Some concerns on US politics and rejuvenation

Sometimes, bad news are good news in disguise. Some other times, it might be the other way around. I’ve been concerned for a while about certain turns that the situation of anti-ageing research might take in the future, and perhaps is already taking right now.

So. Donald Trump is President of the US.

My personal opinion of Trump is that he’s an incompetent, self-absorbed buffoon with the mental capacity of a retarded 5-year-old and the scientific understanding of a dead ant. His lack of respect for basic human rights is appalling. He possesses no moral or intellectual integrity to be spoken of, has a despicable habit of providing ‘alternative facts‘, and his ego is far too large to fit in this universe. My understanding is that he’s also accused by some of certain crimes, but I don’t really know if it’s true, so I will suspend my judgement on that. Anyway, my opinion of Trump isn’t important. What is important is that a lot of people have a similar opinion of him. When you have such a low opinion of somebody, it’s very easy to have a similarly low opinion of anything they do or that is associated with them, regardless of the actual merits of what they do or are associated with. In other words, it’s very easy to reason like this: ‘Trump is an idiot, therefore anything he does or is associated with is idiotic,’ whence ‘If Trump did X, or is somehow associated with X, then X must be idiotic.’ Especially in the case of Trump, it’s tempting to think like this. However, this reasoning is incorrect, and I don’t think I need to explain why. Two important consequences of this reasoning might be the following:

  • The public opinion on measures, changes, or initiatives taken or implemented by Trump could become extremely negative. This could be especially true if people thought said measures were already controversial to begin with, whether taken by Trump or others.
  • Future administrations might wish to distance themselves from Trump’s administration as much as possible, particularly if he screws up really badly or if he falls before the end of his mandate. To this end, they might want to undo changes operated by Trump and do the opposite of what he did. Again, this might be especially true in case of controversial measures on which public opinion was divided or largely negative.

Okay. Maybe it is like that. Why should you care? Well, Peter Thiel is an advisor to Donald Trump. I’m not sure what the exact title of Thiel’s position is, or how official or permanent it is, but it is pretty clear that he has the ear of the President.

I don’t have an opinion on Peter Thiel. All I know is that he co-founded PayPal and that he’s pretty much in favour of all sorts of technological and scientific progress, including, but not limited to, the defeat of ageing. As a matter of fact, Thiel is notoriously a strong supporter of SENS and has donated tons of money to SENS—something like over 6 million dollars. So far, so good. One could argue that people like Thiel (and Elon Musk, who’s also on Trump’s advisory board) might be able prevent Trump from fucking everything up, and in the case of Thiel, even help give a little push to anti-ageing research. Indeed, Thiel may be able to have his associate Jim O’Neill appointed as head of the FDA. Do you know where Jim O’Neill sits? On the board of directors of SENS.

So? What’s my problem? A board member of SENS might become the head of the FDA. This is cause for celebration, right? He could speed up the development of rejuvenation biotechs like never before, right? Yes, in theory. I would be celebrating this news if it wasn’t for two lingering concerns bothering me ever since I heard about it.

My first concern should be pretty clear. As much as we wished otherwise, rejuvenation is still a controversial idea that most people welcome with extreme scepticism at best; associating it with Trump might be a bad thing in the long term. Imagine O’Neill really becomes head of the FDA and really pushes the idea forward. The political adversaries of Trump might well make use of this against him. They could accuse him of wasting taxpayers’ money on pipe dreams, of attempting to undermine the natural order of things, and could raise all the usual objections to rejuvenation we’re used to hear. As advocates of rejuvenation, we all know that even perfectly reasonable people tend to fall for these objections without even questioning them; if they’re blinded by political hatred, I fear they’ll be even more likely to buy into these arguments and become well persuaded that rejuvenation is an impossible goal that only a fool like Trump could ever try to pursue. Some of the least bright minds might even believe that he wants to achieve immortality to rule the world forever, or some other crazy nonsense like that.

A possible result is that the opposition against rejuvenation might increase. Trump’s successors might undo any pro-rejuvenation initiative he might have enacted and steer clear from the cause. Crowdfunding efforts might become more difficult, and the fear of bad publicity might drive private investors away. Remember how Aubrey de Grey always says there’s at least a 10% chance that we won’t get rejuvenation for another 100 years? This might be the most direct way to pump that percentage all the way up to 50%.

But wait—it gets worse. If you’ve read some of the articles I linked above, you might have got the same creeping feeling that authors are trying to present Thiel as more of a weirdo than an innovator. Maybe that isn’t their intention; still, a fervent opposer of Trump reading that one of his advisors is into building cities on the sea, has a ‘well-documented obsession with life-extension technologies, including extending his own lifespan with blood transfusions from young people’ (cit. from Vanity Fair above), and thinks the FDA is in the way of drug innovation, may easily conclude that these are the hallmarks of a nutcase. Jim O’Neill isn’t in a better position, really, because he’s into pretty much the same things, and more than one article present him as a dangerous radical who speaks at biotech meetings without being a physician. They’re not very upfront about it, but I do think they’re subtly implying he’s incompetent at best and crazy at worst. How much, if at all, is their opinion of Trump influencing their opinion of Thiel and O’Neill? How will this influence their opinion of rejuvenation?

Some papers may be deliberately misrepresenting Thiel and O’Neill, and I don’t necessarily share such extreme opinions on them. I don’t know enough about them to even have a clear opinion. To be honest, I have my doubts about their idea that drugs should be approved right after passing safety tests, even if efficacy isn’t proved; this is my second concern. This idea is quite controversial, yet it seems to be shared by many within SENS (including Aubrey de Grey—he’s pretty upfront about it in Ending Aging) and others within the movement (most notably FA!). I’m willing to bet this is another argument that Trump’s opposers could easily use against him—for example, they could argue that loosening drug approval criteria may end up flooding the market with placebos and potentially dangerous medicines. True or not, this argument’s appeal to fear could be very powerful, especially among Trump’s opposers, and could do an even better job at convincing them that supporters of rejuvenation are dangerously crazy. (As a side note, if something did go wrong as a consequence of a hastily approved anti-ageing drug, I fear the shockwave would be felt throughout the entire field for decades to come.) However, I haven’t made my mind up about this whole FDA thing. I need to do more research and ask for more opinions before I come to a conclusion; therefore, I’ll leave this matter for another post.

Under different circumstances, I’d be extremely happy to know that a SENS board member might be part of the US President’s entourage. Further research might make me less worried about O’Neill’s proposals for the FDA, but I’d really prefer the first President to endorse SENS to be someone else than a total moron with great chances to be remembered as the worst and most hated US President in history.

Maybe I’m blowing it out of proportions. I certainly hope so.

PS: It’s okay if you disagree with my opinions. It’s okay if you want to comment to say it. However, I’m not interested in debating if Hillary, or any other candidate, would have been better than Trump or anything like that. I don’t know, and I don’t even care.

Again on ageing as a disease: A rectification

My previous post was somewhat confusing even to myself. To be completely frank, I think it was a little bit of a fuck-up. Several people have commented about it, for example on Reddit or Facebook, pointing out among the rest that whether or not ageing is a disease isn’t just semantics and it isn’t pointless. (To the people commenting on Facebook, I’d like to say that I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your comments, but for some reason I was stuck as ‘Rejuvenaction’ on those posts, and Pages don’t seem to be allowed to comment on group posts. I tried to switch to my personal account to no avail. I figured out a workaround, but at this point it’s a bit too late.)

What I meant to say is that arguing whether or not ageing is a medical condition is far less important than treating its root causes, and as long as we focused on this task, we could postpone the debate to a later time. The finer points of establishing if ageing fits the definition of ‘disease’ to the letter would waste precious time we could spend saving lives instead; we should definitely not wait until the issue has been settled before we start developing rejuvenation biotechnologies. (And we are not waiting at all, luckily.) However, classifying ageing as a disease is very important and not at all pointless, as Reason of FA! explained in this post. In a nutshell, if the ageing processes that lead to age-related diseases were considered pathological, research on how to interfere with them would likely receive more funding, and drugs that target ageing itself could be approved by the FDA. (The FDA only approves drugs that target recognised diseases; if ageing isn’t recognised as one, no drugs targeting it would be approved.) I think there might be a chance that some bona-fide anti-ageing drugs would be approved even if ageing wasn’t recognised as a disease—for example, drugs that clear the amyloid plaques that build up in the brain would essentially be rejuvenation therapies preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and as such I suppose they would be approval material for the FDA, even if they did’t recognise ageing itself as a disease; nevertheless, it’s clear that things would be easier in terms of getting funding and approving drugs if the whole ageing process was classified as a disease.

That being said, if we want to decide if ageing is a disease, we really do need to have good definitions of both terms. It turns out that defining ‘disease’ is not a simple problem, and apparently WHO themselves don’t have an official definition. They do have a definition of health, though, which says among the rest that ‘ Health is […] not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’; the lack of an official WHO definition of disease makes their definition of health a bit problematic, in my opinion. I suppose they rely on the intuitive idea of ‘disease’ we all have, but as a mathematician, I find this decidedly insufficient. If you look up ‘disease’ on Wikipedia, you’ll find this:

A disease is a particular abnormal condition, a disorder of a structure or function, that affects part or all of an organism.

I don’t like this definition very much, because it might imply that a ‘normal’ condition isn’t a disease; however, the incidence of age-related disease grows higher and higher with age, to the point that I don’t see how they couldn’t be considered ‘normal’ past a certain age; that’s why I prefer a definition along the lines of ‘a definite pathological process having a characteristic set of signs and symptoms’.

As for the definition of ‘ageing’, I stick to Aubrey de Grey‘s definition, i.e. that ageing is the process of accumulation of damage the body inflicts itself as a side-effect of its normal operations. In the post we’re discussing, I said that even according to this definition, ageing wasn’t a disease, but only a cause of disease; I used a comparison I found very fit, i.e. that ageing is to age-related diseases what viruses are to infections. However, upon more careful reflection, this comparison is a bit misleading. It’s true that a virus is not a disease; however, a virus isn’t a process either, unlike ageing. A better comparison would be between age-related damage and viruses. The accumulation of damage could then be (rather loosely) compared to an infection, in the sense that both are processes that happen over time: They begin, they progress, and eventually give rise to symptoms and full-blown diseases.

Now, at least according to the second definition of ‘disease’ I provided, ageing seems to be one, because it is a pathological process (although an extraordinarily long one) that has a characteristic set of signs and symptoms. While symptoms and visible signs of ageing don’t show up until late in life, more subtle signs (accumulation of senescent cells, or cross-links, for example) are present inside your body basically at all times. The reason I call it a ‘pathological’ process is that the damage caused by ageing is, as said, a side-effect of your metabolism; it’s a bug, not a feature, left around by evolution because it was generally not serious enough to prevent you from reaching reproductive age. It’s a disease that stays silent until a certain threshold is reached—again, pretty much like an infection until there are enough viruses around to wreak havok.

Ultimately, ageing may or may not be a disease depending on the definition of ‘disease’ we want to adopt. With enough nitpicking, ageing may well not be a disease according to some definitions, but in principle we could change definitions around so much that Alzheimer’s disease stops being a disease and mountain climbing suddenly becomes one. (This is an intentionally ridiculous example.) I have no problem admitting that this is not what my previous post seemed to say, and I honestly have no idea how I managed to twist my own thoughts around so much that they ended up contradicting things I wrote before. I have a hunch I had grown a bit too fond of the metaphors I used in that post, which again seemed fitting but were confusing. I’m not a fan of revisionism, so my previous post is going to stay up right the way it is, just with a link to this one.

As a side note, some now-recognised age-related diseases were considered to be part of ‘normal’ ageing in the relatively recent past. Seems to me ‘normal’ is a safety-blanket word that we use to feel okay about not doing anything to change something that is not good and difficult to change. Or maybe, it’s just that we like feeling ‘normal’. If you’re 78 and your doctor says you’ve got high blood pressure, he’ll also probably reassure you and say that ‘at your age, it is normal’. So what? That only means that it’s common for a person of your age to have unhealthy blood pressure, and it’s in no way different from saying that it is normal for a smoker to have their lungs full of crap. It’s normal alright, but it is very bad nonetheless.