Friday, July 17, 2009

One weary monkey!

Ah, immortality! the ultimate dream of a sentient being who knows that this coil is, in fact, mortal. It's no surprise that we have always wanted to keep ourselves going as long, and as well, as we can. Many promises of longer lives, often quite self-interested in material ways and irresponsible, have been made over the last 20 years based on genetics. It's not worth reciting them here, and if we could drag out quotes it might be--it certainly should be--embarrassing to those highly placed scientists who made them.

There are many reasons why we should be careful what we wish for. It might come true! But if we could somehow use interventions to live for centuries instead of our 80 years today, it would likely be a very mixed blessing. A society made up of feeble and/or bored or crankily nostalgic and reactionary multi-centennarians, using up all the resources and developing every empty lot for a Seniors home.

But we write on this now because, following all the media attention to the subject, columnist Roger Cohen wrote a column a few days ago in the NY Times aptly titled The Meaning of Life, about the Miracle Science Story of the Week!, the new finding that 30% calorie restriction works on primates as it does on mice. Monkeys on restricted caloric diets lived longer with less frank morbidity than monkeys fed normally (in captivity, protected, and on standard Monkey Chow). This has long been asserted but previously not as well tested. Mr Cohen is familiar with primate research because his father studied baboons when he (Roger) was growing up in South Africa. If (and we have to say if ) the pictures in the Times article are representative, we have to agree thoroughly with him; life on a restricted diet is not at all appealing.

No matter--Methuselah here we come!

But hold on -- look at what that might mean. Judging from the photograph, the monkey on the restricted diet may be alive, but only in body, not in spirit. Moderation in all things may be wise advice, but it's hard to believe one can do without 30% of a normal diet (30% of some American McDiets perhaps!). But the poor spiritless creature on the restriction diet may be a walking (well, barely) advertisement for not aspiring to that.

There's another issue. It has to do with research ethics. After a variety of abuses over decades, Institutional Review Boards were established to protect research subjects (including animals) from suffering and abuse. A lot of us know that IRBs are not always so watchful or protective. What IRB approved this study? At what point shouldn't the authors have seen that they were producing listless animals, and stopped their study?

One weary monkey -- or perhaps wan weary monkey!

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