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175th anniversary of the founder of gerontology – Elie Metchnikoff. Lessons from history and hope for the future

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The recent years marked multiple anniversaries of the founder of gerontology, a foundational figure of modern immunology, aging and longevity science, and of modern medicine generally – Elie Metchnikoff (May 15, 1845 – July 15, 1916). On May 15, 2015, we celebrated the 170th anniversary of his birth, and on July 15, 2016, we marked 100 years since his death. The year 2018 marked 110 years since his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “in recognition of [the] work on immunity” (the Nobel Lecture was delivered on December 11, 1908). And now, on May 15, 2020, we celebrate the 175th anniversary of his birth. The past decade could be truly declared “The Decade of Metchnikoff”! 

For the proponents of healthy longevity and advocates of aging research, Metchnikoff has a special significance. Metchnikoff is of course known as a pioneering immunologist and microbiologist, a vice director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and the Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine of 1908 for the discovery of phagocytosis (a major contribution to the cellular theory of immunity). Yet, he may also be well credited as “the father” of gerontology – the disciplinary term he coined. Both the terms “gerontology” (“the study of aging”) and “thanatology” (“the study of death”) were coined by him in the Etudes On the Nature of Man, published in 1903, which may mark the beginning of these scientific fields.[1] Metchnikoff himself traced the beginning of publicity of his aging and longevity research to his presentation on April 22, 1901, at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, where he “laid out a program of investigations aimed to unravel the problem of aging, the problem that had seemed almost intractable”.[2]

To the present day, his scientific reputation has remained high around the world. In fact, Metchnikoff can be considered a unifying cultural symbol for many nations.

Metchnikoff was either a direct originator or one of the primary researchers for a variety of key aging-ameliorating and life-extending methods, experiments and research programs that are still being followed today.[3] They include in fact the first truly scientific theory of aging and longevity, based on meticulous histological observations and on a model of dynamic behavior of living tissues, in particular showing the critical role of the immune system (phagocytes) and intoxication of intestinal microflora (microbiome) in degenerative aging processes. Metchnikoff also made a foundational contribution to the discussions of the evolutionary theory of aging, in particular regarding the possibility of “programmed aging.” Thanks to him, there began the development of many practical geroprotective means, including probiotic diets, systemic and adjuvant immunotherapy (serum therapy, in particular the use of cytotoxic sera for tissue stimulation), the study of replacement therapy and regenerative therapy.[4]

In view of the immense significance of degenerative aging processes for the emergence of virtually all diseases, both communicable and non-communicable, and in view of the accelerating development of potential means to intervene into and ameliorate these processes for the sake of achieving healthy longevity, Metchnikoff’s pioneering contribution to this field assumes an ever greater global significance. The world is rapidly aging, threatening grave consequences for the global society and economy, while the rapidly developing biomedical science and technology stand in the first line of defense against the potential threat. These two ever increasing forces bring gerontology, describing the challenges of aging while at the same time seeking means to address those challenges, to the central stage of the global scientific, technological and political discourse. At this time, it is necessary to honor Metchnikoff, who stood at the origin of gerontological discourse, not just as a scientific field, but as a social and intellectual movement.

There is a tradition to celebrate the anniversaries of great persons (scientists, artists, writers, politicians, generals) to promote the area of their activity and popularize their ideology. It may be hoped that honoring the anniversary of Metchnikoff can serve to promote and popularize the science and ideology of healthy life extension, including the state level. The “Metchnikoff Day” (held on the day of his birth – May 15) can provide an impulse for organizing topical meetings and conferences, a stimulus for research, and publications in the media, dedicated to Metchnikoff’s legacy and continuation of his life’s work – the study of aging and longevity. This may play a positive role not only for the advancement and popularization of research of aging and healthy longevity, but also for the promotion of optimism, peace and cooperation.

Indeed, in 2015, events in honor of the Metchnikoff Day were held in Ukraine, Russia, UK, Israel, Cyprus.[5]  In this year 2020, an international online conference was dedicated to Metchnikoff’s 175h anniversary, entitled “Aging, Immunity and COVID-19”.[6]  Unfortunately, the anniversary received little attention among the “main-stream” media and officials, virtually none in 2020. It has been mainly up to researchers and advocates for healthy longevity to create exemplary promotional events and publications in honor of the founder of their movement.

It may be hoped that, following these examples, more events and publications will be held around the world in honor of this day in the future. It is possible to dedicate additional special days to organize internationally coordinated actions and educational campaigns in support of longevity science. Thus, from 2013 through 2019, such actions were organized on or around October 1 – “The International Day of Older Persons” or “The International Longevity Day,” with events and actions sometimes expanding through the entire month of October, in the framework of “the Longevity Month” campaign.[7] Yet, “Metchnikoff’s day” on May 15, can be one of the most unifying, uplifting and educational.

Thus thanks to Metchnikoff’s continuing inspiration and authority, the interest in aging and longevity research can be increased in all the walks and segments of society. And thanks to the increased interest and education, the research itself may intensify, producing an improved capacity to contribute to the achievement of healthy longevity for all.

Consider, for example, several statements by Metchnikoff that can inspire thought and action even now. As he stated in Etudes on the Nature of Man (1903, p. 201):[1]

“It has been long noted that aging is very similar to disease. Therefore it is not surprising that human beings feel a strong aversion to aging. … Undoubtedly, it is a mistake to consider aging as a physiological phenomenon. It makes as much sense to accept aging as a normal phenomenon, because everybody ages, as it makes sense to accept childbirth pain as normal, because only very few women are spared it. In both cases, we deal, of course, with pathological and not with purely physiological phenomena. Inasmuch as people endeavor to mitigate or eliminate the pains of a woman in labor, it is as natural to endeavor to eliminate the evils brought by aging. However, while during childbirth pains, it is enough to apply an anesthetic, aging is a chronic evil against which it is much more difficult to find a cure.”

And as he asserted in Forty Years in Search of a Rational Worldview (1914):[8]

“The second of Bergson’s questions “What are we doing in this world?” should be formulated differently: “What should we do in this world?” Our answer to this, presented in this work and elsewhere, can be stated as follows: “We should, by all means, strive that people, ourselves included, live their full life cycle in harmony of feeling and of mind, until reaching, in the ripest old age, a sense of saturation with life. The main misfortune on earth is that people do not live to that limit and die prematurely.” This statement is the basis of all moral actions… It is difficult to imagine that, in some more or less distant future, science will not accomplish this goal and will not solve the problem of the prolongation of human life to a desired limit, as well as rectify other disharmonies of the human nature.

Can there be a stronger call to thought and to action for the combat of degenerative aging and for the prolongation of healthy human life? Let us hope this call will continue to be heard and acted upon.[9]

The present time further accentuates the importance and relevance of this call. The current global crisis, with the world held in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic mostly affecting the frail and elderly, shows with unprecedented clarity to vast masses people the importance of fighting against aging-related ill health and for the extension of healthy longevity, for the benefit of the individual and the entire society. Thus, this pandemic of aging-related ill health yet again stressed the importance of Metchnikoff’ legacy and the need to advance and practically implement gerontological science.

Metchnikoff’s anniversary provides yet another opportunity to reflect on the progress gerontologicial science has made since its inception by Metchnikoff about 120 years ago. Many observational and computational techniques, experimental models and theories of aging have been created. Yet it also gives us pause to think how little practical gerontological medical solutions have actually reached the general public to address the urgent challenges of the aging society. Now, 120 years since the start of the field, no verifiable medical means exist to extend either the lifespan or the healthspan in humans, neither the human lifespan nor  the relative healthspan are increasing, only a few biomedical interventions into aging are barely beginning to enter human trials (some of the most notable of them, such as metformin and rapamycin, have been known for many decades), there is no agreed clinically applicable definition of aging or aging-related ill health, nor agreed evidence based measures or evaluation criteria to assess the effectiveness of interventions against these conditions. The specific clinical requirements and regimens of the elderly are barely examined and addressed, even for traditional lifestyle interventions that have been known for centuries (such as diet, exercise and rest), and even those known interventions are often disregarded.

The urgent need to extend healthy longevity, the promise of emerging biomedical technologies, as well as the realization of the little practical solutions achieved so far, may give us all a triple motivation to advance and support gerontological research, to implement it in practice, so it could live up to its promise and necessity. Let us hope no more time will be lost, and urgent research and practical actions will be undertaken, so that we can celebrate Metchnikoff’s next anniversaries with verified extended healthy longevity for the entire global population.

References

[1] I.I. [Ilya Ilyich] Metchnikoff, Etudy o Prirode Cheloveka (Etudes On the Nature of Man), Izdatelstvo Academii Nauk SSSR (The USSR Academy of Sciences Press), Moscow, 1961 (1903). The first French edition, Elie Metchnikoff, Études sur la Nature Humaine, was published in Paris (Masson) in 1903. The Russian translation used here was done by Elie Metchnikoff and his wife Olga.

The book is also available in English: The Nature of Man: Studies in Optimistic Philosophy, translated by P.C. Mitchell, Putnam, NY, 1908 (1903), https://archive.org/details/prolongationofli00metciala.

Unless otherwise specified, all the excerpts quoted here are translated by Ilia Stambler.

[2]  Elie Metchnikoff, “Borba so Starcheskim Pererozhdeniem” (The struggle against the degeneration of senescence), in I.I. Metchnikoff. Sobranie Sochineniy (Collected Works), Eds. N.N. Anichkov and R.I. Belkin, The USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, Moscow, 1962, vol. XV, pp. 346-350.

[3] Ilia Stambler, “Elie Metchnikoff – the founder of longevity science and a founder of modern medicine: In honor of the 170th anniversary,” Advances in Gerontology, 28(2), 207-217, 2015 (Russian); 5(4), 201-208, 2015 (English). 

[4] Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Longevity History, 2014, http://www.longevityhistory.com/.

[5] Ilia Stambler, “The 170th anniversary of Elie Metchnikoff – the founder of gerontology, May 15, 2015,” Longevity for All, http://www.longevityforall.org/170th-anniversary-of-elie-metchnikoff-the-founder-of-gerontology-may-15-2015/http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/05/06/may-15-2015-170th-anniversary-of-elie-metchnikoff-the-founder-of-gerontology-an-opportunity-to-promote-aging-and-longevity-research/

[6] The 1st Metchnikoff’s Day Online Conference “Aging, Immunity and COVID-19” May 16, 2020. http://www.longevityalliance.org/?q=1st-metchnikoff-s-day-online-conference-aging-immunity-and-covid-19-may-16-2020 ;  http://www.longevityforall.org/metchnikoff-day-may-15-online-conference-may-16/

[7] Ilia Stambler, “Longevity Day and Longevity Month” Longevity History, 2019 http://www.longevityhistory.com/longevity-day-and-longevity-month/

[8] Elie Metchnikoff, Sorok Let Iskania Razionalnogo Mirovozzrenia (Forty Years in Search of a Rational Worldview), 1914, in I.I. Metchnikoff, Academicheskoe Sobranie Sochineniy (Elie Metchnikoff. Academic Collected Works, Ed. G.S. Vasezky), Academia Medizinskikh Nauk SSSR (The USSR Academy of Medical Sciences), Moscow, 1954, vol. 13, pp. 9-22.

[9] Ilia Stambler. Marking the 175th Years Anniversary of Elie Metchnikoff – The founder of gerontology and cell immunology – May 15, 2020. The lessons from history and hope for the future. Presentation.

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