Another View of Aging Science: That We Don't Know Enough
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A few days ago I pointed out an example of the viewpoint on aging research that focuses on drugs, lifestyle, and metabolic manipulation and sees present work in that area to be a matter of significant and ongoing process. I disagree, for reasons that were explained in that post. Today, I'll take a glance at a different view of the science of aging and longevity, one that is far more popular in the mainstream research community, and with which I also vehemently disagree.

Researchers in this field might be loosely divided into three camps, which are as follows ordered from largest to smallest: (a) those who study aging as a phenomenon without seeking to produce treatments, (b) those who see to slow aging through development of means to alter the operation of metabolism, such as calorie restriction mimetic drugs, and (c) those who aim to produce rejuvenation biotechnology capable of reversing aging. The vast majority of the aging research community at present consider that too little is known of the details of the progression of aging to make significant inroads in the design of treatments, and that the way forward is fundamental research with little hope of meaningful application for the foreseeable future. This attitude is captured here:

Let me ask you this: 'Why can't we cure death yet?'

We can't 'cure death' because biology is extremely complicated. Without a fundamental understanding of how biological organisms work on a molecular level, we're left to educated guesses on how to fix things that are breaking in the human body. Trying to cure disease without a full understanding of the underlying principles is like trying to travel to the moon without using Newton's laws of motion.

The reason we haven't cured death is because we don't really understand life.

This is only half true, however. It is true if your goal is to slow down aging by engineering metabolism into a new state of safe operation in which the damage of aging accumulates more slowly. This is an enormous project. It is harder than anything that has been accomplished by humanity to date, measured on any reasonable scale of complexity. The community has only a few footholds in the vast sea of interactions that make up the progression of metabolism and damage through the course of aging, and this is despite the fact that there exists an easily obtained, very well studied altered state of metabolism that does in fact slow aging and extend life. Calorie restriction can be investigated in almost all laboratory species, and has been the subject of intense scrutiny for more than a decade now. Yet that barely constitutes a start on the long road of figuring out how to replicate the effects of calorie restriction on metabolism, let alone how to set off into the unknown to build an even better metabolic state of operation.

Listing these concerns is not even to start in on the fact that even if clinicians could perfectly replicate the benefits of calorie restriction, these effects are still modest in the grand scheme of things. It probably won't add more than ten years to your life, and it won't rejuvenate the old, nor restore any of their lost functionality. It is a way of slowing down remaining harm, not repairing the harm that has happened. All in all it seems like a poor use of resources.

People who argue that we don't understand enough of aging to treat it are conveniently omitting the fact that the research community does in fact have a proven, time-tested consensus list of the causes of aging. These are the fundamental differences between old tissue and young tissue, the list of changes that are not in and of themselves caused by any other process of aging. This is the damage that is the root of aging. There are certainly fierce arguments over which of these are more important and how in detail they actually interact with one another and metabolism to cause frailty, disease, and death. I've already said as much: researchers are still in the early days of producing the complete map of how aging progresses at the detail level. The actual list of damage and change is not much debated, however: that is settled science.

Thus if all you want to do is produce good treatments that reverse the effects of aging, you don't need to know every detail of the progression of aging. You just need to remove the root causes. It doesn't matter which of them are more or less important, just remove them all, and you'll find out which were more or less important in the course of doing so - and probably faster than those who are taking the slow and stead scholarly route of investigation. If results are what we want to see then instead of studying ever more esoteric little corners of our biology, researchers might change focus on ways to repair the known forms of damage that cause aging. In this way treatments can be produced that actually rejuvenate patients, and unlike methods of slowing aging will benefit the old by reversing and preventing age-related disease.

This is exactly analogous to the long history of building good bridges prior to the modern age of computer simulation and materials science. With the advent of these tools engineers can now build superb bridges, of a quality and size that would once have been impossible. But the engineers of ancient Rome built good bridges: bridges that allowed people to cross rivers and chasms and some of which still stand today. Victorian engineers built better bridges to facilitate commerce that have stood the test of time, and they worked with little more than did the Romans in comparison to today's technologies. So the aging research community could begin to build their bridges now, we don't have to wait for better science. Given that we are talking about aging, and the cost of aging is measured in tens of millions of lives lost and hundreds of millions more left suffering each and every year, it is amazing to me that there are not more initiatives focused on taking what is already known and settled about the causes of aging and using that knowledge to build rejuvenation treatments.

What we see instead is a field largely focused on doing nothing but gathering data, and where there are researchers interesting in producing treatments, they are almost all focused on metabolic engineering to slow aging. The long, hard road to nowhere helpful. Yet repairing the known damage of aging is so very obviously the better course for research and development when compared to the prospect of an endless exploration and cataloging of metabolism. If we want the chance of significant progress towards means of treating aging in our lifetime, only SENS and other repair-based approaches have a shot at delivering. Attempts to slow aging are only a distraction: they will provide a growing flow of new knowledge of our biochemistry and the details of aging, but that knowledge isn't needed in order to work towards effective treatments for aging today.


Yes this is all very fristrating. But I guess that most investment by private firms in new technology is risk averse, so you will never get a biotech or big pharma company looking at this until there are at eleast some decent results in a mamel.

Public financing of research is designed to overcome this market failure... but that money is always spent on the mainstream. So I think it will play out that some demonstrations bring SENS into the mainstream or de-risk things enough for private investment in R&D.

Posted by: Jim at June 4, 2014 7:49 PM

Thank you Reason. I am in my seventies, so i need research to reverse aging and i appreciate your criticisem of what is being done know. Hopefully the information you give in this article will spread, specialy among the scientist who are now wasting their time learning how to "slow" aging. We need to treat aging as a sickness and find a cure now.

Posted by: Alfred Schickentanz at June 8, 2014 10:47 PM
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