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LongeCity Science Initiatives - Autumn 2011 review

“To conquer the blight of involuntary death” is a complex task: political, economic, logistic, and social factors all play a role in making this dream a reality. Ultimately though, the challenge remains a scientific and technological one. We need to know more about the details of death and aging and we need to test as many different approaches as we can. Recently, LongeCity has sought to contribute to these endeavors in its own small ways. Scientific research and technological development is are complex fields and very costly to pursue. There must now be millions of scientist and technologists in the world – more than ever in the history of mankind and billions are spend on research and development. In the light of this, what difference can a small online forum really make? We don’t k now the answer, but we realized that just because the task is daunting, this does not mean that we cannot dare to attempt it: LongeCity wouldn’t exist it were otherwise. So we started, to try, in out own small way, to make contributions to life extension science. To be sure, there were our many contributions to scientific events and publications, including our own book and scientific conferences, there was support which we gave to scientific initiatives, such as the M-Prize and there was also the community-designed supplement VIMMORTAL an area which we are currently considering to revisit... but in terms of hands-on science, LongeCity now looks back at three specific projects:

The first one was ‘Laser Ablation of Lipofuscin’ – this project emerged after a presentation by Nason Schooler where he showed that, exposed to a certain wavelength of laser light, young worms remained unaffected whereas old worms died. This was considered to be due to lipofuscin – a buildup of age-associated debris in the old worms. What if such lipofuscin deposits could be broken down by the application of laser light, leaving the surrounding tissue unaffected? It sounded like a real longshot but Nason was keen to pursue it, he just needed some funding to do it. Nason was quizzed by LongeCity members and he held up well in the face of some probing questions. Most importantly, the trailblazing Dr. Aubrey de Grey and the SENS programme endorsed Nasons research, recommended him for funding and agreed to host him, his worms and lasers in their own laboratories in the US. Also, the project seemed a good fit: it was quirky enough that it would struggle to get funding from other sources, it was high-risk pot also potentially high impact perhaps opening the door to an entire new field of anti-aging science.

Based on this, we conducted some internal discussions including strategic ones and eventually agreed in a Full Members Referendum to commence a fundraiser – LongeCity’s (them still trading as the
Immortality Institute) first ever fundraiser purely dedicated to practical science. We committed $8000 from institute funds, but only if that amount would be matched by donations. The fundraiser was a great success quickly raising and even exceeding the target amount. With our backing, Nason commend work in the SENS labs – and then a couple of difficulties arose. First the labs moved, and Nason moved also, but soon needed to relocate again for personal reasons. What to do? We had transferred the funds raised to SENS. To be sure that was a good place to leave them considering the good work this organisation aims to do. However, our members had donated not to support SENS but expressly to support the Laser ablation research project. So we negotiated to get some of the remaining funds back from SENS (who were very supportive) but then agonised over how to proceed: should we just let Nason conduct the research in his garage? Many an internet business was started this way, but we still felt we needed some scientific oversight. Members can trace some of our discussions here, suffice it to say that after many attempts we could not get the oversight regime that we wished, but there was pressure of course to continue the research. We agreed to some research going ahead at Nasons home, even visited to see his setup and conduct and interview. In short, we did what we could and yet, based on recent developments it turned out that maybe we should have been more reluctant. What remains to be salvaged from this project remains to be seen.

The next project launched a year later, was more stringently planned: there was a call for applications, and we organised some peer review. Two projects emerged tat we really liked and we decided to fund both, in turn. The first one was again based on worms: it looked at the cellular ‘powerplants’ – the mitochondria that play a key role in aging and sought to investigate if if chemical uncoupling by 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP) can reduce damage to mitochondria and their specific DNA and if this would lead to extended lifespan in worms.
Again, we managed to raise the money relatively swiftly, based on some very generous donations. Jan kept the community informed throughout. Regrettably, after funding the project, the community seemed to take little interest. To be honest, when first launching the project Jan and LongeCity leadership were a bit worried that given LongeCity’s large and vibrant supplement discussion forums, some people might jump to very unsafe conclusions and ingest the mitochondrial uncouplers under investigation as a supplement. However, rather than there being too much enthusiasm, there wasn’t a lot of engagement. Jan and his team pursued the research, in this case according to best scientific practice as expected, this month,Dr. Gruber will discuss the results with Mind in our podcast- If you are interested, you are invited to post a question!

But how many people maintained an active interest? Its difficult to say (let us know!) but we were getting a bit worried – were LongeCity members not quite ready to really engage with our own community science projects?

It was hard to dismiss that impression during the months to follow when we tried to raise funds for LongeCity's most ambitious science project yet. This was not on worms, it involved mice. In scientific terms (and as far as costs are concerned) that is a huge leap to make things more relevant. The project also wasn’t very complicated: it used stem cell therapies – something everyone has heard of and many LongeCity members are excited about. It targeted a hugely important area – the brain – and involved not the garage of a lay person but one of Germany’s most prestigious scientific institutions and a researcher with an established track record in anti-ageing research. Yet over the weeks and months to follow, fundraising was slow. Donations were trickling in, but not quite with the speed that were had seen before. Was this the recession beginning to bite? Was the project just too big? Was the community ‘tapped out’ after the recent fundraiser? Were we not managing to promote the project effectively enough? There were rough patches, but donations kept coming in and that gave us hope. We could not let those contributors down. An then the breakthrough – venture investor had somehow learned about the research and saw its potential. We waited until we felt confident that this separate arrangement would make up the (bye now not very large) shortfall in LongeCity funding. The project is now merrily underway and you see updates on the project and you can ask questions to the researchers here.

With that major success achieved should we now stop the science programme and reconsider? We might have done that, but then, this Summer, Cryonics Pioneer Robert Ettinger was placed into biostasis. What better way to pay homage to his achievements than not to dwell in length accolades but to ‘get on with it’ and do some research. Again, cryonics science is a great field for LongeCity to get involved it: it is niche enough that mainstream funding is hard to obtain, yet the potential impacts even based on a small research budget are quite significant. So last month we closed the call for expressions of interest on our first cryopreservation research fundraiser, the proposals have been circulated for peer review and the board will draw up a shortlist. As usual, our members will have the final say on funding in a referendum (so join now if you want to have a say), and as usual, the project will only get funded if it received enough matching donations.

Let us see how we fare with this project, but whatever the outcome, we are unlikely to give up on the underlying principle: that LongeCity has a role, however small, to not ‘just’ engage in communication, networking and outreach, but also to make a tangible contribution to hands-on scientific development. This is one of the reasons we change the ‘public facing’ name of the Immortality Institute – to make it easier for serious scientists to engage with us. And to this end, we have launched the LongeCity Science initiative, where aim to improve our scientific communication.
As an example, this month we have published the first of a number of ‘gentle introductions’ on scientific topics -- an article by Johan Sjöberg on crosslinking in aging) and we seek to involve every LongeCity Member and Affiliate with a science background. In fact, we have just issued a new call for Lead officers at the Immortality Institute (Members only) to expressly include a Science Officer. So why not join in, at whatever level you like, share your perspective and skills in pursuit of that ambitious mission: "to conquer the blight of involuntary death".