UPDATE 05/21/2011: The Vegas Group initiative has been renamed to Open Cures, with a new website and a new mailing list. Please do drop by and take a look at what we're working on.
What is the Vegas Group initiative setting out to achieve, in a nutshell? I'm still working on that short explanation, but here is one attempt at it. Thanks to the present regulatory situation in the US - where aging is not recognized as a disease, and therefore no therapy for aging can be legally developed - there are any number of potentially useful biotechnologies presently languishing without further development. These are methods and techniques shown to extend life in mice or repair and reverse specific biochemical aspects of aging, but for which there is no further funding for clinical development. Nothing may be happening for these technologies in the US, but there are active biotechnology and medical development communities in other parts of the world who are not so encumbered by local regulation: many of the developed Asia-Pacific countries, for example. What the Vegas Group initiative ultimately aims to do is build a bridge between these undeveloped technologies and the developers who could bring them into the clinic for human use.
How will that bridge be built? I believe that the growing garage biotechnology and DIYbio communities will play a pivotal role in the US - validating, documenting, and lowering the cost for overseas ventures to pick up and further develop longevity therapies. From my perspective then, the very earliest actions for the first Vegas Group volunteers involve building the foundations for a repository of how-to documentation: guides that clearly explain how the garage biotechnology community could validate and further develop the best and latest techniques in longevity science.
At the outset this is less a matter of writing documents and more a matter of figuring out a sustainable process and organizational structure - the business of freelance writing is much akin to herding cats even when money is involved.
So I can envisage a guiding council of advisors putting together a plan for the hierarchy of topics they would like to see in the Vegas Group codex, from basic methods in biotechnology through to best attempt reverse engineering of things we know to be possible and that have been published: such as Cuervo's work on restoring youthful levels of autophagy, or protofection to replace mitochondrial DNA. The end result of that process might look something like a distillation of Fight Aging! mixed with the very elegant materials produced by the Science for Life Extension Foundation. Codex project volunteers would then run an ongoing process of hiring post-graduates and interested researchers to write, and passing the results to starving authors who improve the output to a quality suitable for the open biotechnology community. There would of course be some back and forth between the post-graduates and the starving authors in order to reduce the inevitable translation errors, but I see this as a viable way to produce a body of knowledge that is sufficiently good to begin with - not perfect, not even necessarily very good, but sufficient.
I mentioned rejuvenation of autophagy above as one of the possible projects for documentation, and at present, the Vegas Group discussion list is focused on mitochondrial protofection - and we could certainly use another life science volunteer or two to help lay out the skeleton for full documentation, or work on one of the other potential projects. If you're interested, come on over and join in.
Some of the other possible projects that have been mentioned or came to mind include the following:
LysoSENS isn't an established methodology, but it is an ongoing research program that aims to find bacterial enzymes capable of breaking down harmful aggregates that build up with age. This is a matter of synthesizing the chemicals to be broken down, digging up some dirt from likely locations, culturing bacteria, and matching them up against your unwanted chemicals to see if you have a hit. This seems like an excellent project for DIYbio enthusiasts - someone is going to find an existing bacterial strain containing enzymes that can be adapted to safely destroy lipofuscin in human cells, and there's no reason that person has to be working in an institutional establishment.
2) Manufacturing Targeted Mitochondrial Antioxidants
A number of research groups have been publishing in recent years on ingested targeted mitochondrial antioxidants that appear to slow aging in mice. It seems a viable sophisticated garage or shared lab-space chemistry experiment to replicate their published work, and then a biotech experiment to validate your synthesized antioxidants in cell cultures.
3) Upregulation of PEPK-C
This is a manipulation of gene expression show to increase longevity in mice. As gene engineering goes, this is about as straightforward as it is going to get - which is to say still a fair hurdle for the garage biotech community to work towards - a single gene altered, and an impressive result. Managing to document the process sufficiently well to recreate this intervention in cell cultures would be, I think, a real showpiece for a laboratory cooperative.
Now all of these items, when carried out as projects, can be expected to sit atop a pyramid of supporting techniques and documentation, some of which will be common to many different projects. Producing that material sufficiently well will, I think, help in the growth of the garage biotechnology and DIYbio communities. Documentation is key for newcomers and recruitment, and you can never have too much of it.