Martin O’Dea is the CEO of Longevity Events Limited, and the principal organiser of the annual Longevity Summit Dublin. In a past life, O’Dea lectured on business strategy at Dublin Business School. He has been keeping a close eye on the longevity space for more than ten years, and is well placed to speak about how the field is changing. O’Dea sits on a number of boards including the LEV Foundation, which was set up by Aubrey de Grey with a mission to prevent and reverse human age-related disease. O’Dea joined the London Futurists Podcast to discuss what we can expect from the forthcoming Longevity Summit in Dublin.
O’Dea is understandably reluctant to pick favourites among the speakers appearing in the four days of the summit, but when pushed, he nominates two speakers who will talk about animals with very long lifespans. Emma Teeling specialises in research on bats, which have much longer lifespans that you would expect given their size. Steve Austad has recently published a very well-received book, “The Methuselah Zoo”, which points out that evolution has developed a wide range of strategies to avoid cancer in long-lived species. Scientific research has tended to focus on short-lived species because the impact of interventions can more easily be studied in them, so we still have a lot to learn from longer-lived animals.
Another highlight for O’Dea will be a talk by Michael Levin, who researchers the electrophysiology of the cell, which involves stimulating cells with electrical impulses to alter the development of an organism.
A four-day conference sounds like a lot of stage time to fill, but O’Dea insists that the real problem was reducing the number of speakers to fit the time available. Longevity is one of the world’s fast-growing and most exciting areas of scientific research, and this is increasingly understood by investors, the media, and members of the general public.
How mainstream is longevity science?
The focus of the Dublin summit is the harder problems of longevity – the problems that cannot easily be addressed by commercial organisations. Aubrey de Grey has pioneered this kind of research for decades, and there have been ups and downs in that time. 2013 was a particularly interesting year, with the publication of seminal research about the hallmarks of aging, and also Google’s foundation of Calico, a surprisingly secretive organisation using big data to try to understand the mechanisms of aging.
O’Dea has the sense that the idea of science giving us all much longer lifespans and much better healthspans is on the cusp of becoming mainstream. Every few years there is a new breakthrough which gets us closer to that tipping point, but it is impossible to know what will finally get us across the threshold.
A few years ago it was big news if a research team received a million pound grant. Now that is commonplace. Last year one group raised £180m, and it was not a major news story within the longevity community.
The media is a little behind the investment community. The Dublin Summit will be covered by the New Scientist, and a couple of significant documentaries will be filmed there. Mainstream outlets like the BBC, CNN, and the world’s major newspapers are still not devoting much attention to the summit, but O’Dea feels sure it won’t be long before they do.
Lifespan and healthspan
As for the general public, O’Dea acknowledges that the idea of radically extended lifespans is still too much of a swallow for most people, but the idea of defeating some of the major diseases that afflict us as we age is not. It is ironic that most people would be delighted to learn that heart disease, cancer, and dementia had all been overcome, even though they look askance at calls to stop aging itself, which is what causes those three major killers.
Tackling aging is not only important because it can stop us all dying from this trio of fatal diseases. It is also vital to make our later years enjoyable, indeed endurable. Sadly, most people don’t die quietly and suddenly in their sleep. Most of us will endure years of pain and worry as we fight one or more of the three killer diseases. These afflictions also impose huge financial burdens on the taxpayer. Most of the money that your country’s health service will ever spend on you is spent in your final years – indeed, often in your final year – and if we could improve healthspan as well as lifespan, we could remove this burden.
Aubrey de Grey’s current project is to achieve robust mouse rejuvenation, which means giving an extra year of life to middle-aged mice. The project is a large study costing a great deal of money, and O’Dea argues that it is the most important piece of scientific research in the longevity field – and perhaps any scientific field. The study’s 1,000 mice have not yet lived long enough to announce any major results at the summit, but there may be important findings to talk about next year.
Although there is an encouraging increase in the amount of money dedicated to longevity research, we still need multiples more, because the mechanisms of aging are fantastically complex. Instead of hundreds of millions of dollars, we need hundred of billions. In a previous podcast, Andrew Steele (who will also be at the summit) argued that we should not speculate about how many years it will take to reach longevity escape velocity (the moment when science gives you an additional year of life every year that passes). Instead we should talk about how much money it will take. His best guess is that the amount required is in the ballpark of $100 billion.
The best part of any conference is always said to be the networking, and O’Dea says this is particularly true of the Longevity Summits. No-one is obliged to keep information from anyone else by corporate non-disclosure agreements, and the underlying purpose of the attending community is so exciting and energising.