PTN interviews João Pedro de Magalhães on his insights into cryonics and aging
Planettech News interviews Dr. João Pedro de Magalhãeson the subject of progress in anti-aging research and rejuvenation biotechnology. We also cover his insights into the area of cryonics, as well as his predictions for the future of these fields of study.
How did you get interested cryonics and anti aging research?
At the time (this was before the Internet) I didn't know scientists were already studying the process of aging, so I thought I'd be the first to study aging. Later of course I learned that scientists do study aging, but that aging remains a mystery of biology. So I stayed on course to study aging and discover ways of reversing this process, which would have unprecedented health benefits.
As for cryonics, I have long been intrigued by the idea, again given my focus on cheating death, but I've also been quite skeptical about its chances of success. It's only more recently that I became more interested in trying to advance the field.
You are one of the participants in the UK cryonics and cryopreservation research network. How did this come about and what are the main aims of this network?
I have been the main driver of this network. Its goal is to "promote academic and industrial activity on cryopreservation, and discuss its potential applications, including the idea of cryopreserving whole humans, commonly known as cryonics." It stems back to my more recent interest in cryopreservation. Essentially, I realized that the chances of us curing aging within my lifetime are negligible.
That means that I am going to die and cryonics is the only alternative to eternal oblivion. Unfortunately, I think the current chances of success of cryonics are very, very low. (I mean, you may be able to re-create someone from a brain repaired with stem cells, or even from DNA, but I don't think this will be the same person.) But crucially, I think with modest investment huge strides could be made in this field.
And if medical biostasis were viable then this would have absolutely massive medical and social implications. It would change the world as we know it (for the better, in my view), and yet surprisingly very few people pay attention to it. and so one of the aims of our at work is to attract more interest and attention to this field and foster more discussion, also to address a lot of the misconceptions surrounding cryonics.
Which approach will work the best and soonest to help save people from age-related illness, cryonics or anti aging biotechnology?
Clearly antiaging biotech will work the soonest. I'm very optimistic about the development of longevity drugs and I think this is now on the horizon with clinical trials beginning to take shape. however, even in model systems like mice, drugs have 5, 10 or 20% longevity benefits. In humans these will be smaller.
So while retarding human aging, even by a small degree, will have a big impact on human health and life, we are not talking here about curing aging or anything close to it. But I am convinced that we will see longevity drugs becoming widespread in the next 20 years.
Why do we hear about so many technological innovations in so many areas all the time (for example AI, VR, energy etc.) but pretty much never hear about any breakthroughs in cryonics?
I've been studying tech news for about a decade now and breakthroughs in cryonics are usually something that is either rare or is kept under the radar?
That's a good question. I suspect that the main reason is that cryobiology is quite a small field. Research directly into cryonics is practically nonexistent and to my knowledge there is no funding for it in the UK, and only a couple of relatively small foundations in the US. That said, there has been some occasional progress, for example:
What are your predictions for anti aging biotech and cryopreservation for the next 5, 10 and 20 years each?
As they say: 'It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.' I am optimistic about the development of longevity drugs, as I mentioned above, although whether this will happen in five, 10 or 20 years I don't know. as for cryopreservation, I expect some technological advances in reducing cell death and preserving function during cryopreservation of cells and organs, allowing us to cryopreserve increasingly larger organs.
So although I wouldn't bank on being able to cryopreserve a human being in 20 years (given the multitude of organs), I'm optimistic we will be able to do so for large organs.
What are the different approaches being tried in the pursuit of making brain and body cryonics viable? What are your predictions on these?
Most research focuses on vitrification. Vitrification means turn to glass; it is a process that replaces water molecules with a viscous compound that does not freeze, instead it forms a dense gel at the so-called “glass transition” temperature, around -80 C / -130 C, while retarding the formation of ice. In living systems a large percentage of the intercellular water must be replaced by a vitrifying cryoprotective agent to avoid the damaging effects of ice formation as temperatures are reduced.
The glassy, stable vitrified formation is capable of supporting the delicate structures inside cells and the tissue can then be stored indefinitely at super-low temperatures without molecular changes or thermodynamic degeneration. That said, some problems persist. For example, cryoprotectant agents have toxic effects on human tissues with prolonged exposure, through mechanisms still poorly understood.
Vitrifying large organs can also result in fractures due to different cooling rates in different parts. Much research is still needed to allow vitrification to become viable for widespread medical use. Although (reversibly) vitrifying small tissues, such as sperm and oocytes, corneas and some cell lines is routinely done, larger tissues and whole organs remain a challenge.
What are the most impressive developments in cryonics over the last 2 years?
There hasn't been many developments in cryonics, as I mentioned research in this area is practically nonexistent. there has been occasional progress, for example (but see my comments in the piece for some caveats ):
What do you think of recent developments on the anti-aging scene?
There seems to be a lot of focus on telomerase now, with Bill Andrews and Liz Parrish. Then there are other approaches such as more conventional drugs being repurposed such as metformin, and the SENS plan continues...
Are you more optimistic about any particular approach having a big impact first?
I am optimistic of longevity drugs having human applications in the foreseeable future, although as mentioned above their effects will be much more modest than in model organisms. As for telomerase, I am not convinced that this will pan out, at least not in the sense of retarding aging ( it might have some benefits for specific diseases ).
Mice have very long telomeres and active telomerase and yet have much shorter lifespans than we do. In fact, you can engineer mice to have very high levels of telomerase and still they do not live longer. Besides, there is some evidence telomerase favours tumorigenesis and so telomerase-based therapies may foster cancer development. Overall, and although research on telomerase is still in an early age, I have doubts about the efficiency and long-term safety of telomerase-based anti-aging therapies.
As for SENS, there really isn't evidence to suggest that it may work, not even in animal models. Therefore, it is highly optimistic. part of the problem is that SENS depends on technologies that have not been developed yet and thus may or may not pan out. However, the SENS initiative has, in my opinion, been very positive to the field because of the momentum it generates, of how it raises awareness.
João Pedro de Magalhães