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Bill Andrews, a geneticist working to halt human aging, often jokes that he’s going to “live forever … or die trying.”
If it seems odd that a serious scientist with a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of Georgia would make light of his own research by quoting comedian Groucho Marx, well, Andrews is not your typical lab rat.
The 63-year-old president and CEO of Reno, Nevada, biotech firm Sierra Sciences is an avid ultramarathoner who’s run some of the country’s hardest ultras, including the Leadville Trail 100, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run and the Badwater Ultramarathon.
“I was always a runner,” says Andrews, who is married to fellow ultrarunner Molly Sheridan. “When I was a little kid, I ran everywhere. I was just fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t tell me all the time to quit running.”
Andrews ran cross country and track in high school and college and marathons during graduate school, then got into ultramarathons in his 30s, running his first 50-miler in 1996.
“I had such fun that I signed up for another 50-mile run a week later,” he says. He ended up running some 20 50-mile races that year.
When he’s not running, Andrews can be found in his lab, working on what he calls a “cure for aging.” His research focuses on telomeres, the tips of our chromosomes, which shorten every time our cells divide. That shortening is one of the root causes of human aging and the diseases that come with it. Andrews’ work on telomeres is the subject of a new documentary, The Immortalists.
Trail Runner caught up with Bill to talk about his research on aging and why ultrarunners are biologically younger than everyone else.
When you say “curing aging,” what exactly do you mean?
I do get criticized occasionally for using the term “curing aging,” because a lot of people say aging is normal: it’s not a disease and therefore you can’t cure it. But we’ve known for a long time that we do have this theoretical maximum lifespan of 125 years, extrapolated from looking at populations since the Roman days—with no explanation as to what’s going on. Of course, when you’re close to 125, you’re very, very unhealthy.
No one in documented history has ever lived to be 125. The closest is 122. Now, I say that when a person exceeds 125 and is still healthy enough that they can do things that a young person can do, aging’s been cured.
I frequently say that I’m going to run a 7-minute mile when I’m 130 years old. [If I succeed], everyone’s going to jump on board and say, “Aging’s cured,” not just me.
What inspired you to work on human aging?
As a young boy, I was fascinated by all the things that might happen in the future, including the discovery of life on other planets and all the things we were going to learn from it. I wanted to be around when all that happened. And my father pointed out to me, “You know, that that’s probably not going to happen in your lifetime—unless you go out and find a cure for aging.”
I turned my attention on curing aging in the early 1990s, when I attended a seminar where somebody talked about the fact that telomeres get shorter as you age and are much better at telling a person how old they are than reading the palm of their hand.
How do telomeres work?
Telomeres are the very tips of our chromosomes. When the caps on our shoelaces get shorter, our shoelaces start to fall apart, and the same thing happens to our chromosomes. When our telomeres get short, our chromosomes start falling apart, and that results in much of the decline of health when we grow older.
[Telomere shortening] is generally correlated with chronological age, but it’s more of a measure of biological age and health. So you can get telomere shortening when you’re young, and that ends up giving you age-related diseases.
Every single time our cells divide, our telomeres get a little bit shorter. But this can’t be true in all of our cells, because we’re all a product of cell division from one generation to the next. If it were true in all of our cells, our children would be born with shorter telomeres than we have, but that’s not the case. We discovered an enzyme called telomerase that’s found in our reproductive cells and actually keeps the telomeres from shortening. Every time a [reproductive] cell divides, the telomere gets a little bit shorter. But then telomerase re-lengthens it.
It turns out there are life forms on this planet that have no detectable aging process. Lobsters, humpback whales, clams, some fish, some birds, tortoises—all these animals have no detectable aging process. 150 years later, those animals are still healthy, moving around like young animals. All these animals have been shown to produce telomerase in all their cells already. We only produce it in our reproductive cells. I want to make it so it will be in all our cells.
Is there a connection between running and biological age?
Molly and I have both noticed that a lot of people in the sport of ultramarathon running look young and act young. There are 80-year-olds who are very competitive. When I ran my very first 100-mile race, my mentor, Helen Klein, was 75 at the time, running a 100-mile race. She stayed with me for the first 95 miles of the race, teaching me the ropes, then said, “Well, Bill, I think you’ll make it to the finish line now.” And after 95 miles she took off ahead. So something’s going right there. And now there’s science actually supporting that.
Have you yourself done any scientific work on running and aging?
No, my focus is pretty much on looking at human cells in a petri dish. But I do keep up with the scientific literature, and a lot of papers have shown the opposite viewpoint of what it used to be. Endurance exercise is only looking like a good thing.
A sedentary lifestyle is a good way to increase the rate of your telomere shortening, accelerating your aging and decline in health. Studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals have shown that one of the best things you can do to extend your lifespan and health span is intense endurance exercise—and by “intense” I mean how far you go, and how often you go that far, not how fast you go. People who are sedentary have shorter telomeres than people that run 10K races. 10K racers have shorter telomeres than people who run marathons. And people who run marathons have shorter telomeres than people who run ultramarathons.
So ultramarathon runners are looking like the people who have the longest telomeres—and it’s well established now that the length of your telomeres is a very good indicator of your overall health and aging.
What we’ve found (and when I say we, I mean other scientists) is that when humans exercise consistently—at least, endurance exercise, and it can be bicycling, swimming, it doesn’t have to be just running—their antioxidant levels increase so much more than their free radicals [which also increase with exercise] that their net oxidative stress is actually less.
It’s been shown that if you have high oxidative stress [such as from obesity or smoking], the free radicals will cleave your telomeres and cause what I call “accelerated telomere shortening.” That causes accelerated aging and decline of health.
All kinds of things have been shown to decrease the rate of accelerated telomere shortening. Endurance exercise is the number-one best thing you can do. Losing weight is also important. Quitting smoking is really, really important. Reduce stress. Be optimistic: studies have shown that people who don’t believe they’ll live to 100 actually won’t, because their telomeres are shorter, though nobody has an explanation as to why that’s the case. You can also take supplements : Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, Vitamin E. Doing these things will increase your chances of living to 125.
By the way, I mentioned that nobody knew why we had this theoretical maximum lifespan of 125 years. But now the mathematics of telomere shortening explain it perfectly. Even the healthiest person who has zero accelerated telomere shortening will have enough telomere shortening just from cell division (what I call basal level telomere shortening) that they’ll still only have a maximum lifespan of 125.
Is there anything that actually lengthens telomeres?
There’s shortening and lengthening going on at the same time. It’s like a tug-of-war. But there’s nothing that’s been discovered, except for gene-therapy techniques, that will have a net result of overall telomere lengthening. But that’s something I think I will have by mid-2016.
Have you faced any criticism for your work on aging?
The problem is that quacks and charlatans have been discrediting the field of anti-aging for thousands of years. Even with all the great science, people are still skeptical and don’t believe it’s real. After starting my company in 1999, my investors wanted us to be kept totally under the radar. Nobody even knew we existed. We started off leasing lab space from a university, and even the other scientists in the same hallway as us, working on unrelated projects, never knew what we were doing. We had a fictitious story that we were doing something else.
But in the last five years, that has really turned around. [At screenings of The Immortalists] doing Q&A afterwards, I would be there for three hours answering questions. People are super fascinated by the idea that we’re actually on the verge of curing aging.
There would be some people who actually argue that this is wrong, because it’ll cause overpopulation and young people are never going to be able to compete for jobs if people don’t get old and retire. They’re right, all these problems are going to occur. But nobody [now] says, “Oh, this is a bunch of quackery.” The only question now is: Is this a good thing or a bad thing to do?
I assume your answer is “a good thing.”
I’m open to saying, “Yes, I’m going to create havoc all over the world by curing aging. Please, somebody else, figure out how to solve it.”
But I believe that the future problems are going to be a lot more tolerable than the present ones. People don’t realize how many old people there are, unable to take care of themselves, having caregivers have to do everything for them. The problem’s just getting worse. We’re on the verge of what’s called a “silver tsunami”: by 2020 we’re going to have so many old people in the world it’s going to be the number one industry. I tell high-schoolers, “If you’re looking for a career that’s gonna have a lot of job openings, it’s care for the elderly.”
If I can cure aging, the world won’t have that problem. People will stay young and not get unhealthy, at least not at the rate that they are now.
One of the PR taglines for The Immortalists is, “Bill Andrews wants to cure aging … or die trying.” I have to ask, is that a PR conceit or your actual motto?
Back in 2005, I was giving a presentation to a group of investors. This was still when we were under the radar. After I finished, a skeptic in the back said, “So you really think you’re gonna cure aging?”
I just replied, very seriously, “You know, or die trying.”
Everybody started laughing. That ended up becoming our company motto. We have signs on the walls saying, “Cure aging or die trying.” When we started letting people like Popular Science into the building to interview us and take pictures, they really latched onto that. They made it into a PR pitch.
But it’s still something I believe in. I just hope I don’t end up “dying trying.”