An Interview with Ilia Stambler on the History and Future of Longevity Science
Ilia Stambler is, I think, perhaps the foremost historian in our longevity science community at this time. That position was earned by setting forth to do the hard work of assembling a history of advocacy and efforts to extend healthy life spans. The resulting book is freely available online and well worth reading. Every movement needs its historians; without them it is all too easy to forget exactly how matters unfolded, even over timescales as short as a decade or two, never mind over centuries. If nothing else, since those who found movements and those who toil upon the incremental bootstrapping of the early years tend to be sidelined once more rapid, later stages of growth are underway, it is the case that historians are needed in order to record just who it was really carried out the hard work of making the vision a reality. This is something to bear in mind as our modern rejuvenation research community expands considerably with the advent of senescent cell clearance, including as many businesspeople as advocates and as much large-scale investment as small-scale research fundraising. Success means change, and this is a necessary part of progress, but in looking to build the future, let us not forget those who put in considerable time and effort for little reward in order to make all of this possible.
Looking back beyond the past few decades, one can uncover a few centuries of scientists and advocates who expressed what were at times surprisingly modern views on the relationship between medicine and aging — that we should attempt to extend healthy lives through progress in technology, and through addressing biological mechanisms that are important in aging. Ahead of their times, they foresaw, at least at the high level if not in detail, some of what is now possible. Unfortunately, they lived too soon to have any hope of achieving significant results. Only now, in this era of rapid progress in molecular biotechnology, do we stand upon the verge of achieving rejuvenation therapies that can be used to periodically repair the fundamental damage that causes aging. The earlier pioneers of thought and intent are also largely forgotten; history is vast in its scope, and those who study it rarely look into the narrow slices of our cultural heritage, such as those relating to views on aging. That foundation exists, nonetheless; our present movement that aims at the achievement of radical life extension was not spontaneously created thirty years ago. It is the logical continuation of numerous threads of thought and debate passed down over centuries, and only now blooming into full flower, given the technology to make the dream a reality.
Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Stambler. First, could you please tell us a little more about the studies of Elie Metchnikoff?
Elie 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. 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.
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. 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, 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.
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 healthspan and lifespan extending therapies and technologies. 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. 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. I think a major bottleneck is this transition from a theoretical “belief” or “understanding” into practical action and support.
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. 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.