On the Perceived Value of Research

In response to the last Longevity Meme Newsletter, Ian Clements emailed:

Thanks for another newsletter.

But why are you so down on small improvements? Re: Patching, Regulation, Trial and Error (March 24 2007)

I say: thank goodness for the trial-and-error brigade, a foundation of human progress over the ages.

...

Incidentally, I fail to see why you enthuse over the also relatively small improvement to teeth yet are scathing about possibility of reducing Parkinson's. Because even tho' the former falls within a regeneration/rejuvenation paradigm, it is further from implementation than the latter.

The answer to this question is, at root, that I am far less impressed by old-style drug development based on search-and-trial methodology than I am by work that is an exploration of a new space, builds upon new knowledge of biochemical mechanisms, and as a result returns more knowledge to the general pool for others to use. Modest gains with no follow-on, to my eyes, forms a worse deal than modest gains with ramifications.

The resources poured into the above mentioned studies of the Parkinson's drug that may bring only a modest improvement lead to a dead end - you have the drug, for whatever incremental benefit it brings, and nothing else. It does not enable any wider parallel or following work in a meaningful way. I see this as an example of everything that is wrong with the present mainstream of drug research and regulation - the entire setup leads to mediocrity, a suppression of more ambitious approaches.

Researchers are for the first time testing to see if creatine, a nutritional supplement popular with weightlifters, might hold Parkinson's at bay. ... Creatine is one of several over-the-counter supplements being investigated as a Parkinson's treatment.

There is no real attempt to understand mechanisms - only to test on the basis of screening and see how the results turn out. This black box science, all too recently all that could practically be done, is now positively archaic and wasteful in this age of biotechnology. We can do better, and by virtue of being able to better, we should do better. To progress just a little is just as much a failure in this environment as the absence of progress.

The tooth enamel research, on the other hand, for all that it is just as small a step in and of itself, is everything that the creatine study is not.

Now that dental epithelial cells can be propagated in culture, the next step will be to achieve the same success with their partners in tooth formation, the dental mesenchymal cells. Further development of this technique will be aimed toward production of tissue to replace damaged or missing enamel, and ultimately, regeneration of whole teeth

It builds upon known mechanisms, returns new knowledge to the fold, and will help a wide range of other projects in regenerative medicine by the fact of its existence. It is an example, as Ian Clements points out, of research taking place within a more effective paradigm.

That, at least, is my view of matters. Your mileage may vary - and we still live in a society in which you can direct your resources to support the research you value the most. Discussion is good, but setting forth to help make a difference is better.

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Comments

Excellent point! 99% of government funded medical research is a complete waste because it is not intended to uncover biomolecular mechanism. The research done by the pharmaceutical giants is also similiarly wasteful.

The problem is that almost all MDs and associated researchers are of liberal arts backgrounds. They are not technical people. Hence, they do not understand biochemistry and molecular biology, nor do they think it relevant to their work. This is the reason for their flawed paradigm of the human body being a static structure like a car or a building. Their lack of technical knowledge and training is the reason for their failure to comprehend that biology is inherently dynamic and that much of the regenerative/rejuvenative capability already exists and is an inherent part of all biological systems.

Even most life-extension and cryonics people fail to get this part.

This is the reason why prolongevity breakthroughs will not come out of the conventional medical industry. It will have to come out of private efforts like SENS or from biomedical research done in places like East Asia (where they do have a greater focus on fundamental bio-mechanisms, especially the Japanese).

Posted by: Kurt9 at March 29th, 2007 9:10 AM

"The problem is that almost all MDs and associated researchers are of liberal arts backgrounds. They are not technical people."

Huh? Where do you get this from? Even allowing for hyperbole, this is wildly wrong. Most MDs major in science before going to med school, and I have no idea what you mean about researchers. You can't get a higher degree in science (a prerequisite for research!) with a liberal arts degree. (By which I assume you mean humanities; there are many "liberal arts" colleges with strong hard science programs)

Posted by: Zak at March 30th, 2007 7:33 AM

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