Mathematics, rejuvenation, and immortality walk into a bar…

If a fully rejuvenated person was hit by a train at full speed, I can promise you they would stand the same pathetically low chances of ever being reassembled into a single, barely functional piece as any non-rejuvenated person of any age. Keeping that in mind, if anyone tried to sell me rejuvenation as ‘immortality’, rest assured I would demand to see the manager right away.

On a different yet unexpectedly related note, if I had a nickel for every time I heard or read something along the lines of ‘death is inevitable because probability’, I could donate so much money to LEAF the IRS would start thinking they’re a bit too well off for a charity.

Oh, and with the rest of the money, I could buy LinkedIn and pay someone to finally give it a user interface you can look at without your eyes bleeding.

That being said, no matter how hard rejuvenation advocates strive to make a clear distinction between rejuvenation and immortality, nearly everyone keeps cheerfully swapping them around, largely convinced that two absolutely incompatible statements hold true at the same time, namely

  1. rejuvenation implies immortality, and
  2. probability grants you will die at some point, rejuvenation or not.

But that’s okay, really—I mean, people hold contradictory beliefs all the time. What pisses me off is that statement ‘b’ is false.

Immortality buys the first round

You might be thinking I must be a few fries short of a happy meal, because after all, statement ‘b’ is only a special case of the more general statement ‘Given infinite time, anything that is possible, however unlikely, will eventually happen’. This is false too, by the way—if a special case is false, then the general case isn’t true either.

To be fair, among people who think both statements ‘a’ and ‘b’ are true, probably many intend immortality in a weaker sense than I do. To me, ‘immortal’ is somebody who cannot die, no matter what; to them, ‘immortal’ is just someone who doesn’t die of their own accord past a vaguely defined ‘best before’ date. I think using the word ‘immortality’ for the latter is wrong and misleading, but since surely most people will keep using it no matter how much I whine about it, I could agree to call ‘strong immortality’ the former and ‘weak immortality’ the latter. Weak immortality is thus what some people call ‘functional immortality’, ‘biological immortality’ or ‘amortality’—again, the property of a creature whose body doesn’t fall apart by default with the passing of time.

Quite frankly, I think strong immortality is not possible, because it implies that one’s chances of ever dying are exactly zero; or, if it is possible, I think it’s so far off that it’s not worth holding your breath.

Some are convinced the laws of probability say that, inevitably, the odds a living creature will die go up with the passing of time, and from this premise, they conclude rejuvenation (or weak immortality, if you really want to use the i-word) is a pointless goal: Sooner or later you will die anyway, so why bother with rejuvenation?

Well, apart from the fact that staying biologically young and healthy is a worthy goal regardless of how long you’ll live, as I was saying above it’s not true that probability makes your death inevitable: In fact, under certain circumstances death may become more and more unlikely with the passing of time. Whether or not we can produce these circumstances is a different matter, which we will also look into; my point here is debunking the myth that death is certain no matter what because probability says so. Another way of putting it is that if your goal is to never die, you don’t need strong immortality: You can be mortal and yet never die, so long as your death is a vanishingly unlikely event.

Mathematics takes over the open mic stage

Maybe you’re used to think of probabilities in terms of percentages, but in statistics you generally use numbers between 0 and 1 instead, which is perfectly equivalent. Intuitively, a probability of 0 is 0%, 1 is 100%, 0.5 is 50%, and so on. That’s how we’re going to do it here.

We want to prove that death is not necessarily certain even given infinite time; in other words, we want to show that your probability of death over an infinite time can be less than 1. To do so, we need an expression for your probability of death over an infinite time; more precisely, we are going to need an expression for your probability of death over an infinite number of years, starting from the first year of your existence, which we say is year 1.

As you probably already know, nobody dies twice; in order for you to die in year 10, for example, ten distinct events must all happen: You must live through (or, equivalently, not die in) years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and you must die in year 10.

On any given year, say year n, you have a certain overall probability of dying that takes into account your probability of death from all causes: accidents, murder, heart attacks, etc. All of these add up to a number between zero and one, which we call dn, as in ‘chance of death in year n’. This is your chance of dying in year n on the assumption you have not died before; in other words, dn is the answer to the question: ‘Assuming you did not die in years 1, 2, 3, …, n – 1, what is your chance of dying in year n?’. Notice that this question is not the same as ‘What is your chance of not dying in years 1 through n – 1 and dying in year n?’ The reason is that the former assumes you already made it through the first n – 1 years, and asks what are your chances of dying in year n in such case; the latter makes no assumptions and asks what are your odds of making it through the first n – 1 years and not making it through the nth year.

The answer to the second question is the probability that n events all happen, which is calculated as the product of the individual probabilities of each event.

Clearly, in a given year you either die or you don’t; these two events represent 100% of our options, so their probabilities sum up to 1. Thus, if dk is your overall chance of dying in year k, your chance of not dying in year k is 1 – dk.

Now we can calculate your chance of not dying up until year n – 1 and dying in year n; we call it Dn and it is

Dn = (1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dn – 1dn.

For example, we have D1 = d1 (because you didn’t exist before year 1 and therefore couldn’t die before then), and D4 = (1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3d4.

Each Dn is the chance of a specific combination of events happening, namely your living through years 1 to n – 1 and dying in year n. Obviously, only one of these event combinations can happen, because as said you don’t die twice. For example, you either live through years from 1 to 5 and die in year 6, or live through years 1 to 10 and die in year 11, but not both.

The question ‘What is the chance that you will ever die, given infinite time?’ can thus be restated in a more verbose, but more accurate, way: ‘What is the chance that you will die in year 1, or live through year 1 and die in year 2, or live through years 1 and 2 and die in year 3, …’ and so on, ad infinitum.

While you multiply together the probability of individual events to find out the probability that they will all happen, you add together their probabilities when you want to find out the probability that only one of them happens. (Technically, from the result you should subtract the probability that any combinations of them happen, but in our case this probability is exactly zero, because as said death can happen only once, so there’s nothing to subtract.) We call this chance D, and it is

D = D1 + D2 + D3 + … + Dk + Dk + 1 + …

all the way up to infinity. There is a more convenient way to write the sum of infinitely many terms, which is this:

So, instead of writing D as the long sum in the middle, we express it as the Σ (‘sigma’) thingy on the right. They mean the exact same thing.

Alright, so now we have an expression for your probability of dying over an infinite time, D, and we want to show it can be less than 1. This might seem absurd to you: How can an infinite sum be less than 1? Shouldn’t it always be infinity? No. A sum of infinitely many terms is called a series. If a series happens to add up to a finite value, it is said to be convergent; if it blows up to infinity, it is said to be divergent. I know it seems strange; welcome to maths.

In order to get to the desired result, let’s first notice that the series D is actually always smaller than another series. Remember that D is just the sum of infinitely many Dk’s, and each Dk is equal to the product

(1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk.

All the terms in these products are larger than zero and at most 1, which means that when we multiply something by any of them, this something won’t get any larger; if anything, it could get smaller. In other words, the term

(1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk

isn’t any larger, and is possibly smaller, than

(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk,

and if we iterate this reasoning, we see that ultimately

(1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk

isn’t any larger, and is possibly smaller, than dk. This means that D1 is no larger than d1, D2 is no larger than d2, and so on. Therefore, the sum of all Dk’s (that is, D) is no larger than the sum of all dk’s. In symbols,

which means your probability of ever dying is always smaller than (or equal to) the sum on the right. If that sum could ever be smaller than 1, we would be done. Can it?

Note that the sum on the right is the sum of all your overall yearly probabilities of death—that is, the sum of your probability of dying in year k on the assumption you safely made it through all years until year number k – 1, for each k. Suppose that, thanks to technology, the elimination of ageing, and so on, we were able to reduce these probabilities each year in a very specific way, that is according to the formula

where p is any number larger than 2. (You’ll understand why in a moment.). What would happen then? Let’s just plug the expression for dk in the expression for D and we’ll find out.

Remembering that the term on the far right is just a seriously long sum, we can rewrite it like this:

So, ultimately we get

Now look at the sum on the far right again—only the sum, forget 6 divided by πp. That is a known convergent series, and it adds up to π2 divided by 6. This means the following:

Now you see why I required that p be larger than 2: This way, p – 2 is always larger than 0, which in turn means that πp – 2 is always larger than 1, and thus the whole fraction is smaller than 1. Therefore, D, that is your probability of dying over an infinite time, is less than 1. Furthermore, the larger p is, the smaller D will be, which means that if we were able to make your yearly overall probability of death decrease faster and faster as time passes, your chance of ever dying would become smaller and smaller, though it would never be exactly zero. This means that, over an infinite time, you might die, but it would not be very likely.

On top of that, if we assume you safely made it through 5000 years, then your probability of ever dying past that point would be only

which is clearly less than D, as it is only part of it. More generally, if you make it through the first n years, your probability of ever dying past year n is

The stuff above is called the tail of a series. In particular, this one is the tail of the series D, which we know is convergent, since whatever it adds up to, it is less than 1 divided by πp – 2. So it is the tail of a convergent series. The tail of a convergent series has an interesting property: as n grows larger, the tail tends to zero. In other words: Under these circumstances, the longer you lived, the closer to zero your chances of ever dying would get (though they would never be exactly zero).

This, mind you, is true if we can make it so that your yearly probability of dying decreases each year according to our formula—or, more generally, in any other way such that the sum of all these probabilities is a series converging to less than 1; and this, make no mistake, is no small if.

Go home maths, you’re drunk. Rejuvenation will take care of you.

Before we send maths on its way, it’s important to notice that our assumption of a decreasing overall yearly probability of death is crucial to the reasoning. If we assumed this probability was constant, for example, then no matter how small it was, you’d be royally screwed, as your probability of ever dying over infinite time would then be exactly 1. Indeed, say that each year you have a probability of dying of d, of which we require to be just any number larger than zero and at most 1. Then, your probability of living through years 1 to n – 1 and dying in year n would be

Dn = (1 – d)×(1 – d)×(1 – d)×…×(1 – dd,

where the term (1 – d) appears n – 1 times, ultimately yielding

Dn = (1 – d)n – 1×d.

At this point, D would be

where we factored d out just like we have done before in a similar case. Now, the series on the right is called a geometric series, and if (1 – d) happens (as it does) to be smaller than 1, then the whole thing will add up to 1 divided by 1 – (1 – d). That is,

As I was saying, royally screwed. You can imagine that, if your yearly overall probability of dying is not a constant but it increases instead, then you’re even more screwed—and this, by the way, is exactly what happens because of ageing. In this very moment, as things stand, your probability of dying goes up as time passes. Sorry about that.

But let’s not get all doom and gloom about it, and rather, let’s focus on another question. We established that, if we can make your overall yearly death probability decrease fast enough, then death is no longer a certainty and can even become increasingly unlikely. So, can we accomplish this? Hard to say.

The good news is, if we managed to eradicate age-related diseases, if nothing else your probability of death wouldn’t go up by default with the passing of time. I’ve done some digging on the Internet and I found a few informal calculations about how long the average lifespan would become if ‘natural’ causes of death were eliminated altogether; estimates vary, although they all talk about centuries. In particular, this article on Gizmodo discusses a statistical simulation according to which if all ‘natural’ causes of death were taken out of the equation and the only remaining causes of death were things like accidents, murders, etc, then the average lifespan (in the US) would be 8,938 years. (There’s also a fabled calculation apparently made by an insurance company, or something like that, according to which the average lifespan would be ‘only’ about 800 years; I say fabled because I’ve heard about it several times, and I was told about it by more than one person, but no one had the source and I wasn’t able to find it. If you happen to know where I can find it, please let me know, and I’ll update this post.)

Now, 8,938 (or even 800) years is a bloody long time, but it is not ‘forever’; however, you have to take into account that the fine chaps who made the simulation did not take into account how much we might be able to reduce the chances of ‘non-natural’ death over the course of almost 9000 years, and they didn’t do it for a very good reason: They don’t know if, when, and how much the chances of specific death causes are going to decrease. Taking wild guesses at it would introduce far too much uncertainty in the calculations to make them any useful. Regardless, it is perfectly safe to assume that over the course of such long lifespans, we’ll have figured out a way to make cars safer, for example, and thus reduce the chances of dying in a car accident. To be perfectly frank, that’s already happening with self-driving cars, and it is quite possible that within a couple hundred years cars will have been replaced by something else entirely.

Similarly, we can expect other possible causes of death will be either mitigated or eliminated altogether, pushing the average lifespan up and up while you still are alive—though, meanwhile, entirely new causes of death might appear. We are nothing but extremely complex pieces of biological machinery, and the more complex something is, the more numerous the things in it that can go wrong. (And yes, even if we became non-biological machines, technology through and through, as some people would like, we could still be destroyed or irreparably damaged. Could, but not necessarily would.)

On top of that, we can’t know for a fact if an unexpected world war, or a pandemic, will break out and push up everybody’s chances of death, or on a grander scale, we don’t know for a fact if the heat death of the universe will happen or not, or if we’ll have figured out ways around it by then.

In my opinion, the hard bit will not be making our death chances decrease fast enough; the hard bit will be making sure they keep decreasing fast enough forever without any significant oscillations. If the general trend of your death chances over an infinite time is a negative one (i.e., overall your chances keep going down all the time), relatively short periods of time during which your odds of death stay constant or even go up can be okay—if these odds aren’t too high to begin with. For example, if you had a 0.5% chance of death each year for just five years and then the chance went down again, most probably (but not certainly) you’d safely make it through those five years alive and you could look forward to a very long life. If this period of constant death chance was much longer than five years, your odds would be worse. However, there’s no way to know for a fact that we’ll be able to maintain a general downwards trend indefinitely, so, sorry, neither I nor anyone else can promise you with 100% certainty that you will never die, if that’s what you were hoping for. Then again, death isn’t necessarily the mathematical certainty some people would like to pass it for, which is all I wanted to show with this article, and just in case someone decides to interpret it the wrong way, let me stress again what this article doesn’t do. It

  • does not claim strong immortality is possible;
  • does not prove you (or anyone else) will never die/live forever;
  • does not prove that we will necessarily be able to constantly reduce anyone’s death chances enough to make their death over an infinite time extremely unlikely. It’s possible, but not certain;
  • is not a great discovery or anything like that. What you just read is basically a simple Calculus 101 exercise.

I also care to emphasise that I’m not flawless or always right, so if a fellow mathematician spotted a mistake in my reasoning, I’d be happy to correct it. Meanwhile, be careful out there, and try not to make your chances of death any larger than they have to be—so don’t browse LinkedIn for too long, ’cause bleeding eyes aren’t good for you.

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Update bundle #4

Gone are—for now—the golden days when I would publish a new post each week. So, for as long as my schedule is going to be this busy, I’ll have to be content with update bundles. I thought I’d let you know about a few news items and interesting things going on in anti-ageing community.

News from LEAF

On June 30 LEAF will host their first Journal Club event, with dr Oliver Medvedik. The topic will be the implications of epigenetic alterations on aging and as a primary aging process.

The recurring crowdfunding campaign to support LEAF has reached $1110, thus surpassing the first goal of $1000. The next one is $2000, and it’d be great if you could help us reach it, and advertise the campaign so that others may help too.

Another way you can help is by becoming a volunteer—there’s never a shortage of stuff to do in the world of anti-ageing research advocacy, and your talents may be precious. You can also join the community on discord to find out what’s going on and how you can help.

Keep an eye on LEAF, because new campaigns are to be expected fairly soon.

The state of the art

Rejuvenaction does a lot of rejuvenation advocacy, but doesn’t talk much about rejuvenation science. That is on my to-do list and is going to change; for the time being, here’s a brief update on a few research projects, categorised for simplicity the SENS way. None of these is exactly news, but they may give you an idea of where we are in terms of progress, in case you have been out of the loop.

LysoSENS

Clearing up the indigestible junk that accumulates in our lysosomes as we age is crucial in the fight against age-related diseases. The SENS approach to the problem of lysosomal dysfunction consists in upgrading our lysosomes with genes that allow them to produce enzymes that break down the previously unbreakable. A first example of this type of therapy moving towards the clinic is that of LysoCLEAR, an enzyme product in the pre-clinical trial stage specifically tailored to treat age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and its early onset version, juvenile macular degeneration. AMD is one of the leading causes of blindness among the elderly; if successful, LysoCLEAR would not only help old and young alike get back their sight, but it could also pave the way to similar treatments for lysosomal dysfunction in different tissues of the body. Indeed, while LysoCLEAR is targeted to treat the macula, its creator Kelsey Moody is optimistic that the method behind LysoCLEAR can be adapted to target different tissues.

This is not exactly full-scale LysoSENS yet—because we’re not talking of inserting new genes anywhere but rather of a treatment based on enzyme replacement therapy—but it’s an excellent step forward and it definitely is a maintenance-based approach which, at the end of the day, clears out unwanted junk. I suppose it can be seen as a ‘manual’ version of LysoSENS, since the necessary enzymes to clear up the macula aren’t produced directly by the body but are delivered by the drug itself.

Another project, a joint effort by SENS Research Foundation and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, may help us get to the ‘automatic’ version of LysoSENS. The goal of the project is testing out an improvement on somatic gene therapy that uses CRISPR to control where specific genes are added to the genome. Further coverage can be found on FA! —which I always recommend as your primary source for anti-ageing science, together with LEAF. (See Jim’s comment below for a clarification.)

ApoptoSENS

Another cause of pathology in old age is the accumulation of senescent cells—cells that should die, but do not have the decency to do so. These felons have stopped replicating entirely, but don’t die. Instead, they stick around and secrete harmful chemicals. Their existence is a bit of a trade-off: They’re useful in small amounts (they play a role in wound healing and help preventing cancer), but once we hit old age they’ve built up to intolerable amounts, and far from being a solution, they become a problem. That’s why they’re one of the primary targets of ApoptoSENS.

In the past few years, senolytics—drugs capable of targeting and destroying senescent cells—have been often in the spotlight among the anti-ageing research community. Several biotech companies, such as Oisin, Unity, and CellAge, are working on different types of senolytics to get rid of excess senescent cells. The Life Extension Advocacy Foundation ran a rather successful crowdfunding campaign for CellAge last year, and Unity’s senolytics are supposed to enter clinical trials in 2018. Additionally, SENS Research Foundation and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging have recently joined forces on a research project focussed on the clearance of senescent cells in the immune system, led by renowned expert Professor Judy Campisi.

Methuselah Foundation’s new fund

Earlier this year (I told you I’m a slow poster) Methuselah Foundation launched the Methuselah Fund, aimed at providing financial help for promising scientific teams that would like to launch their own company focussed on rejuvenation biotechs. Professional investors’ interest is definitely welcome, and you can get in touch with sergio@methuselahfund.com if you’re interested; however, participants to the Methuselah 300 can complete their pledge by investing in the Methuselah Fund as well.

Upcoming MMTP Longevity Panel

MMTP will host a panel with dr. Alexandra Stolzing, dr. Aubrey de Grey, and other guests in early June—the exact date is to be confirmed. The panel will be livestreamed on Facebook and is offered as one of the rewards for donating to MMTP’s fundraiser on Lifespan.io in 2016. If you have any question to for Alexandra or Aubrey, or the other guests, be sure to submit it to info@majormouse.org.

Advancing Conversations with Aubrey de Grey

If you want an inexpensive, lightweight book that discusses the key points of the rejuvenation cause, either for your own reading or to recommend to others who aren’t willing to go through Ending Aging, I suggest you take a look to Douglas Lain’s Advancing Conversations: Aubrey de Grey—Advocate for an Indefinite Human Lifespan. It’s short, not sciencey and thus simple to read, and it answers quite a few questions that a newbie to the cause may have.

A matter of terminology

Words and expressions we use influence our thoughts more than we think. In particular, some of them are more prone to interpretation than others, or have several meanings that can ‘rub off’ on each other.

The word ‘ageing’ is a good example of what I’m talking about. The first, obvious meaning of the word is that of the passing of time; if you don’t age chronologically, then you cannot possibly age in any other way. The second meaning is the process of physical decay that nearly every living and non-living thing undergoes to some extent. I wonder, though, how many people have been (and still are) thrown off by the word and led to believe that the reason our bodies fall apart as time goes by is exactly the fact time goes by.

Arguably, not many people in the world know that there’s an ongoing process of damage creation and accumulation going on in their bodies all the time. Most people seem to just be used to the fact they’re going to look and feel worse later in life, and the explanation they can provide for this phenomenon is often not much more detailed than ‘they’ve grown old.’ After all, it’s only fairly recently that we found out what ageing really is about; when the term was first adopted, there was no apparent cause of ageing, and people were probably forced to conclude that ageing simply happens with, and possibly because of, time. I wouldn’t be surprised if on some level people actually believed that the passing of time is the cause of ageing; the process of biological ageing is habitually referred to with a plethora of time-themed metaphores, such as ‘the injuries of time’, so it’s quite possible that people passively learnt that what causes the functional decline of their bodies later in life is time. As a consequence, people might well think that the idea of ending ageing is ridiculous, since it would necessarily imply stopping the passing of time.

I have been thinking for a while that biological ageing might need a proper disease-like name, which it will hopefully get when it will be added to the WHO’s list of recognised diseases. However, there are more terms that I think are misleading; ‘life extension’ is one of them. While it is true that the medical interventions we refer to are meant to extend life, this expression can cause several misunderstandings.

First, ‘life extension’ generally pushes people to commit the Tithonus error: They’ think we’re going to extend our lifespans without extending our healthspans. This is of course impossible, but you’d be surprised how many people actually associate ‘life extension’ with ‘living longer in a decrepit state’.

The second, and perhaps worse, side-effect of the term ‘life extension’ is that it may fuel the idea that life has a predefined, ‘right’ length, and that trying to push its length beyond that limit is wrong. There is, of course, no such thing as a predefined length for your life: You’re going to be alive as long as you’re healthy enough to be alive. Still, countless times I’ve had the distinct feeling that people think there are two kinds of death: death by ageing—the ‘natural’ end of your life, which will happen regardless of anything, unless you die ‘prematurely’ of something else—and death that occurs in whatever way before the ‘natural’ one.

It’s a bit as if life was an outdoor show: If it rains it will finish earlier, but the show will come to a conclusion anyway, eventually.

Needless to say, there is only one type of death, which occours if and only if you’re not healthy enough to be alive, be it because of age-related diseases, infectious diseases, or because you’ve been shot in the head. The goal of nearly any kind of medical intervention is to prevent your health from becoming so compromised that you would die, whatever the cause may be. The same is true of rejuvenation biotechnologies: far from trying to push life’s non-existent predefined length beyond a non-existent ‘natural limit’, their goal is no different from that of the rest of medicine: save your life.

Cha-ching!

I’m a slow poster, you know that. Sometimes I’ve posted about ‘news’ that were a month old. That’s because life comes often in between.

However, this time around life can stuff it. I don’t want to be late for this news.

On July 12, 2016, SENS Research Foundation announced that Internet entrepreneur Michael Greve, who runs the Forever Healthy Foundation and KIZOO Technology Ventures, has committed a whopping 10.000.000$ (let me spell that for you: ten fucking million dollars) to SENS research and to startups focused on bringing rejuvenation therapies to the market.

In the words of Greve himself, “My goal is to provide support for the critical research of the SENS Research Foundation and to facilitate the development of the rejuvenation biotech industry and ecosystem. I think we should have more people contribute to the step-by-step creation of cures for the root causes of all age-related diseases. And we should have a whole rejuvenation industry based on the SENS treatment model including the self-accelerating feedback-loop of success stories and amazing opportunities for scientist [sic], entrepreneurs and VC investors. This will truly accelerate both research and therapies. I have decided to lead by example and make this $10 million commitment.”

Five of the 10 millions will be donated directly to SENS over the course of the next five years, while the other five, as said, will be donated to other startups of the field. The 5mln to SENS constitute 10% of the goal of SENS’s new initiative Project|21, meant to make the first human trials of rejuvenation biotechnologies happen by 2021.

That’s the kind of news that make my day. It’s the kind of news that makes you think rejuvenation biotechnologies just got a lot closer to being a reality.

However, don’t think that our job as rejuvenation supporters is over: We still need to keep spreading the word and donating what we can. Speaking of which, Lifespan.io’s OncoSENS campaign has been feeling terribly lonely as of late. It has reached a mere 19% of the goal, much less than other campaigns have reached in the same timespan. Why don’t you pay it a visit and bring in some friends?

Thoughts and updates on recent crowdfunding campaigns

Times really are changing.

Five years ago, when I discovered there were people trying to defeat ageing, I had a distinct feeling it would be a really slow process. I don’t mean just in terms of getting the science done, but also of getting people on board, i.e. getting through people’s skull the simple fact that biological ageing is as bad for you as is any disease. (It’s actually worse, since ageing comes with a nice bundle of all sorts of diseases.) However, things are moving faster than I expected.

The number of companies and researchers joining the fight is increasing, and unlike ten years ago, saying you work on delaying or even eliminating ageing doesn’t automatically make you an object of ridicule and earn you isolation from the rest of the scientific community. In fact, in the scientific community, the idea that ageing can and will be defeated is slowly becoming mainstream.

The amount of online articles about the quest to put an end to ageing is also multiplying, and the tone of these articles is much different from what it used to be. A few years ago, the idea of ending ageing was seen as a quixotic, groundless fantasy, the science behind it was dismissed and belittled, and the scientists working on it were seen as nothing more than delusional, arrogant eccentrics. Today, articles tell a completely different story, and rather than making fun of anti-ageing science, they worry about the potential consequences of defeating ageing. Critics are starting to realise that, far from being a delusion, the defeat of ageing is just a matter of when, not if.

That’s not all. The opinion of the general public seems to be changing as well. To see how this is true, it’s enough to have a look at the result of the crowdfunding campaigns on Lifespan.io. The MitoSENS campaign was a huge success and reached 154% of the goal. The MMTP campaign, which is still running for a few more days, is currently more than 100% percent funded, and the original goal of 45.000$ has been extended to 60.000$. The OncoSENS campaign was launched on June 14, 2016, and as of today (June 19, 2016, i.e. five days later), it is already funded to 9%. (On a less bright note, the DRACO IndieGoGo campaign isn’t doing very well—only 14 days are left, and only a mere 28% of the goal has been reached.)

I think part of this success is due to how people change their minds about things. More often than not, people don’t actively oppose new ideas in themselves. Simply put, if there isn’t enough buzz around a new idea, people just ignore it; if you don’t hear about it often enough, you probably won’t consider it worth your time. More importantly, if most people disapprove of a new idea, then you’re likely to feel subconsciously pressured to disapprove of it too, regardless of its actual merit. This happens for three reasons.

The first is that the illusion of being right, coming from the logical fallacy ‘if most people think it’s wrong, then it must be’, is comforting. The second is that it always feels safer to belong to a majority group. The third and final reason is that being one of the many fuckwits who were wrong feels much better than being one of the few fuckwits who were wrong. In other words, if a lot of people think ageing can’t be defeated and turn out to be wrong about it, they can blame it on the issue itself; if so many people were wrong about it, it must have been particularly hard to grasp or deceptive. However, if just a handful of people thinks ageing can be defeated and they turn out to be mistaken, they’ll come across as a bunch of twits who couldn’t realise the obvious.

Because of the reasons outlined above, when an idea is still new and fairly controversial, people may feel that the safest option to avoid ridicule is to side with the majority and dismiss the new idea without further consideration. The new idea is not okay to talk about because almost nobody does, and of those who do, most despise it and very few praise it.

However, if one day the new idea is all over the Internet, more and more people are talking about it, and there’s a growing number of supporters, other people will start thinking that, perhaps, talking about the new idea is okay after all. It’s okay to read about it and make your own opinion rather than accepting that of the majority. Inevitably, the number of supporters will grow even more, making it easier for new people to join in. And as the number of people joining the cause grows, the cause itself gets a lot more exposure, giving rise to a virtuous circle that may eventually result in the once-despised idea being endorsed by most.

This is why I hope you won’t just read this post, nod approvingly, and move on to reading something else. I hope you’ll share it, share Lifespan.io’s crowdfunding campaigns, talk about healthy life extension to your friends and family, and help generating momentum around rejuvenation biotechnologies in any way you can. Only through advocacy can we reach the critical mass we need to turn the dream of rejuvenation into a reality.

I don’t like this one tiny bit.

I’m not a biologist, you probably know that. I’m thinking about getting a degree in biology, but presently I have no competence to say what makes sense and what does not, biologically speaking. All I say on this website about what may or may not cure ageing is the word of experts of the field, which I merely repeat in a different fashion.

However, having studied natural sciences and having been around on the planet for long enough, I’ve learned to be skeptical about solutions that seem too easy. Especially when the silver bullet seems to have been discovered much too suddenly.

As you probably remember, BioViva has recently experimented a type of gene therapy against ageing on its own CEO Liz Parrish. The aim of the treatment was to lengthen her telomeres, and according to preliminary data, it worked. I care to emphasise the fact that this experiment had a sample size of one.

Dr. Bill Andrews, founder of Sierra Sciences and discoverer of telomerase, the enzyme used by cells to lenghten their own telomeres, has always been dead set on curing ageing—a very noble goal. Thing is, Sierra Sciences and BioViva have now teamed up and apparently launched a company called BioViva Fiji, unsurprisingly located on the homonymous island. They’re building a clinic where this treatment can be administered to arguably rich clients. The reason Fiji was chosen as the location of this clinic is that the Fiji equivalent of FDA seems to have much less strict regulations.

In a video that is not so new any more (I am a slow poster), Dr. Andrews announced the creation of BioViva Fiji and made some pretty bold statements, such as a cure for ageing to be expected “really, really soon.”

You certainly know how much I wish for ageing to be brought under medical control, so you would think I should be excited at the news. I’m not. Why?

This is sketchy as fuck. Bold claims about curing ageing—something most people on the planet probably still think to be nonsense—a private, expensive clinic on the other side of the world where regulations don’t matter as much as setting up medical businesses, and a miracle treatment coming from an experiment with sample size ONE that hasn’t even been fully monitored yet. I’m betting you anything most people’s scam indicator would go through the roof, irrespective of how effective the treatment actually is. This is the kind of stuff that gives the field a bad reputation, and if BioViva were to be wrong or if nasty side effects were to arise as a consequence of the treatment, shit would hit the fan for BioViva, and I fear the shockwave would be felt throughout the entire anti-ageing research field.

It seems awfully simple. Andrews seem to think telomerase/gene therapy is the silver bullet that will fully cure ageing, and while, I repeat, I am not qualified to say he’s wrong, it seems too damn easy. All age-related diseases would boil down to your telomeres getting too short? Is he saying that other age-related damange, like the seven categories of damage that the SENS platform is supposed to fix, are not really relevant? Or can they too be fixed with a shot of telomerase? (I hope he’s not saying that about cancer, because cancer may have 99 problems, but telomerase ain’t one.)

I’m sorry, but I don’t like this. It doesn’t come across as respectable scientists pushing research foward, but rather like a group of a bit too enthusiastic people who think they’ve already solved the general case of a problem because they have got a particular case sort of maybe working. I may be a boring traditionalist, but I still prefer the SENS approach, and I’m not talking only about their approach to defeating ageing, but also to doing science.