Enthusiasm for the Slow Road

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:

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.


Research in "the slow road" will help with SENS as well... it's in no sense a zero-sum game. Methods that slow aging will help pinpoint which of the senescence targets are most useful to first engineer in SENS. And they'll also help whet the appetite of the general public for life-extension strategies.

Posted by: John at February 27th, 2012 10:41 PM


I have been visiting this blog for about three to four years now, and I detect that you, like me, are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in locating a HNW benefactor to drive SENS forward.
I must admit that I was, at first, quite sceptical about the prospect of significant LE but, being an aerospace machine tool engineer, I now fully buy into the idea that R&M can keep any machine going almost indefinitley. And the human body - for all its complexity - is nothing more that a sentient machine. So, from an engeering basis, I now have 100% buy in.

I have tried on multiple occasions to rationalise why there is no HNW individual on the case. I have even spoken to four very wealthy (S. Times 1000) UK residents about whether this would interest them and, if not, Why Not? After all, nobody is poorer than the dead, right? and the finite nature of existence is surely our most pressing problem. IT IS FOR ME ANYWAY.

The answers I got were very revealing. The field is seen as too "left-field" for people to make a public contribution, too far out (time-wise) for there to be a medium term-chance of success, too riddled with regulation and just too unpleasant for public discussion. (for this reason alone I can never see a governmental buy-in either).

I have reached the unhappy conclusion that AdG's public proselytizing is, in fact, counter-productive.

What is needed now is to remove ourselves from the public realm and get on with developing the technology in stealth mode - well away from the prying eyes of the media and organisations like the FDA. Perhaps with some covert help from people already inside Big Pharma.

If we could find that one rich "evangelist" then we could do the work in private and present the world with a "Done Deal" 10 or 15 years down the road. After that, it would be a walk in the park - public perception would do a 180 overnight. (If you don't believe me, look at the $250bn cosmetic surgery industry).

The only problem is finding that source of money. I have some ideas on this (which could take 12-15 months to come to fruition) and will let you know if they are avenues worth exploring further.
However, the people I know are very unlikely to want to go the "Non Profit" route, especially bearing in mind what that entails interms of public disclosure. The Charity Commission in the UK could not be a more conventional bureaucracy.
Some almagam of the "Vegas Group" and Private Corporation is probably what HNWs are looking for - certainly not having to continually justify themselves in the public domain.

Anyway, I am fifty (an obsessively fit fifty), but already aware of the onrush of time. If I can't see this project getting off the ground in the next five to ten years, then my last roll of the dice will be cryonics.

Best Wishes.

Posted by: TomC at February 28th, 2012 4:30 AM


Right there with you - but you know that donors can remain anonymous right? No disrespect, just wanted to point that out.

For my part, Big SENS launched an Academic Initiative that I am getting involved with, but the first step is funding. We have the objective, the weapons, but no ammo (i.e. funding). Hopefully it doesn't come to cryonics (no offense) but I mentioned to someone at Big SENS that we shouldn't forget about cryonics either. If SENS is too "far-left" as your colleagues state, just imagine what they would say about cryonics.

I appreciate your "stealth mode" comment, but the problem I run into being an advocate for SENS is that no one has even heard of it, and I think that's more frustrating than the "left-field" attitude.

Posted by: VV5 at February 28th, 2012 7:00 AM


I doubt there are more than 5 people in the UK who could donate $100m per annum for 10-12 years without it being very obvious.
This may be different in the US.

In the UK the richest 2,500 people are tracked annually by the Sunday Times newspaper.

Posted by: TomC at February 28th, 2012 9:04 AM


Ok, but have any of your colleagues reached out to Big SENS at all? Have you?

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but if your colleagues were directed ti Big SENS< maybe something could be worked out, first in terms of the science most importantly, but then maybe via Mike Kope - he's the CEO. Maybe "offshoring" could avoid the Sunday Times. Again things are different across the pond, but we should be able to help each other out in someway. Are you a member of the SENS forum as well?

Posted by: VV5 at February 28th, 2012 1:21 PM

Perhaps it may be a good idea to identify a single cause of aging from the seven, go after it to the exclusion of the others.
Obviously " bang for the buck" is what's required and aimed specifically at older wealthy individuals, so an immeadiate benefit is available to them and it doesn't matter as to the cost.
Once it is shown that SENS can deliver in their lifetimes, older wealthy individuals will become willing to finance more research.
Also selling the initial treatments will itself raise much needed money and identify the individuals most likely to be amenable to a direct marketing campaign.


Posted by: Mike at February 29th, 2012 1:51 AM

Perhaps regenerative medicine can hitch a ride on popular enthusiasm for sports; it's not just about acute injury repair, but also optimizing performance. Another possibility is the drive to remain attractive to potential mates (even if no mating is intended). Thus, two immense flows of money in the developed world could be tapped to work on technologies that are substantially the same as regenerative medicine. And AFAIK neither of these applications requires the same arduous FDA approval process that traditional acute-curative and palliative medicines do. Does that make sense?

Posted by: alive at March 12th, 2012 1:59 PM

I am new on this forum, and still young (`30es), but watching this forum for about 3 years. The problem is not if someone will fund such research, but when, and particularly where. I am sure that such research isalready ongoing, and most probably, not in the western world. Look at the new emerging powers: China, India, Brasil, etc. To my knowledge, in these countries there are no restrictive laws limiting genetical engineering.In addition, the work force is cheaper and well qualified. So, I am expecting a break in ageing research from this direction in the next 20 years. In addition, the world of academic R&D is controllled by old dinosaurs and when you obtain a decent grant you are ussually over the 40s. This theoretically will allow you to specialize on a particular issue. But, this is wrong, in my oppinion, because such a complicate problem like age reversing need visionars scietists with multidisciplinary ability, rather than only pure ultraspecialized people, etc. as the things happen today. As another surfer pointed it, indeed the field is maybe to "left-field" for rich people. Maybe if these ideas will be suitably commercialized, e.g., starting a commercial enterprise, but controlled by a non-profit foundation, the progress of this work will be much accelerated.


Posted by: quetzal at January 22nd, 2013 11:57 AM

Tom: I have been on this line of reasoning before. To me it seems obvious that a middle-aged multi-billionaire should be supremely interested in investing a sizeable amount of his resources to find a therapy that can dramatically prolong human healthy life span. After all it's not just an abstract ideal enterprise. He/she, and the people he/she loves and cares for, would be among the first to benefit from it. What greater motivation than that? Evidently I have misunderstood the motivations of multibillionaires, and that's probably the reason why I will never become one... They probably don't want to risk the chances to keep advancing in their own world, or to decrease their status, in order to follow a project that to their practical, interest oriented mind sounds probably as a far fetched dream from nerdy scientists and mumbo-jumbo idealists (still the 'far-left' accusation sounds like nonsense...). There is always the hope that at least one of them think differently, but the resources needed would still probably be beyond those of most rich individuals.

Mike: I think you are referring to the seven classes of damage identified by de Grey. I think all of them are important, but it would make sense to concentrate our limited resources on dealing first with the damages that cause the quickest degenaration of bodily functions, or on the repair therapies that look more promising. If I had to guess, I'd say enzymatic lipofuscin degradation.

Posted by: Anton P. at February 25th, 2013 2:42 PM

The problem with engaging HNW individuals is that their wealth accumulation is the product of a form of insanity. The obsessive accumulation of more & more is what drives them & they do not find happiness or contentment either. Wealth greed is more akin power greed & the same obsessive insanity can be observed in dictators around the world. So expecting these individuals to contribute to the common good is perhaps unrealistic.

Posted by: Vic Taylor at May 16th, 2013 1:29 AM

I think the best financial target for this kind of research is an under-40 entrepreneur who came into extreme wealth (>$500M) by luck rather than as a set of targeted investments. Such an entrepreneur is unlikely to have a way to spend such an amount of money, and such an entrepreneur is likely to act on their own selfish desire to find a way to extend their own life, so they can continue to enjoy their wealth. As an example, consider the 26 year old guy who just sold Tumblr for $1.1B to Yahoo. Silicon Valley is littered with such people, although the Tumblr entrepreneur is from back East.

The problem with getting the money from an older person with diverse business interests is that such people normally evaluate everything based on return on investment. And this project doesn't likely have that. Further, it's more than likely that the project would burn 20 years of funding before stumbling into key discoveries that would fundamentally alter human lifespan. So many potential investors assume that these discoveries will be too late to help them.

Posted by: Will E at May 21st, 2013 6:27 AM

I agree, by fact the world's richest people (according to Forbes) are all over 50 and many are in there seventies and eighties. As this technology is long term, its hard to get them interested (maybe they would be more interested by pushing the fact that their kids could get the benefit) or the fact that technologies could come out soon that will slow down ageing giving them time until more technologies come out. The younger billionaires like Sergey Brin and Larry Page (the google co founders) have invested a billion into their company Calico which is working on solving ageing and Mark Zuckerberg is also a big fan. All of the billionnares know google, even mentioning the fact that they are doing this will surely make them more interested too.

Posted by: michael at November 28th, 2015 4:16 PM
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