What's Really Delaying the Defeat of Aging?

By way of following on from yesterday's thoughts on progress in longevity science, I'll point out that the August 2012 issue of Rejuvenation Research is available online. The leading editorial by Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation covers much the same set of topics and is presently open access - so head on over and read it while that lasts.

What's Really Delaying the Defeat of Aging?

In the mid-1990s, when I decided to switch from computer science to gerontology, I recognized that the creation of a credible assault on aging would require solving three basic problems: (1) Creating a credible plan; (2) getting the people best placed to implement it to be interested in doing so; and (3) giving them the financial resources to get on with the job.

I broke the back of the first problem in mid-2000, when I realized that regenerative medicine - repairing the accumulating damage of aging - will probably be far simpler and easier to implement than the alternative followed by most biogerontologists, namely slowing the creation of that damage. By that time, I had also done most of the heavy lifting of item 2 (as I continued to do thereafter), by connecting with leading researchers worldwide, mostly face to face at conferences, and improving their understanding of how their expertise could be productively applied to aging. By way of illustration, quite a few of the most prestigious such people are named on the front cover of this journal as associate editors, and they accepted such a position for that reason. But what about item 3?

Unfortunately, I cannot tell so positive a story with respect to financial resources. Nearly a decade ago, I began to make public predictions of how soon we would achieve success in our crusade. I did so, as I still do, in the manner that (for better or worse) preoccupies the general public, namely in terms of longevity, but I have always been careful to incorporate two key caveats: (1) The level of uncertainty of the time frames, even if only scientific uncertainty is considered, and (2) the reliance of such estimates on adequate funding.

The first of these caveats is often elided, but it is simple: I estimate that we have a 50% chance of achieving the milestone of "robust human rejuvenation" (essentially, the rejuvenation of 60 year olds comprehensively enough that they won't be biologically 60 again until they're chronologically 90) within 25 years, but I also estimate that we have at least a 10% chance of not getting there in 100 years. But...that is all subject to the second caveat, namely funding.

Tragically, the level of funding that has been forthcoming during the past decade is only a few percent (at most) of what is necessary. The rate of progress in research to defeat aging has been quite amazing in view of that, but nonetheless, I estimate that it has been only about one-third of what could have been achieved with 10-20 times more money.

Which is much as I said yesterday: there are now plenty of researchers and research groups who would work on building real rejuvenation biotechnology as described in the SENS vision if they were given a budget to do so. That budget is, however, sadly lacking at this time. Millions of dollars are going to SENS and SENS-like research programs these days (which is a big improvement over their non-existence ten years ago) - but a hundred times that flow of resources would be needed to achieve earnest progress at the best possible rate.

One of the logical conclusions emerging from this point of view is that longevity science remains in that stage of growth wherein advocacy and education are the primary drivers of progress. There is sufficient buy-in from the scientific community to make institutional investment in research the bottleneck to progress, and obtaining that funding is a matter of persuasion.

In one sense this is encouraging: it is a characteristic state of affairs during a rapid shift in priorities for any field of human endeavor. Organizations with large sums to place into research tend to be the most conservative portions of their community, and thus among the last to heed the changing winds of knowledge and priority. This present stage, in which researchers are now interested and supportive but lacking in sources of funding that will allow them to actually work on the problem at hand, is a natural, albeit frustrating, part of the process. It is a considerable step up from the previous era in which few researchers had any interest in working on the biotechnologies of engineered human longevity, and even talking about it in public was discouraged.

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