Politics, Perceptions, and Money

Politics, perceptions, and money: these are the guiding trinity of research at the grand scale, the source of determinants for the work of thousands of researchers and the rate and direction of progress in broad fields of medical science - or so says the author of this article on the state of longevity science:

It has been clear for many years that the rate of aging is malleable in diverse species, and the discovery in 2009 that a drug called rapamycin can extend maximum life span in mice suggested that it's now technically feasible to develop anti-aging agents that really work as advertised. Unfortunately, I see no commercial interest in doing so.

The focus here is the mainstream of research, aimed at slowing aging by metabolic manipulation. This, as you all know by now, is the slow boat to nowhere in my view. The only practical way ahead that seems plausible to produce meaningful rejuvenation of the old in our lifetimes is some variant of SENS, the Strategies for Engineered Neligible Senescence: focus on repair and reversal of damage, not on slowing down the rate at which damage accrues. Repair is no harder, and arguably an easier path, and the end result will be far more effective in terms of years gained and suffering quashed. But SENS and other repair strategies yet to emerge into a coherent research program are the minority view in the field, still working to attain recognition and funding - bear that in mind when you read about the hurdles that groups with far more credit in the scientific community are struggling with. It's a long way from here to where we need to be, and there are two battles yet to win: firstly to persuade the research community to adopt the better strategic direction that SENS represents, and secondly to persuade some fraction of the world that reversing aging through biotechnology can and should be achieved within a matter of a few decades.

But back to the article:

Prominent advisors to the National Institute on Aging, as well as some of its officials, are enthusiastic about anti-aging drugs' huge potential to improve public health. In fact, a few years ago the NIA's founding director, the late Robert N. Butler, joined three visionary gerontologists to urge that the federal government mount a major program to accelerate development of such medicines, including funding for clinical trials and the preclinical research needed to make them feasible.

But the idea of investing taxpayer dollars in such a program has proved a very hard sell. As gerontologist Richard A. Miller once put it, "A president who announces a war on cancer wins political points, but a president who publicly committed the government's resources to research on extending people's life span would be deemed certifiable."

Which gets us to the root problem: Few people - including policymakers and medical experts who advise them - appear to realize that the ability to brake aging is now within our grasp, and that even modestly effective anti-aging drugs promise the biggest gains in public health since the advent of vaccines and antibiotics nearly a century ago. Indeed, I suspect most people still regard aging as an inalterable part of the human condition - a view reinforced by the fact that pharmaceutical companies just say no to anti-aging drug development.

An important line item that the author omits is that Big Pharma - and a hundred biotech startups, if there were any justice in the world - don't engage in longevity science because the FDA will not approve therapies for aging, and indeed could not possibly ever approve therapies for aging under its present regulatory regime. There is no way to sell to the clinics in the US marketplace, so there is no potential profit for US-based developers, so there is next to no venture funding for development of promising longevity science. Politics, perceptions, and money - and it's the political and regulatory establishment that is the biggest roadblock here.

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