Where there is enthusiasm for addressing the process of aging in the life science research and funding communities, that enthusiasm is still overwhelmingly directed towards the slow, incremental road. Which is to say, plans such as:
- Modestly slow aging by reverse engineering calorie restriction to build a medication that captures some of its effects.
- Modestly slow aging by reverse engineering the difference between long-lived and short-lived people and build a medication that captures some of these effects.
- Modestly slow aging by reverse engineering the differences between long-lived and short-lived mammalian species and build a medication that captures some of these effects.
These are all enormous projects of great complexity, stretching the bounds of the research community, that will likely take two or more decades to come to fruition (see how long the investigation of sirtuins has lasted to date, with no payoff in sight...) and yet even if they exceed their goals they will produce only a marginal benefit at the end of it. Likely no benefit at all for people who have grown old waiting - slowing aging does little for a person who is already mostly aged to death.
As regular readers know, there is another path forward - the SENS vision of biotechnologies based on repair of damage rather than slowing down the rate of damage. This is likely to be no more costly than the research plans outlined above, and yet will produce at the end of the day a true cure for aging, not just a marginal benefit and a couple of extra years of life. This is the case because the plans above require understanding and safely producing new long-term working states in human metabolism - an undertaking of massive proportions. The SENS approach in contrast requires that researchers revert the short list of known age-related changes in human metabolism to restore it to the state it held when young; no new working state, just keep the metabolism that already works and repair it every so often.
One prominent insanity amongst the many in this madhouse world we live in is that it has required a major and ongoing campaign of hard work and persuasion to convince even a tiny minority of researchers and funding sources to work on the obviously better plan (SENS) rather than the obviously worse plan (slowing aging a little bit). This is the most important strategic debate in medicine and biotechnology today, and for the foreseeable future, as the outcome will determine how long we all live.
In any case, here's an example of enthusiasm for the worse plan:
Louise Levy attends regular Tai-chi classes, retired three years ago from her secretarial job and says she would still be driving today if her car had not "conked out before I did." None of which would be particularly unusual, except Mrs. Levy is 101 years old. ... Mrs. Levy's long and generally healthy life is the focus of a fascinating scientific study, itself at the forefront of a little-noticed but radical approach to medical research. Turning upside down the traditional quest to understand and cure specific diseases, some researchers are examining instead healthy and long-lived humans and animals for their biological secrets.
By reverse engineering the source of that vigour, scientists hope to develop drugs or supplements that could give less genetically fortunate people more protection against the ravages of aging and chronic illness. ... Those researchers struggle now for recognition in a medical establishment hived off into separate wars against individual diseases. A Canadian academic, however, is calling for a tectonic shift toward what he calls "positive biology." Solving the molecular mysteries of the healthy to stave off disease and aging would make the system "much more efficient," argues Professor Colin Farrelly of Queen's University in a recent paper in the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization.
"We think it will be more important for public health than the introduction of antibiotics," echoed Jay Olshansky, a public-health professor at the University of Illinois who has promoted a similar concept for several years. "This will be the medical breakthrough of the 21st century when it happens.... It's going to be huge."
I suppose I should be pleased to see more media coverage of aging and longevity science - but when it comes down to it, the future for people who are entering middle age today will only be greatly changed by large-scale SENS or a similar repair-based grand-vision research program. For people of this age group the practical difference in terms of years lived between minimal longevity science and massive efforts to slow down aging via metabolic manipulation will be marginal to non-existent - if the division of support and research funding continues exactly as it is now, that is. To attain much longer healthy lives for we traditional-second-half-of-life folk, SENS must prosper, become the mainstream of the research community, and do so comparatively soon.