The Beginning of the End of Cancer?

Question: Is there a realistic route to defeating cancer one and for all?

Aubrey de Grey: I think that cancer is by the far the hardest part of aging to fix. It is of course a part of aging for the reasons I just gave. It’s part of the later stages of aging in that it results from the accumulation of a constellation of mutations; all of which happen independently of each other, and it is very, very hard because it has natural selection on its side so to speak, so every cell in a cancer is a furnace of genetic ingenuities so of speak, trying to evade what the body throws at it. But I think, yes, I think that we have a respectable chance of truly defeating cancer. I just think that we have to give cancer the respect it deserves and understand that the way we’re gonna do it is something really rather elaborate. The proposal that I’ve put forward involve controlling the ability of self to divide indefinitely in a manner that also has big, bad side effects on our ability to maintain certain of our tissues, in particular the blood and the gut and the skin, but I have identified that it’s going to be reasonably realistic to compensate for those side effects using stem cell therapy, and that’s why I think that this approach is the most promising for defeating cancer.

Question: What is the time frame for this?

Aubrey de Grey: The most difficult components of the grand plan that I’ve put together for combating aging are really very difficult, and I think that it might take 25 years for us to put them all in place. Now any technology whether it’s biomedical or anything that’s that far off of course the time frames are extremely speculative, so I would put that 25 year mark as my 50/50 estimate. I think we have a 50/50 chance of getting there in that time frame, but I fully accept that we might get unlucky; we might hit a bunch of unforeseen problems, and it might takes us a 100 years. I’d say there’s at least a 10 percent chance of that, but you know 50 percent is quite good enough to be worth fighting for.

Question: Are lab animals teaching us how to defeat cancer?

Aubrey de Grey: It’s always very, very important to pay close attention to similarities and the differences between the laboratory animal and a human, so there are papers in top scientific journals all the time talking about improvements and understanding of aging in model organisms and of course improvements in actually exploiting that understanding by causing those animals to live longer, and those scientific breakthroughs get an awful lot of attention in the mainstream media as well and so they should. But in order to understand how they relate to the potential to extend human life, we have to look at the details a lot. Cancer is a fine example; mice get cancer; we get cancer. Bingo, it sounds good doesn’t it? It sounds like we can learn an awful lot about how to treat cancer in humans by looking at what works against cancer in mice; turns out to be very much not the case. We really have to look at the details of what’s going on, so you can make mice that are more like humans than normal in the way in which the way they get cancer, but you have to make genetic changes to them for them. And if you just study normal mice in terms of cancer, you can get easily misled, and that has certainly happened a lot.

Recorded on:  October 2, 2009

Aubrey de Grey says that cancer is humanity’s biggest impediment to defeating aging, but he has a plan for defeating the disease for good.

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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.