Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Immortalists

Here's a pretty good, if slightly unfocused-feeling, documentary on Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews, two guys who are trying to defeat Death. Well, not really Death-with-a-capital-D but death as a natural end to the human body. Aging, in other words.

Now, the first thing you'd expect from guys trying to defeat death is a weird sex/family life.

What, you wouldn't? I would. A normal sex life with normal progeny would hardly preclude research into immortality, but I would just expect the people most obsessed with it to be ones who hadn't really gotten the hang of how the species achieves immortality (i.e., through family and children).

I'd also expect them to be materialistic, since a materialist believes he IS his body.

Well, check, check and checkity-check!

But before we get to this, let's look at the theories of these interesting guys who may come up with some very cool stuff.

Andrews is all about the telomeres. As I understand it, telomeres are the protective ends of chromosomes (analogous to shoelace aglets in Andrews' telling), a sort of repetitive buffer that keeps the chromosome duplicating properly and from getting messed up. Problem is, with each division, a little bit comes off the end of the telomeres and when they're gone your chromosomes end up like so much gunk.

(The spell-checker wants to turn "telomeres" to "omelettes" and "aglets" to "eaglets".)

The Science used to be settled (by Nobel winning physiologist Alexis Carrel) that human cells, taken out of the body, would continue to divide and reproduce forever. An American scientist, Leonard Hayflick, discovered that, no, in fact the number of times cells divide is very limited indeed. (Hayflick has not won the Nobel.)

I don't know why I brought that Nobel stuff up. Except, maybe if you want to get the big bucks and awards, it doesn't hurt to give people good news. (Actually, Carrel got his award for advances in vascular suturing, and rather boldly testified to witnessing an apparently miraculous cure at Lourdes.)

The movie interviews Hayflick, who seems to regard the whole immortality movement as distasteful, and Andrews (and probably de Grey) as snake oil salesmen. (Hayflick, it should be noted, is long married with five children and, implied by the movie, at least somewhat attentively Jewish.)

Anyway, Andrews is all about telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens telomeres. Sounds cool, right? It might be, although the shortening of telomeres might be the body's defense against cancer. (As you age, your cells need to replicate less, so restricting their ability to do so might prevent cancer even if it causes cancer.) On the other hand, some argue that telomerase might increase your resistance to cancer.

Which, the engineer in me says, brings up the question of why the shortening of telomeres occurs at all, and why we aren't flush with telomerase. It might just be a side-effect of other processes that we can safely ignore. Or not.

Meanwhile, de Grey is one of the people who thinks telomerase is carcinogenic, and his theory involves undoing the damage to cells done by...well, life. The movie doesn't outright list the seven types of cell damage he theorizes but, broadly, he's looking damage intrinsic to the cell (like mutations), damage internal to the cell (like crap accumulating) and, I guess, damage done by external factors, including damage the cell does to other cells.

Well, you gotta admit that "a magic prescription for telomerase" is a lot easier to grasp and market than de Grey's plan which involves all kinds of stuff, including nanotechnology that doesn't exist yet.

It's also kind of interesting that the problems/solutions are practically orthogonal. Telomeres aren't a factor in de Grey's philosophy and Andrews doesn't talk about damage (at least in this movie). I guess if you're replacing the cell (a la Andrews) you don't have to care about the junk in an old cell (presuming it dies) while if you're repairing the damage to a cell, it doesn't need to reproduce? (I've read the two philosophies are in opposition, but I don't see that as necessarily true.)

The movie doesn't go much into details like this, which is probably fine. It starts with a "booyah" story about successfully lengthening a mouse's life in 2011, but it should be noted that this is pretty much the only success mentioned.

Andrews and de Grey themselves are pretty fit, I guess. With the amount that de Grey seems to drink and the thickness to his speech, I thought "This guy seems like a high functioning alcoholic", but he's able to ace Andrews out on most of the aging tests they take. (Though he digs for worms on his push-ups.)

The two are affable competitors, going to the same gerontology clinic, and filling out their forms with "Main complaint: Aging has not been cured" and such.

This movie was filmed over the course of several years, it seems, during which time several people important to the two principals die, in the usual way.

Andrews is a super-marathoner who tries (twice) and fails (twice, IMO) to run 130ish miles up in the Himalayas. (In fact, I think he sort-of marries his girlfriend in the Buddhist temple we saw in this movie.) When I say he fails, I mean, the first time he completely fails to complete the course.

In the second case, after a lot of braggadocio about how he's going to beat this race just like he's going to cure aging, he gets about 2/3ds of the way through and gets a massive blister (and probably some other cardio/respiratory problems) and gives up. After some unspecified amount of time lying on a bed and seeing a doctor, his girlfriend convinces him to carry on and he does.

Personally, I don't think you've completed a course with the original intention if you took a couple hours break in the middle. Not that I'm taking the accomplishment away from him: Regular super-marathons are an amazing (and amazingly stupid physiologically, if I understand it correctly) thing, much less ones at 5 miles up.

But, man, what a metaphor: A race which is, perhaps, impossible for his body to complete, that he swears he'll complete, and he does, sorta, if we allow for some goalpost moving.

On the other side, de Grey likes to go out into semi-secluded areas (like, covered with brush but near enough to a road that the cars passing by move the brush) and canoodle naked with his (much older) wife. Later, when he moves to California (of course) to open up the SENS Institute, his wife stays back in England and he hangs with his two younger girlfriends.

Andrews has a passion for not dying. He'd doubtless like to help his (Alzheimer's afflicted) father, as well. Meanwhile, de Grey says there's absolutely nothing personal about his quest, which is why he goes to the gerontology clinic to compare personal notes with Andrews.

Honestly, de Grey struck me as seriously damaged.

So, on the three-point-scale:

1. Subject matter: Good and important, I suppose, though somewhat conflicted about what the story was.

2. Presentation: Entertaining. Good interviews. Light on the science.

3. Slant. Well, something like this is almost always going to make you sympathetic, right? And it is. Is it biased toward these guys being successful? I don't think so.

About the only time I kind of rolled my eyes at the treatment of the subject matter was a debate between de Grey and Some English Dude, in the classic style of Debates Meant To Settle Things. This was not focused on "Is it possible?" but "Is it Right and Good?" The contra-side was laughably bad. We should not seek immortality, the argument went, because the world is such a terrible place on the verge of crisis upon crisis.

Neo-Malthusian crap, in other words, as if the accumulation of experience could not possibly be of benefit to solving these problems.

Not that de Grey's rebuttal, as shown, was any great shakes. "We don't know" and "Future generations will despise us for not pursuing this..." Meh. He's on solid ground when he says that if you're anti-immortality, you must believe that it's good for people to grow old or you must believe that there's a time when people should die, even if they're healthy.

There's no decent argument against longevity any more than there's a decent argument for the evils of "climate change". To make either argument is to say that the way things are RIGHT NOW is how they should always be. Of course, those people are free to off themselves at 60 (about the expected lifespan of a pre-industrial person who made it to adulthood).

Nothing is resolved. We are not really enlightened. But it's still an interesting film. The Boy was reasonably pleased, if not enthused.

Cure aging or die trying, they proclaim! Well, yes, those are the options.

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