Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hacking the Human Life Span

(Following up to yesterday's article)

Four years ago, Stuart Cracraft became a father at age 45. As his twin daughters grow up, he worries that his body and mind might not be able to keep up.
Having recently witnessed his mother's death following a devastating eight-year illness, Cracraft, an IT worker, decided he wanted to try and spare his own daughters such an experience with him.

So he changed his diet, cutting back on sugars and adding plenty of egg protein and fish. He started drinking tea and taking fish-oil supplements and multivitamins. It wasn't exactly a radical regimen, but he was willing to go further.

After three years researching a compound found in red wine called resveratrol, which has been shown to extend life and reduce disease in lab animals, he began taking 50 milligrams a day.
"It seems it's more powerful than all the antioxidants put together," Cracraft says. "You get all that in one pill, and it's too good to pass up."

Hope for a fountain of youth may spring eternal, but these days it is surprisingly active among the ranks of highly educated and even scientifically trained professionals -- despite what experts say is a lack of compelling clinical evidence for any particular treatment.

Inventor and artificial intelligence theorist Ray Kurzweil has promoted life extension for years, and revisited the theme in his latest books, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and The Singularity Is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel recently donated $3.5 million to the Methuselah Foundation, the longevity research organization created by Aubrey de Grey, a computer programmer who claims that humans could live for 1,000 years.

Another resveratrol devotee and computer programmer who asked to remain anonymous has gone even further and embraced calorie restriction -- another method unproven in humans that's associated with radical life extension.

"Engineers accept that anyone who understands a system also has the power to change it," he says. "A real engineer refuses to accept bugs in any code, whether his own, his tools, his operating system or his own body."

Resveratrol, which has protected lab animals from heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, seized the public imagination in November when two prominent studies showed that mice taking the compound lived longer and ran farther than mice not taking it. Still, scientists say it's far from certain that it will extend human life.

Waiting for the compound to be tested in humans, however, is not an option at his age, Cracraft says. He expects it will extend human life by about 30 percent, so waiting 10 years could cost him three. Altogether, Cracraft says, "I could get 10 more years."

Dominique Vocat, a 32-year-old IT worker in Basel, Switzerland, is even more optimistic. He figures resveratrol will add a few extra years to his life -- and in the meantime, scientists will develop serious life extension technologies. Then he might live to 200.

"Computer geeks think technology can fix anything," says Steven Austad, a cellular biologist and longevity researcher at the University of Texas. "People in the research community tend to think of mice as small little furry humans with long tails, but they're not. We don't know what it will do."

Clinical studies on resveratrol's human effects are only now beginning. Scientists warn that people taking the compound are conducting an uncontrolled experiment on themselves -- one that could leave them empty-handed or, even worse, make them sick.

History is littered with people who gamble on unproven treatments with unexpected problems.
"Fen-phen and ephedra are classic examples of substances that people thought were useful, and were administered by physicians before proper clinical evaluation," says S. Jay Olshansky, a University of Illinois epidemiologist and longevity expert. "It's the exact same story with human growth hormone: The science came out, wasn't evaluated, and subsequently we discovered problems."

Fen-phen was a popular diet aid until studies showed it could cause sometimes-fatal heart problems and high blood pressure. Ephedra was a popular stimulant until strokes and sudden deaths caused public alarm. The FDA eventually banned it. Human growth hormone -- used off-label to reduce fat and increase energy -- has been linked to diabetes and nerve pain.
Like other highly educated resveratrol users, Cracraft scans science news and studies, e-mails questions to scientists, and uses forums and bulletin boards to find out what other users have learned. He determined the 50-milligram dose based on tables used by scientists to extrapolate animal doses to humans, and plans on eventually upping the dose to 400 milligrams.
Because the compound appears to have no negative side effects in mice, resveratrol devotees believe it is safe. They also take comfort in that fact that David Sinclair, author of the recent mouse studies, takes the compound himself.

Sinclair, who has also launched a company called Sirtris Pharmaceuticals based on his discoveries, declined to comment for this story. But he has recommended against taking resveratrol before clinical studies are completed.

Resveratrol users feel the risk is justifiable.

"Real technologies to slow aging will come in 30 years or so, but you'll need to be reasonably healthy to take advantage of them," says Vocat. "I'll be 62. If I can do something now to improve my health in 30 years, then I have to do that."

Just as important as longevity is a quality of life during one's autumn years.
Donald Hoffman, Cracraft's best friend and fellow resveratrol user, also wants to age gracefully, sparing his family his own suffering.

The 50-year-old cognitive science professor at the University of California, Irvine, added 50 milligrams of resveratrol daily to a careful diet and regular exercise. Higher doses, he says, leave him easily bruised, but he plans to continue, and doesn't want be deprived of the benefits he might gain waiting for clinical trials.

"I see my parents suffering from diabetes, they're overweight, I see the quality of life they have," he says. "It's not much fun. And they're only 21 years older than me."
But however noble the intentions of resveratrol use, "It's not a matter of being ahead of the curve. It's ahead of the science," says Olshansky. "It's premature to use these interventions. They're not even interventions yet -- they're just initial evidence. And this worries me."

source: Wired