Did the Historical Impetus to Seek Rejuvenation Treatments Lead to As Much Good Medicine as Fraud and Nonsense?

One of the ways in which people dismiss modern, legitimate research aimed at extending healthy human life is to decry it as just more of the same fraud, wishful thinking, and lies that have accompanied the desire for restored youth throughout history. It is certainly true that there is a lot of fraud and misrepresentation out there: the largest megaphones in the matter of aging and longevity are wielded by supplement sellers and the like. These are people with no incentive to be truthful and accurate, and who suffer few if any repercussions for stretching facts and scientific findings to breaking point, and it shows. The public spends billions on what is in essence fairy dust and fairy tales, while largely shunning the realistic research programs that might actually achieve extension of life. Never let it be said that we live in a sane world.

Is it really the case that nothing besides fraud and lies emerged from the desire for longevity all the way up until the point at which it became possible to actually start to do something about degenerative aging? That point in the development of biotechnology was arguably only reached perhaps thirty years ago at most, and meaningful initiatives - such as SENS research - only began in the last decade or so. The life sciences as practiced under the modern understanding of the scientific method have a history of several centuries of good, organized work, however.

A point argued in the paper quoted below is that the urge to longevity, while not generating actual means of rejuvenation, given that the technologies and knowledge needed to work usefully towards that goal did not exist until very recently, nonetheless led to the production of useful and even important advances in medicine.

The unexpected outcomes of anti-aging, rejuvenation and life extension studies: an origin of modern therapies

The search for life-extending interventions has been often perceived as a purely academic pursuit, or as an unorthodox medical enterprise, with little or no practical outcome. Yet, in fact, these studies, explicitly aiming to prolong human life, often constituted a formidable, though hardly ever acknowledged, motivation for biomedical research and discovery.

At least several modern biomedical fields have directly originated from rejuvenation and life extension research: 1) Hormone Replacement Therapy was born in Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard's rejuvenation experiments with animal gland extracts (1889). 2) Probiotic diets originated in Elie Metchnikoff's conception of radically prolonged "orthobiosis" (c. 1900). 3) The development of clinical endocrinology owed much to Eugen Steinach's "endocrine rejuvenation" operations (c. 1910s-1920s). 4) Tissue transplantations in humans (allografts and xenografts) were first widely performed in Serge Voronoff's "rejuvenation by grafting" experiments (c. 1910s-1920s). 5) Tissue engineering was pioneered during Alexis Carrel's work on cell and tissue immortalization (c. 1900-1920). 6) Cell therapy (and particularly human embryonic cell therapy) was first widely conducted by Paul Niehans for the purposes of rejuvenation as early as the 1930s.

Thus, the pursuit of life extension and rejuvenation has constituted an inseparable and crucial element in the history of biomedicine. Notably, the common principle of these studies was the proactive maintenance of stable, long-term homeostasis of the entire organism.

The goals haven't changed: what has changed is that we can now outline in detail exactly how to achieve the goal of indefinite homeostasis for a complex organism, based on repair of the damage that causes change and degeneration.

I have mixed feelings about holding up hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and probiotics as exemplars here, given their abuse at the hands of the "anti-aging" marketplace and similar unhelpful entities. But we should remember that HRT is a useful treatment for a narrow range of comparatively rare medical conditions that can cause considerable suffering. Similarly for probiotics. But neither seem particularly beneficial or useful as a general palliative treatment for aging, based upon the research consensus. In comparison to SENS-style targeted applications of cutting-edge molecular biology aimed at very narrowly defined forms of cellular damage, HRT and probiotics might as well be lumped together in the technology pyramid at the same level as apes banging rocks together. Though of course you won't get that message from the people in the "anti-aging" industry trying to sell you on their treatments.


Why phrase the matter this way? Would it be better to ask why prejudice and contentiousness dominates research in such a way as to interfere with progress on fixing aging?

Would humility and civility be the better response?

Posted by: Chris Zell at February 21st, 2014 9:19 AM


What phrasing in particular do you object to or find problematic? What do you mean by 'prejudice and contentiousness' dominating research?

Posted by: Dennis Towne at February 21st, 2014 4:03 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.