RAADFest, which is held every year in San Diego, California, is one of a growing number of conferences focused on longevity and how to slow or reverse the processes of aging. This was the third RAADFest, and it was, as in years past, an interesting mix of science conference and almost-religious rally and party.
The scientific presentations didn’t go into the kind of detail found at a more traditional science conference, but there were some interesting talks from a number of luminaries in the field.
The almost-religious part of the event is a bit tongue in cheek and is perhaps best exemplified by the presence of Bill Faloon’s Church of Perpetual Life, an actual church (legally speaking, at least) in Florida that focuses more on the science of aging and ways to stay put on this plane of existence than on how to enter the pearly gates of heaven.
Nevertheless, there is a bit of a big-church feel to the event, with founders and organizers Jim Strole and Bernadeane (she only goes by her first name) rallying the troops at the main stage during the beginning and end of each day’s set of talks. They did a great job of humanizing the global effort to extend lives. Their comments focused on friendship, life enjoyment, and how the people there at the conference may really be your best friends because they all want you to live forever, they want you to do well in life, and they want the same for themselves.
Dr. Aubrey de Grey
Dr. Aubrey de Grey is the chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation. He is a regular attendee and member of the RAADFest steering committee, and, even though RAADFest is not strictly focused on science, he feels that RAADFest is a highly effective and valuable event because of its focus on generating enthusiasm for life itself and for the idea of increasing longevity to enjoy more of it.
He wrote about this year’s event:
More and more academics are seeing that they will not tarnish their reputations among their future peer reviewers by speaking at an event such as RAADfest. Indeed, the same applies beyond academia: one of this year’s other keynotes was Jim Mellon, a billionaire whose reputation in the world of finance is immense, and who has become the most prominent (and high-rolling) early-stage investor in the nascent rejuvenation biotechnology industry. … Congratulations, Jim [Strole] et al: you have created a major new string to the bow of the longevity crusade.
I asked him about telomerase therapy for lengthening telomeres and restoring full cell function, an approach that is gaining some attention in recent years. De Grey has proposed the opposite approach: whole-body interdiction for the lengthening of telomeres (WILT), which he fleshed out in his 2010 seminal book, Ending Aging. In proposing WILT, he suggested that an effective way to cure cancer would be to eliminate the body’s ability to produce telomerase, thus preventing cancer cells from replicating past the Hayflick limit of 50 or so cell divisions.
The downside of WILT, of course, is that it would also eliminate the body’s ability to use telomerase to lengthen telomeres in non-cancerous cells. Dr. de Grey thinks this price might be worthwhile because, according to the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) model, we would still be able to maintain good health and longevity even without longer telomeres.
Dr. de Grey clarified that he proposed WILT more as a way to air contrary views to prompt responses from colleagues. He seems to now acknowledge that there may be some potential for using telomerase to lengthen telomeres rather than the reverse.
Reason is the CEO and founder of Repair Biotechnologies as well as the founder of the well-known blog Fight Aging!. When I first spoke with him at the conference, he came across as a bit of a pessimist about near-term (next 5-10 year) longevity treatments. But in his own review of the conference he seemed more optimistic, stating (hyperlinks in original):
I spent an interesting few days last week attending RAADfest, and came away somewhat optimistic that this strange collision of subcultures may herald an acceleration in the adoption of solid science and working therapies on the part of the anti-aging marketplace, accompanied by a driving out of the ineffective nonsense and fraud of past decades. This sea change is very much a work in process, and there is plenty of that nonsense still to be found. Yet the advent of senolytic therapies to clear senescent cells has clearly invigorated certain groups, who have now turned a sizable amount of their advocacy and attention to the adoption of this first legitimate rejuvenation therapy, an implementation of the SENS model of damage repair.
Jim Mellon, a respected British billionaire investor, gave a talk on the main stage and made a great point: the current global market for anti-aging products is about $140 billion – but nothing actually works in terms of extending lifespan! He predicts, quite reasonably, that once we have a product or two that actually does something measurable for lifespan, as proven with clinical trial results, we’ll see a global gold rush into what he calls “juvenescence” (anti-aging) companies.
He believes that this “will be the biggest stock market mania” in history and that juvenescence will “be the biggest industry on the planet.” Jim and his partner Al Chalabi wrote a 2017 book about all of this, which I’ve read and highly recommend, called Juvenescence: Investing in the Age of Longevity. As the title suggests, the book is about the science of longevity and how to invest in this rapidly-growing field.
He also talked about various promising treatments available now, including metformin and vitamin B12, rapamycin, NAD+ restoration (through nicotinamide riboside and other similar NAD+ precursors), and the senolytic combo of dasatinib and quercetin.
He made some bold predictions: that average life expectancy will be 115 years by 2050 (up from today’s roughly 80 years), that gene therapy will extend that to 150 years, and that many significant new developments will happen in the next few years alone.
He wrote his first book on biotech in 2012, and a number of world-changing events happened in just the few years between his 2012 book and his 2017 book, including CRISPR gene therapy, major AI advances, an HIV cure, and development of effective immunotherapy for various cancers. It’s not hard to imagine that the next 5-10 years will bring unexpected and equally important changes.
Dr. Brad Thompson
Dr. Brad Thompson of Wyvern Pharmaceuticals, in a quirky and slightly awkward talk, excited me and the rest of the audience by announcing that his company will be starting human clinical trials on a potentially groundbreaking whole-body skin rejuvenation treatment in 2019. He said that the treatment is based on already-established treatments that Wyvern and other companies that he owns or is part of have developed, and he is confident that the treatments will work.
He predicted that, if all goes well, we’ll have commercially available whole-body skin rejuvenation therapies available in about three years. That seems highly optimistic, but only time will tell. Thompson also told the audience that he personally expects to live long enough to live forever, a concept that the rejuvenation community calls longevity escape velocity (LEV).
Ray Kurzweil, who popularized the concept of LEV along with many other longevity ideas and terms, was a keynote speaker.
He explained the logic of LEV: if the first round of effective treatments “only” add a decade or two to our lives, we can then expect that that decade will bring new discoveries and new treatments that will extend our lives another twenty years or so. If that process continues, age-related diseases are no longer a mortal threat. He reiterated his view that longevity escape velocity will arrive by the late 2020s.
His talk was mostly a rehash of his decade-old framework for holding back aging: Bridge 1 (good nutrition, exercise, supplements, et cetera), Bridge 2 (coming biotech improvements that may actually turn back the clock), Bridge 3 (nanotech that may be able to sustain our youth in perpetuity), and Bridge 4 (eventual transcendence of biological form with uploading of consciousness into the cloud).
He also introduced his latest book, Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, a novel targeted at young girls to inspire them to go into STEM fields as a career.
Long-time Kurzweil fans like me, however, expected more from his talk.
Are effective anti-aging therapies on the horizon?
One of my questions going into this conference was whether optimism is warranted about effective aging interventions arriving in the relatively short term. Of course, there has long been debate about how soon we can reasonably expect to slow or even halt aging. There seems to be a growing consensus that we can reasonably expect at least some effective treatments in the coming decade or two.
After attending RAADFest, I won’t venture a guess at this juncture about the actual timing of LEV or effective treatments. However, there is certainly a growing body of research as well as active and pending clinical trials that will soon yield better answers.