Aubrey de Grey – founder of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), famous for his beard and his plans for immortality – is probably just now recovering from the excitement and intensity of SENS4. The fourth conference of the SENS Foundation was held at Queens’ College in Cambridge, UK, September 3 – 7, 2009. Queens’ College was founded 561 years ago, and if Aubrey has his way, we’ll be attending SENS280 there, 561 years from now. There is a SENS conference every two years, each attended by hundreds of scientists, researchers, and life-extension enthusiasts, to discuss advances in radical life-extension technologies.
The conference began on a Thursday at 12:30PM, with presentations on the latest research in the field. The day’s talks covered techniques for reducing damage caused by oxidation, breakthroughs in regenerative medicine, cell reprogramming, and optimizing metabolism in response to aging. The first day of talks held the audience riveted, and the coffee breaks between sections were barely long enough for attendees to jabber excitedly about what they had seen. For the rest of the conference, talks began at 8:30AM sharp, right after breakfast — the attendees descended eagerly upon the conference hall despite the early hour.
The poster sessions (juried presentations of research information) began after the (delicious!) conference dinners were over, in a dining hall that provoked many references to Hogwarts. The infamous free open bar nearby provided an atmosphere for attendees to talk informally –- and perhaps most seriously –- about the future of living forever. The posters themselves were presented by professors, students, post-docs, and industry researchers (including representatives from Knome, Halcyon, and Genescient).
Friday’s talks covered accumulated junk both inside and outside aging cells. Focused studies on mitochondria, telomeres, and the lysosome were discussed. Andrei Seluanov of the University of Rochester presented an interpretation of the evolution of anti-cancer mechanisms in short and long-lived species. His team studied telomerase in rodent species with very diverse sizes and lifespans. Surprisingly, telomerase –- which is linked to cancer when abundant and to aging when in short supply –- was shown to correlate with body mass, rather than lifespan.
John Schloendorn discussed his team’s work at the SENS Research Center discovering enzymes that degrade intracellular junk that accumulates over time. So far, the team has found enzymes that degrade A2E and 7-ketocholesterol, the molecules responsible for macular degeneration and blocked arteries. He also showed off his homemade-laboratory equipment – makeshift, cheap, and tremendously effective –- their DIY-inspiration was the talk of the coffee break.
Vladimir Skulachev’s team at Moscow State University studied the ability of plastoquinone structural analogs (SkQ1, SkQR1, SkQ3) to reduce reactive oxygen species (ROS) in mitochondria. In vitro and in vivo, these SkQs inhibited development of aging-related disease, and acted therapeutically on extant aging pathologies. SkQs were very effective at treating age-related vision problems; eye drops containing 250nM of SkQ1 restored sight to 67 of 89 animals (dogs, cats, horses) that had become blind due to old age. SkQ1 is entering clinical trials in Autumn 2009 as a treatment for glaucoma. Link.
A UT-Austin team, led by Adela Ben-Yakar, presented femtosecond laser nanosurgery –- a new tool of incredible precision, capable of slicing a single axon at a time. Her team was able to study nerve regeneration in vivo in C. elegans, inducing controlled injury to single axons, opening the door to detailed and specific knowledge of nerve regeneration. (Femtosecond laser nanosurgery from shedding light on nerve regeneration to aiding in cancer diagnosis and therapy.)
A headline grabbing story the week before SENS, Lusine Danielyan of the University of Tubingen presented her research on intranasal delivery of cells to the brain – snorting stem cells is an effective way to route them to the brain. Danielyan’s team used mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and glioma cells, squirting them into mouse noses, and observing what happened after they crossed the blood brain barrier. Within 15 minutes, both cell types reached the olfactory bulb, and were found in many other regions of the brain – making intranasal delivery a powerful new option for cell-based neuro-therapeutics.(Intranasal delivery of cells to the brain.)
There were also practical talks with real-life advice. A study on exercise recommended intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) — after five minutes of regular exercise, rest for five minutes with a hypoxicator to simulate altitude training. Another study showed that consuming 4-8 oz of berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries), 1 oz of walnuts, and 1 cup of green tea per day can decrease the mental decline associated with aging and promote a healthy ratio of polyunsaturated fats. A third study concluded that many herbs (savory, marjoram leaves, rosemary leaves, basil, sage, tarragon), when consumed as a tea or in capsule form (2 x 350mg capsules) provide an arNOX reduction from 15-40% for 6-9 hours. Unhealthy cholesterol (LDL) is oxidized and destroyed by arNOX – so don’t hold back when adding the spices.
Some presentations were controversial. A talk on stem cell retrodifferentiation claimed that the author had cured hundreds of ailments with stem cells, since she began the work in the 1990s. The audience was openly skeptical, but the author insisted. (See "Retrodifferentiation and Aging: Harnessing Youth through Induction of Pluripotency in mature adult cells via Cell Surface Receptor Contact. Another project on retrodifferentiation was met with similar doubt, leading to coffee break talk questioning retrodifferentiation’s legitimacy as a field.
The media’s response to SENS4 was overwhelmingly positive, increasing the praise for Aubrey and SENS, in contrast to previous years. The perception of life-extension is shifting from a high-tech permutation of the fountain of youth, to something that might not only be possible, but commonplace. UK’s Telegraph wrote, “Immortality, it would seem, has long been inextricably entwined with lunacy. But that may be about to change. Earlier this month, 200 scientists descended on Queens’ College Cambridge to discuss ways of radically extending human lifespan – and even achieving immortality.” Link