The Instant-Death Third Rail of Grantsmanship

Reseacher Rafal Smigrodzki, a member of the mitochondrial protofection team, made the following comment on the Gerontology Research Group mailing list. He is referring to a recent New Scientist article on mitochondrial research and aging:

Just to do some damage control:

The article might give the impression that the applications of protofection as a treatment of aging might be imminent - but, as I was at pains to explain to the reporter, Gencia corporation is going to use the technique first in classical mitochondrial diseases, and we are definitely not in the business of making a cure for aging. A "gleam in our eye" means that if (and that's a big if) things work out well with classical mitochondrial disease, then maybe in ten or fifteen years it could lead to wider applications, in the treatment of the mitochondrial aspects of some age-related conditions.

"The cure for aging" is the instant-death third rail of grantsmanship and we stay away from it.

This, I think, compactly illustrates the most fundamental problem facing meaningful anti-aging research today - addressed from a slightly different perspective in an article over at the Longevity Meme - which is that most sources of funding will not even consider devoting minimal resources to serious, well-backed exploratory work, let alone anything more substantial. They have completely closed the door on any form of responsible work on repairing or preventing age-related cellular damage, on intervening in the aging process. So it shouldn't be all that surprising that comparatively little work is being done to challenge the status quo; that work requires funding, and obtaining it while sticking to your guns is certainly not the path of least resistance.

If you want to stay in the conventional funding game, you can't even talk about therapies for degenerative aging; you must disavow any potential anti-aging application of your work, and stick to working towards therapies for specific conditions. This all ties back into last week's post on strategies for developing large-scale funding for directed anti-aging research - funding required for rapid progress towards far longer healthy life spans and the first stages of actuarial escape velocity.

The primary goal of healthy life extension advocates and activists must be to break out of the present poor situation and move into an era of support, understanding and funding for scientific efforts to cure aging.

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But on the bright side a lot of the effort to develop treatments for specific genetic diseases will produce technology for reversing aging in general.

Take the above as an example. Develop the ability to replace defective mitochondrial DNA for people who were born with highly defective mtDNA and the technology might work just as well as a general anti-aging treatment.

I see this as analogous to off-label prescription writing.

Still, I'm not arguing for complacency. If the general public was informed that we could attack aging directly with research projects starting right now and that they'd stand a very good change of turning back their own aging as a result then the amount of money available would be immensely more than what is available now for all biomedical research.

Posted by: Randall Parker at January 22nd, 2006 8:58 PM

Agreed. Eventually, the progress of incidental development of technologies applicable to healthy life extension will place us within entrepreneur-leap of the end product.

My concern is that the difference between this path and the direct, let's get it done path is going to be large enough to let us all die of old age.

Posted by: Reason at January 22nd, 2006 10:38 PM
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