Those of you who are interested in regenerative medicine probably already know the SENS Foundation. As always, their annual report (pdf) gives a good overview of the progress made during the past year. If you are new to these ideas, the book Ending Aging by Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a good place to start. This speech also gives a good overview, though it doesn’t go into as much detail as the book.
Archive for the ‘Health’ Category
Technology Review has a good interview with the Harvard Geneticist.
Dr. Church also has a new book that just came out: Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.
Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, the founder and chief science officer of the SENS Foundation, recently gave a talk at the MIT Club of Northern California.
I find his research on the diseases of aging fascinating, and his foundation is the main charity that I support because it has the best risk/reward ratio that I could find (in other words, each dollar spent there has a higher chance of making the world a much better place than a dollar spent elsewhere).
Here’s the video of the presentation:
This video is an hour and a half long, but I think it’s worth watching:
For more on how the Western Diet (high in refined carbohydrates) is causing metabolic syndrome, I also recommend “Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health” by Gary Taubes.
When Aubrey de Grey’s Happy, I’m Happy…
Why? Because he’s one of the leaders and main instigators of the scientific movement working on defeating the diseases of aging, by far the number one cause of death and suffering in the ‘Western’ countries.
But the best way to experience this is to watch the video of Aubrey.
If you are new to all this, I recommend starting with this older TED talk or this longer Google Tech Talk, then this primer at FightAging, and then Aubrey and Michael Rae’s book, Ending Aging.
The best way to contribute to the research efforts are to donate to the Methuselah Foundation.
Nature Materials has a fascinating paper on a kind of polymer implant that can ‘program’ your dendritic cells. This would allow doctors to use your own immune system to attack, for example, cancer cells. But it could also be used to combat other diseases related to the immune system (arthritis and diabetes are examples given by Technology Review), or even to “train other kinds of cells, including stem cells used to repair damage to the body.”
Here’s the abstract of the paper:
Cancer vaccines typically depend on cumbersome and expensive manipulation of cells in the laboratory, and subsequent cell transplantation leads to poor lymph-node homing and limited efficacy. We propose that materials mimicking key aspects of bacterial infection may instead be used to directly control immune-cell trafficking and activation in the body. It is demonstrated that polymers can be designed to first release a cytokine to recruit and house host dendritic cells, and subsequently present cancer antigens and danger signals to activate the resident dendritic cells and markedly enhance their homing to lymph nodes. Specific and protective anti-tumour immunity was generated with these materials, as 90% survival was achieved in animals that otherwise die from cancer within 25 days. These materials show promise as cancer vaccines, and more broadly suggest that polymers may be designed to program and control the trafficking of a variety of cell types in the body.
This immediately made me wonder if this technique could also be used to combat some of the diseases of aging that are caused by the accumulation of toxic by-products of metabolism that our immune system isn’t clearing up.
For example, maybe we could train our immune system to clear up the mis-folded protein aggregates (beta-amyloids) that accumulate in our brains throughout our lives and eventually, past a certain threshold, cause Alzheimer’s disease. A standard vaccine might do the trick, but maybe this technique could produce a more effective immune response?
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Cities Are Attention Whores
Cities bring a lot of benefits to their inhabitants, but we haven’t evolved to live in them and that has an impact on many facets of our lives, including our mental health.
Just being in an urban environment, [scientists] have found, impairs our basic mental processes. [...]
A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power. [This depletes our ability to focus and interferes with our self-control].
It will be unsurprising to anyone who has studied evolutionary psychology to learn that a good way to give your brain a break is to spend some time in a natural setting. In fact, some studies show that just looking at some trees or grass through a window or on a picture can be beneficial.
I wonder if house plants can have the same effect…
In any case, this is just one of many examples among man-made systems that we could design better using knowledge of our brains and bodies and the evolutionary forces that shaped them.
Source: Boston Globe
Photo: Trey Ratcliff
Rejuvenating The Brain
A study published in The EMBO Journal has identified proteins (calpain and cortactin) that help regulate the sprouting of connections between neurons, a phenomenon known as neural plasticity.
Neurons, or nerve cells, process and transmit information by electrochemical signalling and are the core components of the brain and spinal cord. During development, growing neurons are relatively plastic and can sprout new connections, however their plasticity levels drop rapidly as they mature and become integrated into neuronal networks. [...]
“This discovery is exciting because we now know that neurons haven’t lost their capacity to re-grow connections, but instead are under constant repression by the protein calpain. If we can target therapies that block this mechanism, then neurons should be able to sprout new connections, therefore stimulating the brain’s ability to repair its wiring network.” [...]
“The next step is to find a way to enhance neural plasticity without interfering with the good connections that are already in place.”
Sadly, cost-effectiveness isn’t always a priority when it comes to humanitarian aid. In the same way that in the environmental sector it is common knowledge that cute endangered animals will receive more help than ugly ones, ease of marketing is also a big factor when it comes to helping our fellow humans. But if the people who manage aid funds (either voluntary charitable donations or tax money) looked for the biggest bang for the buck, salt iodization would become a priority and the world would be a better place.
From a Nicholas D. Kristof op-ed:
Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.
When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.
A campaign to iodize salt would cost about 2-3 cents per person reached per year, and it could probably be less since once awareness has be raised salt makers would add iodine to their products because it would become a competitive advantage that would pay for itself.
There is another New York Times article from 2006 on this subject: In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt.
If you want to help (and not just with iodine, but also with vitamin A, folic acid, iron, and zinc), check out the The MicroNutrient Initiative, a Canadian non-profit “dedicated to ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable-especially women and children in developing countries-get the vitamins and minerals they need to survive and thrive.”
Addendum: Of course here “I.Q.” is used as shorthand for “intelligence” (whatever that means), and whatever happens, I.Q. will still be periodically normalized to average 100. That’s beside the point that making poor people healthier and smarter is a good thing in itself, and would indirectly lead to more good things.
I’ve been convinced for a while that taking vitamin D supplements is worth it, and study after study seems to confirm my choice.
Here’s what the most recent one from the University of California Riverside has to say:
In a paper published in the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, [Anthony Norman, an international expert on vitamin D,] identifies vitamin D’s potential for contributions to good health in the adaptive and innate immune systems, the secretion and regulation of insulin by the pancreas, the heart and blood pressure regulation, muscle strength and brain activity. In addition, access to adequate amounts of vitamin D is believed to be beneficial towards reducing the risk of cancer.
Norman also lists 36 organ tissues in the body whose cells respond biologically to vitamin D. The list includes bone marrow, breast, colon, intestine, kidney, lung, prostate, retina, skin, stomach and the uterus.
According to Norman, deficiency of vitamin D can impact all 36 organs. Already, vitamin D deficiency is associated with muscle strength decrease, high risk for falls, and increased risk for colorectal, prostate and breast and other major cancers.
The study’s recommendation for all adults is to have an average daily intake of at least 2000 IU. Levels under 10,000 IU/day are considered safe (more about toxicity here).
If you think you’re getting enough vitamin D just from the sun, the only way to know is to get a blood test for 25(OH) levels. A study showed that over half of residents of Miami, Florida, were deficient in vitamin D, and it gets worse as you go Northward. According to Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist who strongly recommends vitamin D supplements, even a tan doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not vit D deficient, especially if you’re older (the skin loses its ability to generate vitamin D as you age).
Personally, I currently take 4,000 IU per day (in gelcaps like these, not dry tablets, because vitamin D is fat-soluble). If you decide to buy some, make sure to get D3 (cholecalciferol) and not the more expensive but less effective D2 (ergocalciferol).
About cost: 4,000 IU per day of Vitamin D costs me about $25.20 per year. There’s really no reason not to do it. And while you’re at it, also get a good multi-vitamin and some Omega 3 (I take around 1200 EPA + 600 DHA per day).
Montreal, September 17, 2008 – Kids and teens surrounded by overweight peers or parents are more likely to be oblivious to their own extra pounds than kids from thin entourages, according to a new study by researchers from the Université de Montréal, McGill University, Concordia University and the Ste. Justine Hospital Research Centre.
“When children’s parents and schoolmates are overweight or obese, their own overweight status may seem normal by comparison. The higher the BMI of their friends and family, the more kids are likely to underestimate their weight – a trend consistent for both sexes, regardless of the socioeconomic levels of their school or family,” said lead author Katerina Maximova, a PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health at McGill University.
This seems to make intuitive sense, though I wonder how much it also applies to other things. Physical attractiveness? Intelligence? Language skills? Physical dexterity? Empathy and altruism? Perseverance? Honesty?
It is no secret that we are influenced by our peers, but how much of it is because of what we are taught, and how much of it is simply because we use the people who surround us as a measuring stick to compare ourselves to? This kind of calibration seems obvious, and I’d really be surprised if there wasn’t a significant correlation between our traits and those of people around us, but I’d love to see real studies on it. It would be especially useful to find out what types of factors can make people not resemble their peers and hold themselves to different standards.
See also: Rationality
Eddie Germino of BetterHumans.com conducted an interesting interview with biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey.
If you want to contribute to the fight against aging, please donate to the Methuselah Foundation.
Videos from the first day of the Aging 2008 conference that took place a month ago in Los Angeles are now online.
If you want to dig deeper in this topic, the next logical step is the book Ending Aging, and a good way to keep up with the latest developments is FightAging.org. If you want to help fund research, please donate to the Methuselah Foundation.
In the past decades, we’ve all heard about the progress made in organ transplant science and in the therapeutic cloning field, but advances in artificial bones have rarely made waves.
Bones are very light but nonetheless able to withstand extremely heavy loads. The inside of a bone is like a sponge. It is particularly firm and compact in certain places, and very porous in others. [...]
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research developed a simulation program that calculates the internal structure and density distribution of the bone material. [...]
Engineers can produce complex components with the aid of rapid prototyping technology. This involves coating a surface with wafer-thin layers of special metal powder [made of biomaterials such as titanium and steel alloys]. A laser beam heats – or sinters – the powdered metal in the exact places that need to be firm. [...]
“The end product is an open-pored element,” explains [Andreas] Burblies. “Each point possesses exactly the right density and thus also a certain stability.” The method allows the engineers to produce particularly lightweight components – customized for each application – that are also extremely robust.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to replace bones as rarely as possible, and in the long-run that can probably be accomplished with complete rejuvenation therapies (how many people in their 30s need to have bones replaced?), but until we get there and for special cases, the best alternative is to swap out those worn out knees for the best reproductions possible.
And while we’re at it, why not replace bones with superior artificial bones. Lighter, stronger, etc. No reason to limit ourselves to what evolution gave us.
On Friday, June 27th, leading scientists and thinkers in stem cell research and regenerative medicine will gather in Los Angeles at UCLA for Aging 2008 to explain how their work can combat human aging, and the sociological implications of developing rejuvenation therapies.
Aging 2008 is free, with advance registration required at http://www.mfoundation.org/Aging2008/
Update Great news! I email Jeff Hall, the coordinator of Aging 2008, to ask if videos of the event would be made available online. He answered that they will “be filming the entire event and putting it up on youtube.”