Lateline News: Interview with Lindsay Wu

Jeremy Fernandez speaks to Liberty BioSecurity’s Dr. Lindsay Wu from the University of New South Wales about hacking human biology to reverse the aging process.


JEREMY FERNANDEZ, PRESENTER: Lindsay Wu, thanks for joining us on Lateline. I know transhumanists are thinking about the deep future but is science today taking us on the path to branching off into a new species? 

DR LINDSAY WU, SCHOOL OF MEDICAL SCIENCES, UNSW: I wouldn't go as so far to say there would become a new species, but I would certainly say there is a good chance that we would be able to live much longer, actually in the very near future with some drugs that are coming up. Some of which already exist. 

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: So how much longer are we talking about?

DR LINDSAY WU: So there is a drug at the moment that's called metformin it's an anti diabetic drug, it's been around since the 1950's. There is a clinical trial under way to see if that extends lifespan in humans. 

I don't think it'll extend lifespan to 120 or so but it may extend lifespan in good health for an extra few years and the most important part is that we'll live long in good health.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Now you yourself are an optimist about living much longer than that about the prospect of science, finding treatments to delay, freeze or even reverse aging. That also sounds like quite a stretch.

DR LINDSAY WU: Not at all. There are results from animals in the lab that show that we can actually reverse ageing. So a good example of this are these cells which we call senescent cells and they cause chronic inflammation and take up space. 

So we now know that from animal studies, that if you can selectively kill off just those old cells, these senescent cells in the body you can actually reverse ageing and increase lifespan by a good 30%. 

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: What will science make possible in our lifetime or in the next 100 years about longevity and some of those enhanced human characteristics like super intelligence?

DR LINDSAY WU: Look, enhanced human intelligence is not really my field and think at the moment this idea of becoming a new species is a bit wacky, to be perfectly honest. But I do think there are drugs out there which can enhance our bodies own natural defences to make use live longer.

The first drug that we'll see is metformin, following this I expect that actually within the next 10-15 years we'll see drugs which can kill off these senescent cells to make us live longer. There are other strategies that will help us live longer, much further in advance for example gene therapy to reverse aging in our cells which we will start to see.

Now the problem with that strategy is that it is very dangerous. I don't expect to see it become a therapy within the next 10 years or so but in the future, this could actually reverse aging.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: What are the main dangers that science cannot combat at this stage?

DR LINDSAY WU: For example gene therapy to restore youth, to repackage our DNA, to make us younger.

It is very exciting, but the main problem is that if you turn on these responses too much, it can cause cancer and that's the biggest risk causing cancer.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: What you think about these people experimenting on themselves and putting their bodies on the line of their own free will?

DR LINDSAY WU: It depends on what therapy they're trialling. So the example we've seen recently of using gene therapy to extend ones telomeres, I think is very risky.

Most scientists would agree that it's a risky strategy. This gene telomerase which extends the length of our telomeres in an adult is normally turned on during cancer.

And we know if we give an animal an extra copy of this gene, they eventually die of cancer and so that is why I think that's a little bit dangerous. 

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Liz Parrish says she is getting good results from her experiments, saying her telomeres have lengthened.

DR LINDSAY WU: Possibly, it is only one experiment and I'd like to see what happens to her health in the future.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: It is argued by transhumanists that that regulation and methodology can not only be oppressive roadblocks to innovation but they are also not full proof either?

DR LINDSAY WU: Yes certainly, there are some criticisms of the drug industry, there have been some drugs that have been approved by regulatory authorities such as the TGA in Australia or the FDA in the United States are eventually have been found to not work or be damaging. 

Now remember these agencies are there to protect us, to make sure these drugs are safe. So we could reduce the safety profile of drugs that are approved, but in doing so that would result in an even greater chance of dangerous drugs making it through to market.

So it's about the risk profile that society wants to run. 

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: So a lot of these people are experimenting on themselves in places where they can do that freely, what is wrong with that? 

DR LINDSAY WU: Look if they want to experiment on themselves freely, certainly go for it. We can't stop them. People can act on their own free will. But it's important that they act in an informed manner and I think that's the most important aspect. And I would not recommend pursuing gene therapies which are unproven and which may cause cancer.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Does that sort of unilateral experimentation in a non-clinical environment undermine the sorts of scientific endeavours that you're involved with?

DR LINDSAY WU: I don't think it necessarily undermines the endeavours, I think the biggest risk is the safety. We do not want people would have seen a sensationalised report going out and giving themselves possibly cancer. 

In the meantime, we are trying to develop real drugs and do serious clinical trials. But the biggest problem that we face in terms of aging research is that aging isn't actually recognised as a disease as such.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: How democratic are therapies like this? We've just heard that the two biggest investors in anti aging and human enhancement are billionaires in the military. So what does that mean for the rest of us when this technology becomes available to be applied?

DR LINDSAY WU: There are lots of technologies that were initially developed by the military which are now in common civilian use for example GPS. 

My main concern would be if these billionaires decided to keep the therapies for themselves, but I highly doubt that's the case. Given that these people are billionaires. They are also interested in making a buck.

From a bioethical point of view a lot of the feedback we've been getting on our facebook page is been that maybe living a few extra decades or even forever is not really desirable. What is your view?

The main point is the degree of health with which we live in our old age. So no one wants to be a decrepit 101-year-old. But if we can be 110-120 in good health I think that's something that we should definitely aim for.

No-one argued when antibiotics were introduced or statins were introduced these have both resulted in great extensions in lifespan and I don't think that an ageing therapy that preserved our health should be that controversial. 

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: A question to you that I also put to Liz Parrish. Is genetic augmentation inevitable in the future? Some people liken it to the use of mobile phones today?

DR LINDSAY WU: No I don't think it's inevitable. The field has a long way to go in terms of the safe delivery of genetic therapies. A big part of aging research is that lifespan is not that strongly genetically determined. There is a partly genetic element. But a good deal of it is just environment and lifestyle.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Can some of these predicted outcomes for longevity simply be achieved without gene therapy or medication but simply by lifestyle choices, so improving your diet, drinking moderately, giving up unhealthy vices and your much of the way there already?

DR LINDSAY WU: You are a good way there if you eat healthily, give up smoking and drinking. The strongest intervention we know about for extending lifespan is calorie restriction so this is restricting about 30% of your calories from your diet now unfortunately that's basically impossible to maintain voluntarily. People may claim that they have the willpower to starve themselves on an ongoing basis, but most people are unable to do this. 

It's not a matter of wanting to live longer or wanting to calorie restrict, people just can't maintain it, we just don't have the self-control to do it.

JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Lindsay Wu thanks for joining us.

DR LINDSAY WU: No worries, thanks very much.