Apr 11, 2013

The Life Extension Hubris: Why biotechnology is unlikely to be the answer to ageing

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, evolution, futurism, homo sapiens, life extension

It is often said that empiricism is one of the most useful concepts in epistemology. Empiricism emphasises the role of experience acquired through one’s own senses and perceptions, and is contrary to, say, idealism where concepts are not derived from experience, but based on ideals.

In the case of radical life extension, there is a tendency to an ‘idealistic trance’ where people blindly expect practical biotechnological developments to be available and applied to the public at large within a few years. More importantly, idealists expect these treatments or therapies to actually be effective and to have a direct and measurable effect upon radical life extension. Here, by ‘radical life extension’ I refer not to healthy longevity (a healthy life until the age of 100–120 years) but to an indefinite lifespan where the rate of age-related mortality is trivial.

Let me mention two empirical examples based on experience and facts:

1. When a technological development depends on technology alone, its progress is often dramatic and exponential.

2. When a technological development also depends on biology, its progress is embarrassingly negligible.

Developments based solely on mechanical, digital or electronic concepts are proliferating freely and vigorously. Just 20 years ago, almost nobody had a mobile telephone or knew about the internet. Now we have instant global communication accessible by any member of the general public.

Contrast this with the advancement of biotechnology with regards to, say, the treatment of the common cold. There has not been a significantly effective treatment for the public at large for, I will not say a million, but certainly for several thousand years. The accepted current medical treatment for the common cold is with bed rest, fluids, and antipyretics which is the same as that suggested by Hippocrates. Formal guidelines for the modern treatment of cardiac arrest include chest compressions and mouth- to- mouth resuscitation (essentially the same as the technique used by the prophet Elisha in the Old Testament) as well as intra-cardiac (!) atropine, lignocaine and other drugs used by physicians during the 1930’s. In my medical museum in Cyprus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyriazis_Medical_Museum) I have examples of Medieval treatments for urinary retention (it was via a metal urinary catheter then, whereas now the catheter is plastic), treatment of asthma (with belladonna then, ipratropium now – a direct derivative), and treatment of pain (with opium then, with opium-like derivatives now).

About a hundred years ago, my grandfather (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoklis_Kyriazis) wrote a book on hygiene, longevity and healthy life for the public, which included advice such as fresh air, exercise, consumption of fruit and vegetables, avoidance of excessive alcohol or cigarette smoke. These are of course preventative treatments advised by modern anti-ageing practitioners, hardly any progress in a century. In fact, these are the only proven treatments. Even the modern notion of ‘antioxidants’ can be encountered as standard health advice in medical books from the 1800’s. With the trivial exception of a handful of other examples, there has hardly been any progress in healthy longevity at all that can be applied to the common man in the street. Resveratrol? Was a standard health advice in ancient Greek medicine (red wine). Carnosine? Discovered and used 100 years ago. Cycloastragenol? Used in Chinese medicine 1000 years ago.

My question is: how do we expect to influence the process of ageing when we cannot even develop bio-technological cures for simple and common diseases? Are we really serious when we talk about biotechnological treatments that can lead to radical life extension, being developed within the next few years? And if we are really serious, is this belief based on empiricism or idealism? The manipulation of human biology has been particularly tricky, with no significant progress of effective breakthroughs developed during the past several decades. Here I, of course, acknowledge the value of some modern drugs and isolated bio-technological achievements, but my point is that these developments are based on relatively minor refinements of existing therapies, and not on new breakthroughs that can modify the human body in any positive or practical degree. Importantly, even if some isolated examples of effective biotechnology do exist, these are not yet suitable for use by the general public at large.

If we were to compare the progress of general technology with that of life extension biotechnology, we could see that:

A. The progress of technology over the past 100 years has been logarithmic to exponential, whereas that of life extension biotechnology has been virtually static.

B. The progress of technology over the past 20 years has been exponential, whereas that of life extension biotechnology has barely been logarithmic.

It is one thing to talk about future biotechnology developments as a discussion point, and to post these in blogs, for general curiosity. But it is a different thing altogether if we actually want to devise and deliver an effective, practical therapy that truly affords significant life extension.

A different approach is needed, one that does not depend exclusively on biotechnology. It would be naïve to say that I am arguing for the total abandonment of life extension biotechnology, but it is equally naïve to believe that this biotechnology is likely to be effective on its own. A possible way forward could be the attempt to modify human biology not via biotechnology alone, but also by making use of natural, already existing evolutionary mechanisms. One such example could be the use of ‘information-that-requires-action’ in order to force a reallocation of resources from germ-line to somatic cells. This is an approach we currently aiming to describe in detail. My final remark with regards to achieving indefinite lifespan is this: we must engage with technology without depending on biotechnology.

For some general background information on how to engage with technology see:





Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. Jeff says:

    Interesting article. While I agree with many of your thoughts, I’d like to make a counterargument as well. It is my admittedly idealistic opinion that we are capable of making rapid, dramatic advances in biotechnology in the same way that we are capable of making rapid, dramatic advances in other tech, e.g. computer science. The difference is timing. The basic units used to engineer radios, computers, etc are things like transistors, which took the entire first half of the 20th century to develop and put into practice. The biological equivalent in my opinion is the stem cell, which has been in development for several decades and is only now just beginning to get real use. Biological research is also accelerating due to increasing computer power and global communication. Even with supercomputer clusters, it takes hours if not days to computationally assemble a transcriptome from RNA sequencing. This would not have even been possible 10 years ago, and will hopefully only take minutes in the near future. In summary, I “believe” that the ability of biotechnology to dramatically affect human health and longevity will begin its rapid acceleration soon.

    On a similar note, I think you must consider the fundamental difference between biology and engineering/computer science, which is that the former is mostly about understanding an existing and absurdly complicated system that we did not create, while the latter is about creating something. Biotechnology hasn’t really ever created anything until the past couple of decades, because we first need to understand how the system works. Now that we’re finally starting to understand it, we can start creating useful things (for the record we did not “Create” most drugs, like penicillin, we just found them).

  2. Marios Kyriazis says:

    I appreciate your comments, and hope that you will be right in your predictions. Even if the stem cell is indeed the equivalent to transistors, it would not be the end of the matter, because it is the interconnections of these agents that matter, as well as the agents themselves. Transistors that are isolated are useless. The same is true for stem cells. We need to find a way to improve the connections (i.e. in the extracellular domain) between stem cells, in order to maximise useful function. In any case, time will tell.

  3. Jeff says:

    I think that you left out a class of targeted biological treatments. There are large numbers of medicines that treat specific ailments. One example that comes to mind is Gleevec which inhibits a cancerous protein created in the reproduction of certain cancers. While not strictly age derived these therapies are biological in nature and are dramatic improvements.
    In the case of CML a leukemia disorder the five year survival rate pre-Gleevec was very low (10–15%) and five years post release the survival rate exceeds 85% This kind of dramatic improvement seems to me to show that their is a flaw in your underlying assumption.

  4. Jeff says:

    BTW I am a different Jeff than the first comment

  5. Marios Kyriazis says:

    I appreciate that there are some isolated examples of effective human biotechnological treatments. But there is no overall comparison between the advancements in non-biological biotechnology and those in biotechnology.

  6. Carson Bizon says:

    I agree. Cryonics and life extension biotechnology have been static the last twenty years. They remind me of pseudosciences. They are not and they should continued to be funded and pursued however they do seem to follow the track the pseudosciences where no progress is being made. Homeopath, ufo’s, ect. I think the convergence of Neuroscience, brain preservation, robotics, and artificial intelligence is our best bet.

  7. Greg Fahy says:

    The example about forcing a reallocation of resources from the germ line to somatic cells, while not entirely accurate (we don’t age because resources used to maintain germ line cells are taken away from something else), is actually an example of something that would be a biotechnological intervention. Maintenance is achieved through expressing maintenance genes. Biotechnology can control gene expression.

  8. Marios Kyriazis says:

    Some people have shown that we DO age because resources used in order to maintain germ line cells are indeed taken away from somatic cells (see the concepts of non-autonomous contributions of somatic cells to germ line cells, and also the concept of germ line penetration). Although I agree that biotechnology may, in theory, be a successful intervention in this area one day, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future in any way that is relevant to us today. In the future it will be possible to set up colonies in the planet Jupiter, but this does not have any relevance to my life now. Our research shows that by engaging with technology now it may be possible to cause such a shift (from germ line to soma maintenance) through the use of actionable ‘information’ (digital and real).

  9. Greg Fahy says:

    It would be interesting to know more about what you mean by that. But in any case, the tradeoff you speak of is based only on circumstantial evidence, and there is much contrary circumstantial evidence, including longer lifespans in reproducing mammals than in reproducing ones, etc. See The Future of Aging: Pathways to Human Life Extension for more information.

  10. Greg Fahy says:

    Sorry, I meant “than in non-reproducing ones”. In C. elegans, signals from the reproductive system induce aging elsewhere, and this is not due to energy expenditure by the reproductive system. This is a long story, but there are more interesting things going on than energy tradeoffs. The latter are a convenient, pat answer that appears to be based on incorrect interpretations of data.

  11. Marios Kyriazis says:

    We are both trying to define ways in order to defeat aging, with the difference that you (and most others) are relying almost exclusively on biotechnology, whereas I am keen to explore ways that are not based on biotechnology alone. The other difference is that, although we talk about the same issue, we use different terms. For example, it is an irrefutable fact that aging is time-dependent damage which is not being repaired. It is also irrefutable that germ line cells and cancer cells are somehow able to repair this damage and thus are biologically immortal. There are many mechanisms involved in this but the exact details are not very relevant to my hypothesis.