Keeping Our Ivory Tower Nicely Detached From Unpleasant Realities

A recent note in SAGE KE speaks for those scientists who, by the sound of it, would rather that the cut and thrust of unpleasant reality and conflicting viewpoints did not intrude upon their ivory tower. The unpleasant reality in this case is the mass suffering and death caused by aging, and the conflicting viewpoints are those debating whether more than 100,000 age-related deaths each and every day provides an imperative worth shaking things up over.

The second Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence conference (SENS II) featured some very provocative ideas. The explicit objective of extending human life span indefinitely has opened a large rift between the meeting's organizer and those who believe he is acting unscientifically, perhaps recklessly. Two SENS conference participants present their views on the divisive nature of SENS.

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The legitimacy of the SENS approach and the media-friendly face provided by its originator came under attack once again in a multiauthored critique in EMBO Reports. Positing that the SENS agenda is "so far from plausible that it commands no respect at all within the informed scientific community," these authors wish to "dissociate themselves from the cadre of those impressed by de Grey's ideas in their present state." This statement is both forceful and ambiguous. It can be read as the relatively benign wish to be placed in a nonoverlapping circle on the Venn diagram of who believes what in aging-related research, or it can be read as a more sinister threat of shunning the apostates. If the authors intended the latter, what are the requirements for admission into the shunned cadre? It could not be attendance at one SENS conference, for some of the signatories have attended. Would attendance at both suffice? Further, is it not possible to express interest in or contribute to some of the scientific objectives of SENS without being judged a SENS acolyte? The objective of eliminating insoluble cellular waste using a bioremediation approach is novel and may have merit in ameliorating the undesirable consequences of aging.

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The TR SENS Challenge is frequently mentioned by Aubrey de Grey (indeed he has devoted an editorial to it in Rejuvenation Research, the journal of which he is editor). Half of the wager on offer in the $20,000 TR SENS Challenge derives from the Methuselah Mouse Foundation (which de Grey chairs), and whereas the TR Challenge and the Methuselah Mouse Prize (see "Rewarding Research") both offer cash prizes drawn from a common source, that is where the similarity would appear to end. They are both public relations gambits, but the mouse prize was designed to be won, the TR Challenge to be lost (where the definition of "lost," as determined by de Grey, would encompass situations in which the SENS concept withstood a scientific critique or was simply left uncontested). The mouse prize is without question a clever way of attracting public interest to aging-related research, and by extending the mouse life span its winner will have made a contribution to knowledge. The TR Challenge serves no purpose but to attract attention to Aubrey de Grey and the increasingly bitter dispute with his detractors. Although it allows him to taunt them (baselessly, given the way in which the criteria have been set), it is hard to imagine how this could be a positive thing for future SENS conferences, which are likely to become increasingly populated by media in search of controversial sound bites from its organizer. From all indications, they are likely to come away satisfied. Whether the same will still be said for attending scientists remains to be seen.

This misrepresents the purpose of the $20,000 SENS Challenge, but is indicative of the knee-jerk - and usually justified - hostility that many scientists have towards any sort of debate that falls outside the bounds of tradition. But better tactics than adherence to tradition are needed when the old guard turtles up and refuses to debate, the most effective of traditional tactics for defending intellectual vestment in a field undergoing rapid cultural or scientific change. Human nature is human nature, but no-one should feel entitled to a peace of mind that costs lives.

We've already established that quietly and politely advancing knowledge just isn't going to cut it when it comes to getting mainstream gerontology into gear - I for one feel no qualms about disrupting the quietude of an ivory tower or three in order to speed progress towards working anti-aging medicine. If the culture of biomedical and aging research was already up for getting on with finding a cure for aging post-haste, using the best possible methods available, then it wouldn't need the shock treatment. What is the point of advancing knowledge about aging and longevity in the absence of intention and urgency to use it to alleviate human suffering and death?

The scientific method will not suffer for groups making their points forcefully and in public. No-one here is bypassing peer review or advancing crank theories. What we do have is an excellent example of the sort of fight that takes place over lifting the self-imposed blindness to the horrors of aging. Once you are forced to confront the reality of tens of millions of deaths each year, you are forced to confront the ethical imperative to do something about it - and do it as fast and as well as is possible.

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