The Three Types of Research into Aging and Longevity
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I view the world of aging and longevity science as divided into three broad classes of research and researchers - something that will already be apparent to regular readers, but which I don't recall having outlined explicitly. This crude model of the research community informs the ways in which I read research and evaluate the state of progress towards meaningful goals: both extension of healthy human life, and - more importantly - forms of medicine capable of repair and reversal of aging.

Class 1: Investigating Aging

By far the largest component of the aging science community is made up of researchers who are not working on ways to alter or repair the aging process. They investigate only, and thus the majority of funds devoted to the science of aging still go towards studies that aim to make no difference to the world beyond gathering data. This group include most of those who run demographic studies of human longevity, for example.

Aging research is unusual in the medically-relevant life sciences by virtue of this preponderance of "look but don't touch." Up until comparatively recently it was extremely hard to find funding or respect for work that aimed to do more than gather data on aging; the scientific community worked to exclude those who had such goals in mind, and funding sources closed their doors to anyone known to harbor heretical thoughts about extending human life through biotechnology.

Class 2: Working to Slow Aging

The larger minority class in aging research is made up of researchers and funding institutions who are working towards ways to slow aging, or working on related areas that will be used in constructing therapies to slow aging. The typical approach here is to reverse engineering the genetic and other low-level biochemical roots of known differences in longevity (such as the effects of calorie restriction, or the differences in life span between similar species), and then try to reproduce some of those differences using drugs, gene therapies, and other similar means. The view of these researchers is largely that we are a long way from any practical results, and those results will only offer incremental gains - a viewpoint I agree with.

Nonetheless, this class is where much of the energy and vigor is in funding and growth for aging research. This may be because this general research strategy is easily understood by traditional sources of funding, and is only an incremental alteration to previous forms of old-school drug development work.

The sea change in the aging research community over the past decade or so has largely manifested as a transformation of researchers from the bulk of class 1 into up and coming enthusiasts of class 2. As it became respectable to talk about doing something about aging - thanks to the hard work of a comparatively small number of advocates and visionary scientists - there has been a steady shifting of research priorities. The investigators still outnumber research groups working on ways to alter the course of aging, but the trend is clearly towards a field that develops clinical applications in medicine rather than only informing the medical profession of what to expect in their patients.

Class 3: Working to Reverse Aging

The smallest and most important cohort of researchers are those who are working on ways to repair, reverse, or work around the root causes of aging - the SENS Foundation research network being the archetype, though not the only set of researchers and laboratories involved in this work. This class are the most important because their approach is the only viable path we can see that has a good chance of producing rejuvenation biotechnology capable of greatly extending healthy life in the elderly - through restoring youthful function and vigor. This is the smallest cohort because we do not live in a particularly rational world.

I have discussed in the past why it is that repair based strategies are so very much better than approaches based on slowing down aging. The short of it is that aging is a matter of damage: slowing down the pace of damage will do little for people who are already old, while repairing damage will be beneficial to everyone. You can only achieve rejuvenation through actual repair, not by slowing down the rust. Given that the cost of producing therapies from the two very different strategic approaches to medicine for aging will likely be in the same ballpark, we should evidently aim for the better outcome.

There is also the matter of time - it will be decades before either side of the house has a mature base of therapies in place, and by the time those therapies are available those of use with the greatest vested interest in using them will be old. So only the strategy of aiming for rejuvenation offers the chance of an outcome that grants additional decades at the end of the day - enough time to push past actuarial escape velocity and thus be able to wait out the advent of even better therapies.

But cogent arguments aside, the greatest growth in aging research is still amongst class 2, those working on the slow road to a poor end result. Now that the research community is essentially persuaded to the view that work on aging is good, interesting, and plausible, the next - and equally important - goal of advocacy is to persuade a great many more researchers to work on the SENS vision for rejuvenation biotechnology or equivalent scientific programs.

Many, many lives depend on it.

Comments

I want to take time to plug FIGHT AGING and David Kekich for unselfishly dedicating so much time, effort and information regarding extended lives. I do not believe there is a more worthy cause in the universe and not only does the job need doing, they do it in a wonderful, comprehensive manner.
I can only hope the future will recognize the efforts of these and all the other pioneers who are working to bring mankind such a positive future. Thank you for my chance at more life and all you have done to provide me with the information, hope and faith it takes to allow me the chance, however remote, to obtain it. From my heart to yours. Thank you sincerely. Jim E. Mel

Posted by: Jim e. Mel at November 14, 2013 2:17 PM
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