Cynthia Kenyon Backs Out

As I noted in an update to a recent post, Cynthia Kenyon backed down from agreeing to review Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) for Technology Review. All within a few days of editor Jason Pontin announcing it too; one has to wonder about the timing and thought processes there. This is, sadly, par for the course; as Aubrey has remarked in the past, one of the hardest parts for him is to get other scientists to debate on the merits of his proposals in public. There is still tremendous stigma attached to anti-aging and healthy life extension in the gerontology community, counterintuitive as that might be. Imagine a cancer research community that did nothing but examine the biochemistry of cancer, that made no effort to seek cures, and indeed actively discouraged attempts to implement therapies - sounds ridiculous, right? Yet that is exactly the state of affairs we are faced with within gerontology. There is no shortage of calls for more funding for aging research, for work to understand the aging process, but only the sound of crickets (and forward-looking folks like Aubrey de Grey) when it comes to working towards rejuvenative therapies for the aging process.

I seem to recall someone suggesting that we place a bounty on a published, peer-reviewed scientific critique of SENS from an A-list life scientist. This is sounding like a better idea as time goes by, but it looks like such a bounty would have to be somewhat larger than whatever the going rate for articles is at the Technology Review...

Another point to consider: so long as Jason Pontin is working towards this goal, he's doing good work for the cause of healthy life extension activism, even though his ultimate intentions are less than helpful and his his views on the nature of science are very wrong:

My objections to de Grey's prescriptions were pseudo-philosphical: I felt de Grey wasn't doing science so much as religion. This feeling sprang from scientific skepticism: no working biogerontologist to whom I spoke thought much of de Grey's theorizing. All noted that he had never worked a "bench"--that is, he performs no experiments.

By this standard, my years in theoretical astrophysics count for nothing - and half the scientists in the world are doing pretty much nothing as well. It's just plain wrong to equate non-lab work with non-science.


A Plea to Scientists-Setting Goals

There has been some discussion about the differences between scientists and engineers. A major difference that I would like to point out is in setting goals for completion of a project. In research it is difficult to set goals in relation to timelines, because experimental outcomes are not a given. One may have a very good educated guess but guesses are not valuable until they can be proven. Engineers work with a different medium. That is to say, engineers work with methods which have already been proven. Thus it is realistic for them to set goals in terms of timelines.

Scientists know that outcomes of experiments have a cascading effect and these outcomes change the timeline of available treatments. I believe that this is why they are resistant to imposing time constraints upon outcomes.

However, I fear that one very important point about goals and timelines might be left out of the conversation. Engineers set goals within timescales in order to instill a sense of urgency to a project. Without this sense of urgency team members lose focus and do not move towards completion. Even if a project?s timescale needs to be altered ? and believe me this happens all the time ? the sense of urgency is maintained.

Scientists by their very nature are self starters, so my concerns in this regard are not directed at the scientific community. However, the average person who does not understand what science may be capable of achieving is not going to have a sense of urgency. This is where time scales are helpful. Scientists need the average person to be supportive both financially and socially in order for this research to move forward.

Indeed, time scales were set for beating cancer. They were not met but cancer research has not come to a grinding halt because we haven?t defeated it. Many people have set a twenty year goal for stamping out world hunger. If we don?t meet this goal, will we simply give up? Will we blame those who would attempt to fight poverty because we didn?t meet the time line? I seriously doubt it. For these reasons, it is my hope that more scientists will step forward and make some assertions about time scales for rejuvenation and life extension. If there is any legitimacy to the rejuvenation/life extension claims and I suspect that there is for many reasons ? more high profile scientists must step forward. Simply put, we need scientists to be open and honest about potential research. If scientists agree to step forward together, things should go much more smoothly than if they step up one at a time.

I?m just an average person who wants to know the truth.

Posted by: Awake at May 24th, 2005 7:59 AM

I was not speaking for my view of biological science (although I do in fact agree with the argument), but rather for most scientists, who think that the term of "theoretical biologist" is an oxymoron. The thought goes something like this: biology is not yet like physics, and may never be, because theoretical physics can be pursued through mathematics. Scientists grapple with biological discovery, however, through empirical data.

That said, Reason, thank you for your relatively kinds words. I am quite sincere in my desire to find a real, working biogertonologist to critique SENS. It is important.

Posted by: Jason Pontin at May 24th, 2005 8:01 AM

Biology and astrophysics are very similar - both are studies of poorly understood phenomena that take place over inconveniently long time frames, both involve a lot of modelling, statistics and simulation, and both fields have their long-running academic fights over the interpretation and exploration of incomplete data sets. If you can be a theoretical astrophysicist, you can be a theoretical biologist (if anything, biologists have an easier time of it and have explored more of the data space of their field). That is very clear to me as a result of my time as a scientist.

Posted by: Reason at May 24th, 2005 12:21 PM

The real solution to the criticism that Aubry and others do not do much real lab work is to get more researchers involved with doing the real lab work neccessary to realize the SENS option.

Cynthia Kenyon is no doubt a very bright person who is doing good work. However, the single-gene tweeking processes that she and others are working on are unlikely to work for humans because we are likely optimized for these kind of tweeks already.

As a non-biologist (although an engineer) the SENS approach appeals to me because it is based on identified damage mechanisms that have been identified in humans that clearly have not been overcome. This is why I think SENS will lead to significant life extension (and rejuvenation) where as other approaches to not appear to be very useful.

Only time well tell. As more and more lab people conduct the necessary experiments to develop the SENS therapies in mice (and humans), the more apparent it will be that such strategies will or will not work.

Aubry's critique of the genomic mutation theory of aging makes perfect sense from an engineering standpoint. It only takes ONE cancer-causing mutation to make a cancer that kills you. It takes many, many non-cancer causing mutations to make a significant reduction in one's functionality.

Posted by: Kurt at May 24th, 2005 4:43 PM

The reason for the lack of enthusiasm for effective anti-aging treatments among the gerantology community can be compared with the lack of enthusiam for real commercial space development on the part of NASA. Both NASA and the conventional gerantology research community make their money from government grants. Both melieus act as a static bureaucracy who's main purpose is to maintain the status quo. As long as we rely on these, there will never be significant breathroughs in our current lives, either in life-extension or in space settlement. This is also true with regards to the development of commercial fusion power.

Like the X-prize and the recent wave of commercial launch and space tourism start-ups, we will only get postmortality through concerted efforts from the private sector. Private research groups and start-ups. We cannot and should expect government-funded bureaucracy to do anything worthwhile for us.

The proper role for government is to support private efforts aimed at curing aging, much like support for the private efforts to create low cost access to space. One useful thing is to mandate that the FDA change its stance on what "aging" is and to allow for fast-track approvals for anti-aging therapies, much like the fast-track approvals for AIDS treatments. Another would be tax credits and incentives for the development of effective anti-aging therapies.

Posted by: Kurt at May 24th, 2005 4:54 PM

This is so tragic.

We should start a campaign to beg Kenyon to respond.

Posted by: Kip Werking at May 24th, 2005 8:35 PM

I was reviewing the IABG 10th Congress speakers and came across Aubrey de Grey?s presentation on scientist?s duty to state time scales.

Look for de Grey ?duty? here:

Note that at the end of the questions they agree to have an ?off the record? poll on when the technology will be available for life extension. It is not a question of if, but when. I would have loved to hear the results of that poll. This is a conversation that simply must move into the open. SENS need?s to be peer reviewed. I wonder if Cynthia Kenyon would feel more comfortable taking a piece of SENS and working on it. Perhaps different biologists could review portions of the science that they feel most comfortable with. Maybe this would help with time constraints. I noted that the Methuselah Foundation proposed an honorarium of $5,000 just to get this on the table. (see David Gobel?s comments).

Honestly if we can start this process it is worth as much as the Mprize. SENS will undoubtedly be criticized, but what is important is the change of attitude, the new paradigm, that will follow. The funding will come once scientists start talking about the real potential of life extension.

Posted by: Awake at May 25th, 2005 5:18 AM

One must question what creates this "wall" between two of the greatest minds in anti-aging research.

C.K. had more than quadrupled the lifespan of C. elegans.

A.G. has a multi-faceted attack plan to potentially bring us into physical immortallity.

Is money the issue? Is the US government the problem? I see no reason that these two researchers would not be in complete collaboration. With a strong chemistry experience, I side with A.G., and C.K's work speaks for itself.

Skeptically speaking, one may wonder if there is just so much $ (currently) being made on aging and death, that no matter how many physical immortalists are busting ### in the US, progress is intentionally being halted by "higher powers".

Personally, I would not doubt it for a second.

Posted by: James Farrell-Horton at March 29th, 2006 7:58 PM

I was just checking to see if my comments were posted...and, skeptical as I am, I wonder if my comments on the US government may place my posting under the

"Please note that comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted." category.

If so, don't forget about freedom of speach. I attacked no one in particular, and, in fact, my post expressed nothing but support for this website and loyal researchers trying to extend youth.

Posted by: James Farrell-Horton at March 29th, 2006 8:04 PM

Suspicious mind you have there - all comments on all old posts are hand moderated. It's the only sure way to keep the spam out, but it does mean that comments are not posted immediately.

Posted by: Reason at March 29th, 2006 8:28 PM
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