The SENS Research Foundation coordinates and conducts research into the baseline technologies needed for human rejuvenation. We age because we become damaged: cells and the structures between cells accumulate broken proteins, waste products, and other forms of harm. The machines of our cells run down, run amok, and run ragged. Eventually that kills us, as damage overwhelms self-repair, but this ugly process of aging to death could be indefinitely postponed given effective means of repairing the forms of damage that are fundamental, those that result from nothing more than the ordinary operation of human metabolism.
SENS stands for the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, and is a detailed set of theories and supporting evidence regarding which forms of damage and change identified in the old actually cause aging, combined with research plans to develop the foreseeable means to repair these fundamental forms of damage. SENS is a guide to lead us from today, a time in which the research community finally knows enough to be able to lay out a plan like this in detail, to a tomorrow of realized prototype therapies that can rejuvenate old laboratory animals such as mice.
If fully funded to a level of $100 million / year or so, then SENS is a ten to twenty year project, involving the creation of a large new research community and public support to rival that of the cancer research edifice. It might sound like a massive, unobtainable amount of money, but bear in mind that the National Institute on Aging spends ten times amount that as a yearly budget, a single company engaged in not-so-great-in-the-end research on a single type of drug to slightly slow aging sold for $700 million, and neither of those examples offers any great hope of producing meaningful change in the aging process. To a first approximation the NIA are not funding interventions, only investigations, and much of that work is largely irrelevant in comparison to what might be done by ambitious, funded researchers. Such is life: in large-scale institutions mediocrity rules, and ambitious, high risk work that might produce great change is largely going to go unfunded.
At the end of the SENS road we will have the first form of a medical toolkit to reverse aging - an event that could happen in time to help most of those reading this today. Yet there is still little funding for SENS research: a few million dollars a year, derived from community support and philanthropic donors such as Peter Thiel and Aubrey de Grey. This level of funding will have to increase greatly if we are to see the promise of SENS realized.
In advance of the forthcoming SENS6 conference, the SENS Research Foundation has released their 2013 research report, which as always makes for interesting reading.
In May of 2012, a 10-year-old girl was suffering in hospital with a blockage in her portal vein - the major blood vessel that brings nutrients from the digestive tract into the liver. Bypassing the risks of transplantation, Swedish doctors engineered the girl a new, custom replacement. Drawing from earlier human successes with engineered tracheas, a donor's blood vessel was stripped of its cells.The resulting scaffold was seeded with stem cells from the girl's bone marrow, and chemical signals were then used to encourage the cells to grow into a functional portal vein. Thanks to the engineered vessel, the girl's blood tests have normalized, and she is now capable of light gymnastics and mile-and-a-half walks.
This groundbreaking achievement is just one example of what can emerge from a few years of rapid progress in animal models and other precedent-setting tissue engineering projects. It is also an example of the type of work SENS Research Foundation is funding with the goal of applying it to a primary problem of aging: the decline of the immune system. Only a few of us will ever need a new portal vein or trachea - but nearly all of us will need a new thymus, which plays an indispensible role in the immune system. The fine structures and functioning cells of the thymus we were born with will slowly degenerate between our teen years and our sixties; as the organ begins to fail with age, we become increasingly vulnerable to influenza and other common infectious diseases. With SRF support, Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine researchers are now making rapid progress in work to apply the decellularized-recellularized scaffold method to the thymus in animal models. SRF is excited to be spearheading the adaptation of existing techniques to geriatric medicine, where innovation is so sorely needed. But we know that this alone is not enough to address the emerging health crisis posed by age-related disease, which has surpassed infectious disease as the most pressing health problem facing humanity today.
SENS Research Foundation is currently the only research nonprofit pushing the boundaries of the field toward the molecular level, where much of the damage of aging resides. Treating the symptoms of the resulting pathologies can only take us so far, because the body's repair and maintenance mechanisms continue to deteriorate. SRF's unique dedication to identifying and alleviating the damage that long precedes pathology serves as the basis for much of our work. Our longest-running project in this vein targets age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 65. Macular degeneration is caused by the accumulation of a toxic byproduct of the visual cycle called A2E, which builds up in the retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells responsible for maintaining the light-sensing cells of the eye. We are working to preserve and restore the health of these cells by fortifying them with new, engineered enzymes capable of clearing A2E deposits. In 2012, scientists in our Research Center identified an enzyme (SENS20) that has since demonstrated efficacy in degrading A2E not only in vitro, but in RPE cells administered an A2E "stress test."
These two critical-path projects, as well as the others described in this Research Report, reflect our ongoing mission to transform the way the world researches and treats age-related disease. Our commitment to developing the industry of restorative medicine begins with proof-of-concept work - but ultimately rests upon creating the rejuvenation biotechnologies that can actually cure these diseases. To accomplish this, in addition to funding and conducting more research into the health problems of aging, we must realize a shift in how these health problems are conceptualized. We must move from seeing age-related illnesses as discrete entities to acknowledging that as we grow older, we become progressively more vulnerable to every single age related disease that exists, because we are all accumulating damage at levels no form of medicine can presently touch. When we reimagine aging, we envision a world where the damage preceding pathology is recognized as a treatable condition in and of itself, and addressed accordingly. SRF is delighted to share our progress toward this end in this Research Report. We hope you will join us in taking the tremendous opportunity at hand to set the new standard for twenty-first century medical research and development.
SENS and the SENS Research Foundation are the seed for what will become the core, central pillar of medicine in the decades ahead. Nothing will be as important to health as maintaining youth by periodic repair of cellular damage. Just like antibiotics today, that will be the primary barrier that stands between us and the ubiquitous suffering and mortality that preceded it. The greater the support given to SENS and SENS-like research, the faster we get to that point.