Debates in the Mainstream of Aging Research

The most important strategic debate in aging science is over how to go about producing therapies for aging. The present dominant camp believes that only minimal progress is possible in the near term, and that altering the operation of metabolism is one of the few viable methods: they are aiming to gently slow aging, such as by replicating some of the beneficial changes that occur in calorie restriction.

The minority position in this debate looks to build therapies capable of true rejuvenation, reversal of aging by repairing the cellular and molecular damage that causes aging. This is a path that should prove no harder, will produce far better results, but yet remains unpopular in the research community. If we want to see meaningful progress towards engineered longevity in our lifetimes, it is the path that will have to win out, however.

The mainstream position has its own internal debates over strategy, as a recent article illustrates, while taking a swipe at the repair-based approach along the way:

In the current issue of Scientific American, author Katherine Harmon takes a brief look at two schools of thought in the field of human lifespan expansion science. One group believes lifespan can be extended by limiting diseases one at a time. Focusing on the top two, cancer and heart disease, they beleive will go a long way. "If we can focus on the major causes of death - cancer, cardiovascular disease - if we can really conquer those diseases and replace parts of the body if they wear out, that is the best possible outcome," gerontologist Sarah Harper is quoted as saying.

The other group believes the actual underlying aging pathway itself can be slowed. This camp is represented by Dr . S. Jay Olshanksy at the University of Chicago. He believes that even if diseases are eliminated, cells and organs will age and degenerate and people will still age and die, perhaps some number of fixed years later. Olshansky is said with colleagues to be launching a "Manahttan-style project to slow aging" whose primary goal is to extend healthy lifespan by seven years in the next decade or two. Since disease risk doubles every seven years, slowing aging by seven years will reduce diseases by half.

The aim of this group is to find compounds that slow aging. No specific mention was made in the article of Dr. Aubrey de Grey and his SENS Foundation and his premise that age-related damage can be fixed and aging reversed and halted. His efforts are derided by associating one his quotes that the first person to live to 150 has already been born to "pseudoscience backwater, swamped with snake oil and short-lived hopes."

The snake oil abounds amidst the lies and frauds of the "anti-aging" market of course, but it's simple laziness to associate serious scientific efforts like SENS with snake oil salesmen just because both groups say that they want to greatly extend healthy life.



If they were successful in reigning in a few major diseases but no more, or in slowing the rate of ageing somewhat with no prospect of rejuvenation, I wouldn't even want that therapy. I am reminded of the "Tithonus error" that people are prone to make when thinking about rejuvenation biotechnology, but in this case it is no error at all. If the goal is to mimic the quality of life experienced by current centenarians with their accelerating feebleness, incapacity and dementia (which are not "diseases" only because they're to be expected) I would rather drop dead of a heart attack at age 70.

They're not only taking the wrong approach to ageing, but they're pursuing a goal that's not even desirable from my perspective. That said, I am still hopeful that no number of off-hand insults will stem the rising tide of regenerative medicine and its intuitively obvious applications.

Posted by: José at October 22nd, 2012 9:13 AM

The mindset of the mainstream view is patently ridiculous. It's quite obvious that if something breaks, you should fix it. Restore something to the same configuration as it was when it worked previously, and it will work the way it did previously. Yet this very idea is apparently an anathema. Instead the approach is, leave everything damaged, don't even -try- to fix the problem, but just put off the consequences for a little while. It's basically the approach of a very dodgy second-hand car saleman, who gets rid of a defective vehicle with some minor patchwork that makes it temporarily appear roadworthy. Someone has damaged arteries? Well, just ignore it, and instead give them some vasodilators so it'll take longer for those damaged arteries to be fatal. But actually fixing them, actually doing the job that medicine's supposed to, apparently, that's just crazy. The metabolic manipulation approach cannot work even in principle because it functions on a defeatist mindset - it's not even -attempting- to restore people to their previous level of functionality, so it doesn't take a psychic to predict its inevitable failure when that is basically what it strives for. And of course, all that effort, all those massive resources spent on slowing down something, all of those are for nothing the instant somebody comes along with something that actually -repairs- things. What use are drugs that slow down the rate of mitochondrial mutations, if we can just replace the DNA of every mitochondrion in the body? All that data on all the metabolic pathways which alter the rate of mitochondrial DNA damage suddenly becomes totally irrelevant, a mere curiosity. What interest is it how quickly mitochondrial damage accumulates with different genes switched on and off, if you have the power to reverse it at will?

If the mainstream, defeatist approach to aging were applied univerally to all medicine, then anytime someone was in the ER with a severed artery, the doctors would ignore the gaping wound and instead give the patient a drug that slows down their heart rate slightly, and congratulate themselves on giving the patient a whole four minutes of extra life by making them bleed out slightly slower. And this particular drug that they give patients, would be the product of billions of dollars of research, comparing the genes of those who take longer to bleed out with those who die more quickly, and trying to manipulate the metabolic pathways. For any medical problem, instead of actually trying to fix it by restoring things back to the way they were, we'd be expending a huge amount of effort to come up with really convoluted ways to keep people alive a little longer while not treating what's really wrong with them. We'd never create antibiotics that restore a person back to an uninfected state, we'd just try to lower the toxicity of the bacteria a little but leave them there. We'd never set broken bones; we'd just treat the skin with antiseptics whenever a piece of bone penetrates the skin so that it would take longer for the limb to become gangrenous. Appendicitis would be treated by doing nothing until the appendix ruptures and treating the resulting sepsis with anti-inflammatory drugs and the aforementioned drugs that slighly reduce the toxicity of bacteria. Medicine would be just one massive, pointless, expensive exercise in failure.

Posted by: Arcanyn at October 23rd, 2012 9:32 AM

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