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Are telomeres the aglets of aging? Why the shoelace metaphor is misleading

Aglets protect your shoelaces

I just finished reading the The Telomere Effect by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel (2017). I was somewhat surprised that the authors still use the shoelace metaphor throughout the book (every chapter starts with a picture of shoelaces) because Michael Fossel, another telomere expert, despises the metaphor...

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  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte
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  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    Medical technology now verges on incorporating computers with the computational power of the famous Watson IBM computer and Internet-like communications directly into our anatomy. As the size and complexity of computers spiral downward, the wholesale use of these devices (as well as RFID-type technology) will become as common as a present vaccine. These initiatives will extend lifetimes, keep us younger longer and enhance our intelligence. Related to this development is the eventual merging of synthetic DNA and artificial intelligence that will bring new diagnostics, medical treatment and smart nano-prosthetics well within the horizon of the next generation. A prosthetic genome hastens the day when enhanced life forms, such as human organs, can be made entirely from a fusion of living organisms and non-living materials.

    Just as computers, cell phones, the Internet, Google, and Facebook continue to change our social reality and some believe our brain biology, the author contends that the proliferation of in-the-body technologies will dramatically change everything from how we view each other, to how we fashion policy and law to guard against activities that could jeopardize our well-being, such as market forces may look to squeeze out efficiencies at the expense of performance and reliability or against those who, for instance, would dare to unleash digital viruses into a world filled with biomedical devices receptive to Internet-style communications.

    Overtime our artificially controlled metabolisms may begin to alter our natural biological evolution. At what point does the widespread application of cyborg-assisted-life change our attitudes about what the notion of “human” means. The author focuses on the moral implications of the new technology, its influence over our future culture, personal identity and autonomy, and why we need to begin a national conversation now so that we can prepare for what is inevitably ahead.41Vqq4fV-qL.jpg

  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte
  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    Thanks! Excellent question! 😉

    I can only tell you what Fossel and other supporters of the telomere theory of aging probably would respond. The thing is that young cells are very capable of repairing damage and getting rid of debris. However, when cells get older they more and more lose this capability. Thus, damage is an effect of aging and not the cause. If you really want to cure aging, you have to control what causes aging. If you reverse aging, the cells regain their damage repair capabilities and probably will remove all the residues of past aging.

    I am afraid that it might turn out that Aubrey de Grey will have a similar role as Marvin Minsky had in AI research. Minsky’s critique of neural networks, prevented serious advances in AI research for decades. It is now clear that symbolic AI was the absolutely wrong approach and didn’t produce any noteworthy results. Symbolic AI failed because researches totally underestimated the complexity of intelligence. Researches tried to master the effects of intelligence (intelligent behavior) instead of trying to figure out what “causes” intelligence in the brain.

    The damage repair approach of SENS might fail for the same reason. They underestimate the complexity of damage causing processes and the damage repair pathways in the cell. Instead of getting to the root of the problem they try to deal with the effects.

    In AI, only after the paradigm shift do we see serious progress. AI research is now all about neural networks. Imagine where AI would be now if all those AI researches didn’t waste so much time and money with symbolic AI. This can happen if influential scientists support the wrong theories and research money goes into the wrong direction. The good thing is that the paradigm shift in aging research is now on the way.

    But then I am only a layman who is shocked by the complexity of cell biology. I only extensively studied the philosophy and the history of science in college. All I can say is from that perspective is that we are now seeing the typical signs of a paradigm shift which happens all the time in science. By the way, I also predicted the paradigm shift in AI in my master thesis more than 25 years ago. I just hope it won’t take so long this time.

  • Excellent response, thanks. I’m coming to the view that SENS and telomerase therapy may in fact be highly complementary, with SENS focused on cleaning up the residue of past aging and telomerase therapy focused on preventing further harm from aging. Do you agree with this conceptual framing?

  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    I am currently reading Molecular biology of the cell (recommended), a standard text book for college students. The 6th edition was released at the end of 2014 shortly before Kurzweil interviewed de Grey. This is what the authors had to say about the telomere theory of aging:

    When telomerase is provided to the fibroblasts by inserting an active telomerase gene, telomere length is maintained and many of the cells now continue to proliferate indefinitely. It has been proposed that this type of control on cell proliferation may contribute to the aging of animals like ourselves. These ideas have been tested by producing transgenic mice that lack telomerase entirely.

    The authors usually use the phrase “has been proposed” if a theory is controversial. However, nowhere do they say that the theory is “pretty much rejected.”  It is very unlikely that a theory where the majority of scientists believe that it is wrong makes it into a standard text book. Needless to say that they also discuss the damage theory of aging.

    All the books and articles I read about aging since I wrote the blog post (and I read many) confirmed Fossel’s claim, that is, that more and more young scientists adopt the theory.

    I just saw a new and a really great BBC documentary about the science of aging which was aired a couple of weeks ago. I think it is fair to say that the telomere theory dominated this report. None of the scientists claimed that the theory is wrong although it became clear that telomerase probably is not the “silver bullet” that Fossel wants it to be.

    Things are probably a bit more complex. However, I think it is now undisputed that telomere shortening significantly contributes to aging. Research in the years to come will show how much and how it exactly it works. I find studies about the telomere position effect most interesting.

  • Did you receive any responses to this question? I’ve been wondering the same thing, having just finished Fossel’s book and read DeGrey’s first.

  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    Michael, we are talking about computer simulations here. A computer simulation of a black hole can only simulate gravity and nobody will get hurt.

    The question if we are already in a simulation is interesting and it hunts me since my college exams because Hilary Putnam’s brain in the vat was one of my exam topics. All I can say here now is that if we really are in a computer simulation, then the real world is probably very different from what we experience and we are all only babbling nonsense anyway. This includes this sentence. 😉 Heck, there might not even be brains, vats or computers in the real world.

    As to the duck test, if  it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck if it is not too close to the MIT robotic research labs. In that case, I would extend the test a little: If it tastes like a duck, and nourishes like a duck… 😉 I think this answers your question about genetically engineered ducks. I consider them as real ducks. However, ducks in computer games are not real ducks. If you try to feed yourself on a virtual duck, you would most certainly starve to death. And that would be real then.

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