Another Tiny, Exciting Step Toward Life-Extension

By Kyle Munkittrick | December 2, 2010 9:36 am

Hairless lab rats are not as amazing as naked mole rats (which also might help us live forever), but they are still pretty good at giving me the willies.

With the headlines screaming “age-reversing” possibilities regarding the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University’s results with mice telomerase manipulation, I felt a bit of cold water was in order. I am as excited as can be about serious evidence for how important telomeres and telomerase is for anti-aging medicine, don’t get me wrong. But that evidence doesn’t mean there is going to be a longevity pill in our hands this year, this decade, or even this century. And more than a few folks with a grasp of science better than mine agree.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one. My fellow Discover blogger Jennifer Welsh has a great post on 80 Beats about why the discovery, though exciting, is far from a genuine anti-aging solution. The Harvard team showed the following. Mice engineered to lack telomerase aged prematurely. When given telomerase treatments, the mice rejuvenated to age-appropriate health without adverse side-effects. That’s it. That’s the extent of the discovery.

It still remains to be seen if telomerase treatments can delay normal aging, reverse normal aging, or extend life in any way in mice. From there scientists have to then figure out what side-effects there are, why those side-effects occur, and then somehow translate the results to human beings. In short, the Harvard team only confirmed the hypothesis that telomerase in mice impacts the aging process and that it may have potential uses in treating premature aging. Hypotheses beget hypotheses. And not all our hypotheses hinge on mice.

Bennett Foddy writing on the University of Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog doesn’t want us to just look at mice. He notes that lobsters don’t age the way we do. They stay youthful up until death. Foddy, though quite cautious in his excitement, is also an optimist:

For all that, this result is one of the most dramatic leaps made in recent years toward the dream of radical lifespan-extending medicine. David Brin recently argued that there is no ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the development of lifespan-extending medicine, since human bodies already use most of the biological ‘tricks’ that can extend life in simpler organisms. On this view, every hypothetical treatment that could extend the lives of humans faces major practical obstacles which will delay their development by hundreds of years. Yet the Harvard discovery shows that one of the major obstacles to telomerase-based treatments—cancer—may not be an obstacle after all.

King of the pessimists is Tom Junod, writing for Esquire, who does not believe we are going to live forever. He’s seen too many failed promises, too many “breakthroughs” that lead no where, too many brilliant young scientists who cannot translate their discovery from mice to men. Junod’s piece is more nuanced than can be summarized here, but his perspective is useful in understanding our reactions to major science news. How to get into his perspective? Consider just how wrong, consistently and empirically, Ray Kurzweil’s predictions have been. Think about how many “breakthroughs” you’ve read about in the past month, the past year, the past decade – now think about how many of them have made an impact. Going through my pile of old Popular Science mags is like learning Santa Claus isn’t real over and over again.

But in the end the study really is a major breakthrough in that it’s a start. Science has a way of making a big splash when something goes from impossible to plausible, and then again from plausible to possible, and then from possible to practical. Remember Dolly the cloned sheep? Well, she’s back as four new clones, easier to make and healthier than ever. Dolly proved cloning possible, her clones are proving that easy and safe cloning is possible. There are steps-within-steps, mini-discoveries and minor breakthroughs that aggregate and combine. Each one a little victory. Telomerase manipulation is that first step – anti-aging is now plausible. I just hope I’m not too gray before it’s practical.

Image via Steve jurvetson on Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aging (or Not), Biology

Comments (17)

  1. Bigby

    You mean…Santa Claus isn’t real?

  2. Cold water? That’s a natural reaction, but, as I like to say…

    Everything’s a fad…until it isn’t.

    And regarding the telomerase in mice versus humans, mice appear to use telomerase throughout their lives, while humans don’t except in the gametes and a few other cell types.
    On the other hand, telomerase is what lets an embryo divide so many times (well beyond the Hayflick limit) without every embryo dying or getting cancer. That fact is what is exciting to me.

  3. The discovery of telomeres and telomerase gene activation won the 2009 Nobel prize in medicine or physiology. TA-65 is the only proven and patented telomerase gene activating substance on the market to date, but like all new discoveries, is too expensive for the masses at this early stage.

    The price has come down from $25,000 per year to $8,000 per year. With new breakthroughs in production and possible new sources (currently the Chinese herb Astragalus), the costs will come down. You can’t just take Astragalus for these benefits as it takes incredible amounts of the raw herb to produce minute amounts of the extracted molecule that provides the life extension benefits.

  4. captainhurt

    bla bla bla … show us the trillion dollar focused, committed effort to DO something for the masses…not just talk about little lab experiments.

  5. Brian Too

    Up next, lobster/human gene therapy! A lobster in every pot! Strange extracts of lobster that cost a fortune and have an army of shills, er, true believers, to market the goods!

    Reputable scientists pooh-pooh the magical, miracle lobster anti-aging remedies! What are they hiding*?!

    * Lobster therapy may exhibit side effects such as sweating, convulsions, diarrea, constipation, premature aging, reverse aging, insomnia, excessive sleeping, reddened skin, thickened fingernails, carapice formation, antenna growth, and lobster hands.

  6. reggie

    There’s nothing “exciting” about the prospect of increasing human longevity… anymore than global warming is “exciting” (…it’s scary!). There are so many more important ways to spend precious research $$$ than increasing the time on Earth of the planet’s most destructive species. Fear of aging = a selfish waste of time and resources.

  7. Jeffrey

    Is there any reason why this study didn’t concurrently try “telomerase manipulation treatment” on naturally aged mice as well?

  8. Durr Hurr

    Reggie: Please set a good example for the rest of us and help out our poor ailing Earth by killing yourself as soon as possible.

  9. Kyle Munkittrick

    @Brian Too: Zoidberg isn’t actually an alien. He’s what became of humanity after the lobster longevity disaster.

    @Jeffery: I imagine simple logistics. They wanted to see what happened when normal levels were restored first. Now on to all the various permutations and other tests. Science never sleeps!

    @Durr Hurr: Now, reggie didn’t identify himself as a voluntary human extinction type fellow, but the snark was warranted. I’ll allow it!

  10. Baby steps… even if telomer manipulation doesn’t stop death by aging, but could slightly delay it, it’s a step forward. If we could delay senescence by, say, 10 years, or even 20, it might just give us enough time to make the next baby step forward, and bolt on another 10 or 20 years, which, in turn, may allow us to take the next and so on.

    I firmly believe that there are people alive today that will live 150 years. I’d like one of those people to be me. Maybe when I’m 150, there might be another extension treatment. Or even the option of ‘life data’ storage, for when I can get a new, younger, body, vat grown to my specification. The ideas are there, and have been for many years. We just need technology to catch up. Unfortunately, in order for technology to really progress, and quickly, we need lots of wars*, otherwise progress tends to stagnate.

    * We have made some of our most significant scientific breakthroughs that have peacetime applications as a result of the arms race.

  11. Caloric restriction looks like it is able to extend life in rats by up to 2 times. Looks like scientists are going to try with non-human primates first, then move into human trials. So far the results seem promising.

  12. Greg

    All they really showed was that if you trash the normal levels of telomerase, mice appear to age faster, and restoring telomerase overcomes the problems of not expressing enough telomerase.

    Seems to me there are probably many genes that you could mess up that would achieve similar effects. Take insulin, for example. If mice had decreased capacity to express insulin, they would appear to age more rapidly as ravages of uncontrolled blood sugar wreaks havoc. With insulin restored, they’d stop their rapid decline (though much of the damage is irreversible).

    This study says nothing whatsoever about extending lifespan in anything. It merely describes treating induced telomerase deficiency by supplying necessary levels of telomerase.

  13. 22 Years human immortality is coming.

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