My 60-Year Assignation with Longevity Research


   A word about my background in longevity research. I've been following this field for something like 60 years now, beginning in childhood. In 1956, there was an article in Scientific American about a multimillionaire research chemist by the name of Johan Bjorksten (?) who was launching his own anti-senescence research program. He attributed aging to the polymerization and of monomers in the body, and as I recall, was interested in the ability of soil bacteria to depolymerize polymers. At that time, I considered switching from my Ph. D. program in physics to a Ph. D. program in biology so that I could pursue this nascent field of gerontological research. I had thought at the time that the conquest of aging would be one of the most rewarding research goals that a society could formulate. However, I decided that I had too much invested in physics, and that an anti-aging career would be too dicey at that time.
    In 1979, I read a library book summarizing the state of the art in anti-senescence research. There wasn't much. You could almost count the number of research gerontology centers in the world on one hand. I contacted the National Institute on Aging and talked at length with two of their researchers on the phone, as well as writing the other major centers for further information about their ongoing research. The general conclusion was that anti-aging research would have to wait until general biological research generated enough basic biological knowledge to render anti-aging research more promising. At the time, I thought about science fiction plots in which someone stores something like modified spermatozoa cloned from one's own germ cells that could penetrate every cell in the body, and could use their relatively clean genomes as templates for repairing the damage to all the cells of the body. One of the problems is that the cells of the body are differentiated. That differentiation information must be stored somewhere in the genome, and if you try to use a clean genome to repair the damage, the clean template might wipe out the differentiation-status information (like wiping out all the settings in a computer program when you reinstall it). At the time, I had wondered why babies are born young. Their mothers may be in the 40's and their fathers may be in their 70's, and yet, their issue will be as young as any other infants. How can that happen over a thousand generations? Why isn't that cumulative genetic damage in the parental genomes reflected in their neonates? I speculated that, perhaps, germ cells were specially protected against genetic damage. Also, spermatozoa go through a Darwinian selection process. Perhaps only those with the cleanest genomes win to the egg cell. But that wouldn't explain how egg cells maintain their genetic integrity millennium after millennium.
    Now we know that there must be mechanisms within the egg cell that restore and/or maintain the genome.
    Today, there is an intense flurry of activity in longevity research compared to earlier epochs. A Delphi forecast generated in the 1980's set the year 2030 as a probable date for the debut of prolongevity techniques, but looking at the way that this field is ramping up, I think things will happen long before then. The $$$ market for anti-senescence treatments is mind-boggling. Can you imagine what kind of market a pharmaceutical company would have if it could market an agent that would make a woman look 20 years younger?  (Two of the advantages of cosmetic rejuvenants are that they can be applied topically rather than parenterally, and that the results are easily visible.) Can you imagine what would happen to a pharmaceutical company's stock price if it could market an agent that would make a woman actually be 20 years younger?  Can you imagine what kind of prospects it would have if one of its competitors beat it to the punch?
    I believe that you're now going to see big money poured into this research domain.
    Could I be wrong? Absolutely.