The Experimental Man Talks Anti-Aging Technology

Journalist David Ewing Duncan is most recently the author of When I’m 164, a book that examines life extension science. He’s also written the Experimental Man based on his own quantified self trials. David will moderate The Future of Personalized Medicine panel at the Health 2.0 Fall Conference. For more posts from the conference speaker interview series, click here

Laura Montini: I heard you speak back at the Rock Health Innovation Summit, and you said on that panel that in your Experimental Man Project you collected 1,000 gigabytes of data about yourself. You said you still hadn’t derived a lot of meaning out of that.

So what is the number one thing that you haven’t learned about yourself that you would like to be able to learn from all that data? And do you have any suggestions for technologies that could enable you to get meaning out of it?

David Duncan: Well, the main thing that I was looking for in The Experimental Man Project was what this data can tell us. I am a journalist and in some ways it was a way to tell a story. I am a storyteller trying to explain new technologies to people. So I, in a sense, was doing kind of consumer reports or maybe a test drive of a lot of new technologies and data.

So personally, I am pretty healthy, although I am looking in the future to see what might be useful, relatively in terms of disease or other maladies that might affect me. So what I set out to do was look into everything from genetics to brain scans to levels of environmental toxins inside of me. And we have even done some experiments around converting my blood cells into stem cells, which might help down the road with regenerating tissue. I mean, it’s all kinds of experiments that we have done.

And I guess what I am really looking for, like we all are, is predictive medicine for real. Can we take all of this data that’s being produced right now and turn it into something that could be a profile that we could use later on?

I think we are still a long ways away from really having at least a broad profile, but there’s a lot of good news because I think the technological community is beginning to shift from merely collecting data to beginning to figure out ways how to interpret them.

Laura Montini: When you were younger, growing up, did you have this interest in this futuristic medicine or is it something that you’ve kind of developed as technology has gotten better and it’s probably possible now?

David Duncan: Have I always been a future medicine geek? Well, I have definitely always been fascinated by the future and what technology can play a role. But I am a little different than a lot of people actually where I live, in Silicon Valley, because I am less interested in the specific technologies, the engineering aspects, all of that, than what these technologies will do and how we implement them.

I come from a background, I was a clinical correspondent in Washington, I have covered health care, I have covered lots of different areas, and I think it’s kind of an underserved area with all of the excitement around some of the technologies and how we actually implement them.

I have long been interested in the repercussions to technology. As a kid I read sci-fi, both optimistic and pessimistic about what the role of technology is. I love kind of thinking of all the possibilities, but in fact, thinking about the negative possibilities, in my view, is as important as the positive possibilities.

Laura Montini: So shifting focus now to your newer book, When I’m 164, you look at anti-aging technologies that are going to come to fruition in the next 30 to 50 years and how they are going to impact us now as we get older. So what can people do themselves to have a shot at a longer and active life, and how do you think consumer technology might be able to play a role in that?

David Duncan: I think consumer technology is already playing a huge role in trying to keep people healthier, make people healthier. It’s an enormous industry in fact. It might be called personalized health, depending on the numbers you want to attach to it.

There was a study, I think it was PricewaterhouseCoopers that said it’s a $400 billion industry already, and this was everything from vitamins to health clubs. So it’s clearly already an enormous part of our culture and our life, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We still have mostly unhealthy population.

So I think anything that technology can contribute to helping people stay healthy is going to be really important. And the Health 2.0 community where you’ve got this intersection of bioscience to IT and more recently trying to link in a lot of other movements around healthcare and alternative medicine and looking at new ways to keep people healthy.

And then some of the stuff that I wrote about in The Experimental Man, I see a trend of all of these movements and fields linking up. It’s still really sloppy and there’s lot of work to be done. It reminds me a little bit of the dot-com era maybe — circa 1996, when we had this thing called the Internet, but nobody really knew what to do with it. But it was a very exciting time then and I think this is a very exciting time now. We are still years away from really understanding it, but the Health 2.0 movement, I think, is trying to capture that.

Laura Montini: So what topics are you most looking forward to talking about on your future of personalized medicine panel?

David Duncan: I think that it’s very appropriate to have a future medicine idea at the end of the meeting. I think after sitting through and listening to all of that, there is stuff that people will be talking about. We get to go off beyond the horizon and the people on the panel are to think about where this is heading, first in the short-term, the next five years, even next year. I think a lot of this is moving very quickly.

But maybe we will take a little peek and see what people think will be maybe even farther out. Prediction is always difficult and usually wrong, but it at least can give us a shape of where things might go.

And one other thing too, Anne Wojcicki from 23andMe, I have been on panels with her, talked to her, I think it would be interesting to get her perspective on how she feels things have gone with 23andMe, as they seem to be shifting more towards a community model with genetics, from just simply providing people information. So we will take some of the context of where we have been and see where that might be leading us.