May 15th is the birthday of Elie Metchnikoff, famous Russian/French scientist, a vice director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908 (together with Paul Ehrlich) for his work on Immunity in infectious diseases. But healthy longevity supporters know him for another achievement: a strong statement he made regarding aging that helped to ignite interest in aging research for the next century. In his 1903 book “Studies of optimism” he wrote: “Aging is a disease that should be treated like any other”. Today, to commemorate Elie Metchnikoff’s input in the development of gerontology, we will talk with Dr. Ilia Stambler, the author of the book “A History of Life-extensionism in the Twentieth Century” and likely the only expert on the history of the longevity movement in the world.
Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Stambler. First, could you please tell us a little more about the studies of Elie Metchnikoff? He is most of all recognised as a pioneer in immunology, what are the main discoveries he made? And how are they related to his understanding of aging as a disease?
Metchnikoff is the founder of the cellular theory of immunity, who showed for the first time that cells (such as phagocytes) play a vital role in immune defense. Remember that until about mid-19th century, slightly more than 150 years ago, people did not even know that cells existed or that diseases were caused by bacteria. It was just another step forward for Metchnikoff to understand that aging is a part of life that needs to be studied, and that cellular immunity, especially the immunity against one’s own organism (that we now call “auto-immunity”) also plays a crucial role in the aging processes.
So not only did Metchnikoff coin the term “gerontology” (the scientific study of aging) and established it as a recognized scientific field, but he in fact pioneered many seminal directions of aging research that are continued to the present, such as studying the role of auto-immunity (or inflammation) in aging, the role of intestinal bacteria (what we now often call the “microbiome”) and connective tissues (such as collagen) in aging, and others. He studied the aging processes not just because they are academically intriguing (and they are), but with a clear purpose to combat or ameliorate the degenerative “disease-like” aging processes and extend healthy life.
Thus we owe Metchnikoff a great debt of gratitude, not just for his concrete scientific contributions to aging research, but also as one of the founding ideologists of the truly scientific pursuit of healthy life extension, one of the essential founders of the modern intellectual and social movement for healthy longevity (or “life-extensionism”).
People come to the movement for healthy longevity in different ways. Can you please tell your story, what made you believe that defeating aging and age-related diseases is a worthy cause?
Metchnikoff was born in the Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire. Since the 19th century to the present, the ideas of life extension, even radical life extension, have been rather popular in Russia, in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras – perhaps more so than in the so-called “West”. It was generally ideologically acceptable to want to combat destructive natural processes and improve life conditions for all. How those ideological aspirations played out in real life is a different story, and of course not everybody there embraced such aspirations.
I too was born and raised in that environment and absorbed this ideology (being born in Moldova, then part of the USSR, and growing up near Moscow, before my immigration to Israel). For me it does not at all appear strange or unusual that people would want to study things that are killing them (such as destructive aging processes) in order to fight them to extend their own healthy life and the life of their loved ones. Rather it is the people who do not actively pursue these goals that appear a bit strange and unusual to me. It is such people who may need to explain themselves, and why they don’t want healthy and productive life extension for themselves and others. For me such goals appear natural.
Can you please tell us about your book? “A History of Life-extensionism in the Twentieth Century” remains, I believe, a unique example of historical analysis of our movement. How long did it take to write it? What were the main difficulties you have faced?
Of course, there have been other histories of aging and longevity research. But mine is probably one of the more comprehensive ones, including about 1300 bibliographic notes, considering materials in several languages and national contexts (France, Germany, Russia, the UK and US, and more), and not only in the twentieth century (even though this is the focus), but from ancient times to the present. It is freely available at longevity history. And indeed, it considers this history not just as a timeline of scientific discoveries, but as a life story of the pursuit of longevity as a social and intellectual movement, insofar as science is an inseparable part of society.
Most of this research was done in preparation for my PhD thesis at the department of Science, Technology and Society in Bar Ilan University in Israel, and then further expanded and developed for the book. I would say it took about 7 years for the PhD completion and the additional preparations until the final product was published. It has not been easy at all, in terms of research and dissemination, and just in terms of making the living during the research and dissemination. The topic has not been very popular or “mainstream” in academia, to put it mildly… Yet, as they say, history is written and taught by the winners.
I believe, as the importance of aging research and the pursuit of healthy longevity are gaining an ever increasing traction in the public and academia – so will the history of this pursuit become more sought after. The interest and value of this history is not just to entertain academic curiosity (though it is quite entertaining), but to gather practical experiences and strategies for the present development of life-extending therapies. The students of this history may be surprised how many scientific and political insights of the past are relevant right now.
You are currently an active member of several pro-longevity organizations, each with its own mission. Could you please tell us more about the main projects you are working on right now?
I try to get involved and active, or at least supportive, in as many pro-longevity research and advocacy organizations and initiatives as I can. But recently I have been focusing more on a few organizations and projects. I am active in the executive committee of the International Society on Aging and Disease (ISOAD), which is a large world-wide professional international society of biomedical researchers of aging. Recently, our organization upgraded its website, with new features and resources, joining and contribution options, and partnerships – you are welcome to take a look.
I maintain my personal longevity advocacy website – Longevity for All – which helps to disseminate longevity-science-related educational materials in different languages, and acts as a platform to promote various prolongevity advocacy petitions and campaigns, such as the Longevity Day/Longevity Month campaign in October. I am also active here in Israel. Our registered association – Israeli Longevity Alliance, working in partnership with Vetek (Seniority) Association – has gathered a prominent scientific advisory board of leading Israeli and international longevity researchers, and we advocate for a stronger support of the field from the grassroots to the higher levels.
Soon, at the end of May, there will take place in Tel Aviv Israel’s 16th National Life Sciences & Technology Week that will be fully dedicated to seeking biomedical, biotechnological and information technological solutions to the challenges of aging and for extending healthy longevity, where members of our scientific advisory board will take a strong part.
Also personally, I am involved in a bioinformatics research project on aging, seeking early predictors of old-age multimorbidity and physiological age. The project is called “Quantified Longevity Guide”. In the last couple of years we have published a number of papers in prestigious scientific journals and recently started a collaboration with one of the Geriatric hospitals in Israel to further develop such predictors. I hope these activities will make a contribution to our common goal of achieving healthy longevity for all and will help to encourage others. I am always happy to discuss possibilities of cooperation.
How do you define the main bottlenecks slowing down progress in the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies? What would be the best way to overcome them, in your opinion?
The main bottleneck is perhaps the general deficit in the ability or willingness of many people to invest time, effort, money and thought for the development of rejuvenation biotechnology. Clearly, the more people become supportive and involved for their development, the more resources are intelligently and productively invested in it — the faster the technologies will arrive and the wider will be their availability.
There may be many reasons why such massive involvement and support have not been happening as strongly as the healthy longevity enthusiasts would hope for. One reason may be a common mental or emotional block against such therapies – many people simply do not believe that ameliorating degenerative aging and healthy life extension are possible or even beneficial, and hence they are unwilling to get involved in the impossible and undesirable tasks. It is the duty of healthy longevity advocates to convince people that these tasks are scientifically feasible and humanely desirable – and they have all the necessary arguments and data to prove it.
More worrying, in my view, are the people who already admit that the combat of aging and healthy life extension are feasible, but they still do not invest any (or any significant) intellectual or material resources to achieve these goals. The main reasons for this inaction may be that they do not see immediate or fast benefits or profits for themselves, or are preoccupied with making a living (why pursue some distant goals, when one and one’s family need to survive tomorrow?) or are generally apathetic. I think a major bottleneck is this transition from a theoretical “belief” or “understanding” into a practical action and support.
I believe this transition can be facilitated by creating tangible incentives for people to get involved, such as jobs and grants for researchers, advocates and educators in the field, and improved institutional and social status for the field. These are largely issues of state-level public health and research policy, and they may be advanced by more political involvement. But these are also issues of individual persuasion, a person after a person. Even if it may be difficult or even impossible to convince most people to make longevity research and advocacy their main priority without appropriate immediate material and social benefits and incentives, hopefully many could be convinced to dedicate at least a tiny bit of their time, effort, thought and money to this worthy long-term goal.
As you have been in the movement for many years, you have accumulated a significant amount of experience in advocacy. What would be your advice for people who want to get involved but don’t know where to start?
The main advice for people who want to get involved in longevity research and advocacy is just: “Start getting involved” – pick yourself up and start studying, thinking and working for the cause. This may sound trivial, but this is exactly the problem of transition from theoretical “understanding” and “wishes” to practical action. Many people remain in the theoretical “wishing” stage. But if there is a sincere heart-felt “wish”, there can be many practical “ways” that can be quickly found and pursued. First of all, the person should become better acquainted with the field, study it, even at the popular level. There is now plenty of online resources.
If there is sufficient motivation, one may consider an academic study course or professional carrier in the area or related areas, depending on the possibilities at hand. But for the first “acquaintance” stage, just getting some familiarity with longevity science can initiate a person into the field. Such increased interest and knowledge, combined from many people, may raise the demand for therapies that may in turn improve the offer.
Another basic way to start is to band with others. There are now extensive possibilities to join others with a similar interest, ranging from discussions with friends to more formal live and online study groups to joining networks and public associations of supporters of longevity science. Communication with like-minded people can catalyze joint focus groups, research or outreach projects. The most tangible products of such communication could be individual and joint publications (online or in print) and meetings (online or live), or even concrete research and technological outcomes – which may in turn instigate further waves of interest and involvement.
There are now expanding possibilities to participate, volunteer and assist in research, donate to or join existing academic and public organizations involved in longevity research and advocacy. There are now also increasing possibilities to participate in “crowd-sourcing” and “crowd-funding” campaigns and projects. If there are no such possibilities yet in one’s area or country, one may consider creating such organizations, campaigns and projects themselves, even in a small scale.
And of course, anyone could endeavor to research and practice a healthy, life-prolonging lifestyle, to improve one’s chances to benefit from effective, safe and accessible life-extending technologies whenever they may arrive. This may also sound trivial, but this could also be an attractive way of initiation, with immediate practical benefits, yet with an eye for the future.
These pieces of advice may not seem very specific, and I wish I could state more specifically: Do this regimen, study this text, join this organization, vote to advance this legislation, or support this project – and your and everybody else’s healthy longevity is guaranteed! I don’t think anyone can be that specific, given the current imperfect state of knowledge, and the diversity of situations and approaches. I could just try to encourage more people to become more interested, knowledgeable, communicative and active in the field, according to their personal wishes and possibilities. From our cumulative actions, not necessarily coordinated, we may have a better chance to create the necessary “pro-longevity” gradient toward our common goal.