybody alive today will make it to escape velocity, but that given 100,000 people die every day of aging, it is absurd not to give it our best try, for the sooner we start, the sooner people can benefit.

    Warner also gets specifics about the science wrong.

    “Stem cells are what allow us to live as long as we do without developing major pathology, and our immune system allows us to resist bacteria and viruses, that we are exposed to constantly (just think about what happens in AIDS!).”

    Replacement of stem cells is a necessary component of WILT, including those that maintain the immune system. There may be other valid criticisms of WILT, but this is not one of them, so the only thing Warner accomplishes here is to prove that he has not taken the trouble to read Aubrey’s proposals in any depth.

  2. The quest for longevity seems misguided. Cancer cells live longer than healthy cells, and can be practically immortal, so the argument that science can supply us with longer lives may be naively true, but at what cost to the larger host?

    Longevity counts for nothing if it is out of harmony with its host environment. An obsessive quest for longevity would be like a cancer on the Earth, perhaps already is.

  3. Perhaps, but we won’t know until we achieve such life extension. Society will have to make a choice : population limiting legislation (there are a number of different options) or taking ever more of the planets resources.

  4. I think is too early to make accurate speculations about the potential impact of incoming regmed and antiaging tech, in either way (AKA: I think we´ll have to wait and see. Nonetheless reg. medicine looks promising, as Attila points out, both by its possibilities, and by synergy with others)

    As for WILT, I agree with the man. Most of the other SENS proposals have varying degrees of merit (through some seem more useful than others), but WILT seems a bad idea at a glance (geneering every cell in the body is a radical intervention, removing telomerase would cause progeria, reseeding the stem cells in every organ is ANOTHER very radical intervention, and telomerase is thought to have a constitutive role aside telomere lenghtening), and de Grey´s experiments with it tend to confirm this impression (WILTed mice aged prematurely, stem cell reseeding didnt work, and some mice still got cancer through an alternate pathway).
    STILL, apparently the man intends to get some people to investigate both the constitutive role of telomerase, and the alternate pathway. If he solves those two matters, there will have been a net benefit out of the idea.

    Frankly, if you want to limit the proliferative potential of stem cells, I think the right idea is (as stated in the last edition of Harrison´s, BTW. I think it´s already being one in gene therapy too) to insert killer genes in them, not cut off telomerase

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