April's CR Diary

A diary of a 30 year old woman following CRON, or Caloric Restriction with Optimal Nutrition, for health and life extension.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Don't Ever Think That You Can't Change the Past and the Future

[Note: This was originally published on December 1, 2004, but I am republishing it here so you can find it easily after reading the previous entry.]

Great line from Kate Bush's "Love and Anger," a song I got off a mix tape that an arguably crazy sixteen year old red-headed percussionist made for me in 1990.

And the title of this post because I think it sums up Aubrey de Grey's approach to curing aging.

I still have so much to read, and I would love it if my readers would hop on over to the SENS (that's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, or, to quote Michael Rae's t-shirt, "Engineering the Fountain of Youth") website to read the same stuff I'm reading for yourself. Here's that web address again:

What I find most inspiring about reading de Grey's work is that he thinks aging can be not just slowed, or treated symptomatically, but cured in the same sense that we can now cure a person who has a deadly infection by treating him with antibiotics: one day you are suffering from a fatal disease that has killed untold legions before you, and after a few treatments it's gone, and you're as healthy as if you had never been infected. De Grey also seems to think that the belief that aging can't be cured is the main thing standing between us and a real solution.

I'm not going to say too much here about de Grey's work because I really want you to read about it for yourself, and I think you're more likely to that if I don't make a lame attempt to explain the rather complicated concepts that he makes comprehensible. Just go click and read for yourself. Go on now, go on and do it. I'm watching you. I'm going to be mad if you don't.

You'll note, if you actually did as you were told, that on the front page of the SENS website is a button to click to "Donate to the Methuselah Mouse Prize." Do you want to know what that is? Well, go click on it! I don't even make you search the CR Society archives all that often, the least you could do is click the button on the pretty website.

There you go. Now, I bring this up because said prize was the topic of a debate I witnessed on Friday night of the CR Society Conference.

To make a long story short, or not so short: a group of us were getting up to leave after this absolutely fascinating meeting about the CR Society medical study, and my head was already spinning from the utter fabulousness of watching the brilliant people in the CR Society work. As we were winding up the meeting, I said something to the effect of, "Well, let me know if you ever need a fundraiser." The glow in MR's eyes (bright, bright blue) went up a couple of points, and I told the story of how ever since he put on his email signature that the profits from the movie Spiderman could pay for some giant amount of anti-aging reserach, I had been going around threatening to raise the $23 million. When I asked what specifically he would do with $23 million, he said he would put it into the Methuselah Mouse Prize Fund.

From all over the room, questions began to fly...

Questioner 1: "Why would you put the money into the Mouse?"

Questioner 2: "If you had $23 million, why not fund research directly, instead of putting the money into a prize?"

Questioner 3: "But Michael, what about CR, and all the evidence that it prevents diseases like cancer and heart disease? After all, we are the CR Society."

The debate that erupted continued for about two hours, with Michael fielding questions from all sides. I am a bit foggy about some of the transitions, but it came down to basically this:

We need a large amount of money, directed only at the actual prevention/reversal of aging. The problem with this is that nobody wants to fund it with venture capital because guess what... it takes a long time to see if people will die! As soon as a CR mimetic drug looks promising, for example if it looks like it can also be a cancer drug or some such thing, then all the capital goes into that, since a profit can be made right now, and the studies are shorter term. For example: Geron was founded by Michael West to exploit telomerase as the cellular fountain of youth. Venture capital got excited about this early on, because West put forward a powerful pitch at a crucial time (the early, optimistic inflation of the biotech bubble), but investors rapidly lost interest in the long term goals and began insisting that Geron be forthcoming with a drug get into the drug development pipeline post haste. So telomerase as anti-aging enzyme became telomerase as a target for inhibition as a cancer treatment. The same thing has happened to all of the biotech companies that have initially made their buzz by promising anti-aging drugs: Sirtris, Elixir, and all the way down.

So while it's great that CR and CR mimetics would prevent or postpone disease, the constant chasing of cures for diseases is actually diverting resources from research to fight aging itself. Short term profits can be made on curing diseases like cancer... meanwhile, research on the cure for the disease that everyone gets (aging) is pathetically underfunded.

As you may have observed, people who actually have diseases are willing to pay a lot to cure them. Patients and their advocates are also very politically active in pushing for -- and getting! -- government funding for work on their specific diseases, whereas as yet only a few people with the universal disease do so. A huge percentage of the National Institute on Aging and National Institute of Mental Health budget goes into Alzheimer's disease, for example, despite the logic of diminishing returns: as people undergo biological aging, they will get sicker in body and mind, and neither a powerful treatment nor an outright cure for Alzheimer's disease will save them from the long downward spiral. As Leonard Hayflick has said, cures for all of the "diseases of aging" will not make us live forever or even significantly extend our healthy years, but would simply “reveal the underlying cause of all age-associated diseases, that is the physiological decrements characteristic of the aging process itself. We will not become immortal because the inexorable loss in physiological capacity (the hallmark of the aging process) will cause most deaths and will require a new vocabulary to …describe for the majority of deaths the loss of function in some vital organ.” Cure for cancer or no, each and every one of us is slowly dying of chronic aging, but the funding for research doesn't reflect that reality.

So now we come to one of my favorites of de Grey's points: people are so convinced that stopping aging is impossible, that they don't even want to try. They're willing to put massive resources into searching for the cure for diseases, but when you start to talk about curing aging itself, people look at you like you just stepped out of a science fiction movie.

Meanwhile, back in the CR meeting room, the questions kept flying:

Questioner 1: "We all agree that we need to fund the research. I think we might be able to fund the real anti-aging research by generating interest in a normal, mainstream sounding foundation that will help people be healthy. We obviously need large, huge amounts of money. How can this be raised without appealing to a broader audience than life-extensionists like ourselves?"

Michael: "What we need to do is convince more people to believe that curing aging is possible, then get them to do something about it."

Questioner 2: "But Michael, what if you can't get normal people to believe that?"

Michael: "That's the whole point of getting people involved who know how to change other people's minds. It's going to take more than just scientists to cure aging... we have to mobilize the political will to fund the project. I believe we can do it... and April, people like you can play an important role. You have great skills at organizing, persuading, and supporting people in the formation of mass movements, even in the face of peoples' aquired defeatism and false consciousness. Not to make you personally responsible for changing the world or anything..."

[At this point I am in shock that Michael Rae thinks there's something I can do to help. My head is spinning, and I'm fairly sure it's not just low blood sugar.]

Meanwhile, the other people in the room, oblivious to my shock and surprise, keep firing off questions at Michael.

The need for vast amounts of money is one thing everyone in the room can agree on.

Michael: "The Prize is good because it provides an incentive for scientists to pursue, and for venture capital to fund, research directly targeting intervention into the aging process. If they're successful, then we jubilantly hand over the prize money; if they're wrong, we haven't lost any money on a failed experiment and can continue to dangle the prize money in front of more scientists and investors."

Questioner 1: "I think we should take that $23 million that April's threatening to raise and fund the research ourselves, instead of using money as a motivation for others to do it."

Michael: "But we can't hope to fund all the research ourselves, and we certainly can't know in advance which projects will be successful. Many plausible anti-aging interventions have already been tested and have flopped. We could blow millions and have nothing but a bunch of dead rats."

Questioner 3: "But Michael, you're the posterboy for CR: you spend tons of time and energy practicing CR, reading CR related studies, and writing about CR. Now you're saying you'd take April's $23 million and put it into the Methuselah Mouse Prize... why wouldn't you give it to one of the scientists whose work is all about CR?"

Michael: "As I've said many times, CR is crude, weak medicine. At best, it delays the inevitable. But we should have no illusions that by practicing CR we're doing any more than that, UNLESS it helps us hang on to the dawn of genuine, radical life-extension biomedicine. That's why I'd put April's $23 million into the Methuselah Foundation."

And round and round. I left the room that night with many more questions than answers.

It wasn't until much later, after hours of writing and thinking and reading and arguing, that I made my decision about what I, personally, would do.

I'll sum it up in one of my favorite lines of all time:

"General, count me in."


  • At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Star Wars :-)
    see how attentive your blog-followers can be?
    Thanks for the thorough & provocative rendition of the CRS III Friday Eve Crossfire session.
    as said before, you do have a way with words ..


  • At 6:02 PM, Blogger Mary Robinson said…

    This is what makes he crazy about healthcare. It's all about curing disease and not about keeping us well and young. There are foundations that are not profit motive driven and not answerable to taxpayers that might do it.

    Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one. I went to the same small high school as Melinda - although 12 years earlier. I keep thinking I should try to get her to fund something sometime, just for the fun of trying. There is money out there.

    I see MR's point with the prize tactic. However, it does cost money to do the research and if there is nowhere to get it, the prize might not be enough.

  • At 9:55 AM, Blogger Kevin said…

    Hi April,

    What a wonderful exposition on the reason for the existence and purpose of The Methuselah Mouse Prize.

    It is so true that the amount of money required to bring about radical aging interventions are going to require far more money than we will ever hope to gather into the coffers of the MPrize. Realizing this, Dave and Aubrey never intended for The Prize to actually become the main 'fund' from which research would spring. Instead they looked at the power of competitive prizes to fire the imagination of a heretofore oblivious and somewhat hopeless public that anything can be done about the aging process and thus open the purse strings of the public purse.

    A recent success story that epitomizes the power of competitive prizes to attain 'impossible' goals is the recent winning of The XPrize. A winning team was awarded a $10 million dollar prize for the first reusable privately funded commercial spaceship. It cost the competitors far in excess of that amount, but the spinoffs have been striking with massive commitments by the fledgling commercial space industry.

    The MPrize in the same vein is meant to unlock the survival instinct in us all by offering concrete proof that the possibility of an alternative to aging is proximate. As Aubrey has stated many times, when robust mouse rejuvenation is demonstrated, there will be massive shift in public perception as to the inevitablity of aging bringing about the application of resources to the problem.

    The key is attracting attention to the fact that respected scientists believe that aging is a solvable problem, and the best way of doing this is The Methuselah Mouse Prize.

    It is really no surprise that the more money accumulates in the Prize the more attention will be drawn to the need for aging research. Your commitment and that of the other individuals who support the Foundation by bringing up the numbers is the most significant demonstration that people believe in the vision of world where getting old doesn't have to mean getting sick.

    Thank you for your efforts and dedication, together we will start the landslide that will bury an ancient foe of life, healthy and happiness. I love this quote..

    "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

    Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
    -Margaret Mead


    Kevin Perrott
    Outreach Coordinator
    The Methuselah Foundation

  • At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hello April :)

    I'm a fellow sister in CR - I was actually at the CR conference back in 2003 in Madison, WI along with my parents, who are also CRONIES. I met Michael Rae briefly but I doubt he'd remember me.. I was the girl with the white-blond hair ;)

    In any case, the reason why I'm emailing you is because we're almost exactly the same age and same height and (original) build. I've been doing moderate CR for about four years (around 1350 calories or so), but being encouraged by the success you've had with going lower I decided to attempt to take my calories down to 1000, which is where my average calorie intake has remained for the past three months. I lost 10 lbs during that time and now am 105.

    But as of the past two to three weeks I've noticed something new in myself: I am impossibly weak and get headrushes every time I get up. It is becoming harder and harder to fight my hunger, whereas before it was no big deal. Has this been your experience at all too? Did adding more protein/changing time you ate help at all (if fatigue was ever a problem)? I know my parents would just tell me to raise my calories again (my mother eats between 1500 and 1600 calories per day), but if you're able to do 1000 there must be a way.

    The weakness and light-headedness was not really an issue until recently, so maybe it is because I've dropped below a certain point for myself.

    I do use the DWDP to get a rough estimate as to my vitamin/nutrient levels and everything looks good, though pretty low on the protein end (only 40 grams), so that's what's looking suspect to me.

    Any thoughts/suggestions on the matter would be great - I would appreciate it soooo much!

    my email address is: skretchmer at hotmail dot com

    It's really awful getting so weak all the time - I live in Chicago and don't have a car (public trans is pretty good here) so I walk most places I go. It's getting harder every day. And I want to search the archives on the CRsociety site to see what others have had to say about fatigue and light-headedness (I bet there's a TON), but the search mechanism doesn't seem to want to work for me... aaaa!

    Oh well, have a good night ;)

    Sarah K


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