The Strategic Future of the SENS Research Foundation

As I've noted in the past, attention and investment given to research tends to come in waves. Longevity science has been building from the 1970s in a series of growing waves, each lasting ten to fifteen years. That is long enough for new ideas to arise, a few organizations to be founded, networks established, research accomplished, and the groundwork laid for the next cycle to begin. The faces are generally different each time around: new entrepreneurs and researchers pick up the torch with each decade, putting their own spin on things and building their own flavor of progress. Insofar as longevity science goes the wave starting in the 1970s was financially insignificant, and didn't do much more than seed the ideas for what is taking place now. It wasn't until ten years ago that the current wave grew large enough to raise millions of dollars for serious work on the basis for rejuvenation treatments, or for there to be significant - albeit still modest - public interest in aging research. I think that this present wave is ending now and the next beginning, a change in the funding environment characterized by the ability to raise tens of millions of dollars for ventures related to aging and longevity. Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI) and the California Life Company (Calico) are early indicators of what lies ahead.

So what of the SENS Research Foundation in all of this? To my eyes, and I'm far from alone in this, the work done by the Foundation and its allies is presently the best hope for real progress towards rejuvenation therapies in our lifetimes. At this time the Foundation is emerging from the end of the wave that saw its creation with a runway of roughly $5 million per year for the next four to five years. This is largely assured by co-founder Aubrey de Grey's donation of $13 million to research, but without replenishment the vault is empty after that. Four to five years is a long time for a for-profit startup business, but not very long at all in medical research. In the sciences this is a decent amount of time to chase an idea from "this looks plausible" to "now we should start trying it out in animal studies." The goal of the Foundation's staff will be to use this runway to gain access to funding sources of the next wave, and ideally to grow tenfold over the next ten to fifteen years if HLI and Calico are representative of the interest that lies ahead. At this level of funding that would require a foundation similar to the Glenn Foundation to be persuaded to make SENS its cause, or for a billionaire philanthropist with interests in medicine such as Paul Allen to step into the space, or for a similarly sized source of public funding to be established.

The very real prospect of attaining this high road goal is why we folk in the grassroots make the effort to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars here and a few tens of thousands of dollars there. If you want to raise millions from big donors and establishment funding, then you have to be able to demonstrate a continuing ability to attract the support and funding of thousands and then tens of thousands of everyday individuals. Large scale funding follows public interest, and we are the trailblazers lighting the way. It would be nice to believe that bolt from the blue multi-million dollar funding just happens for deserving new technologies and research initiatives, but the reality is it doesn't. Massive philanthropic and investments turn up very late in the game, and only when everyone has heard of the cause they are supporting: they are only just nowadays arriving for stem cell research, for example. The only way to get to that point is to build step by step with the grassroots leading the way.

Simply growing funding to take the research programs to the next level is far from the only thing that the SENS Research Foundation can plan for in the new five years. I recognize that the community here is impatient for results: research is slow, and SENS research has been funded to a level of a few million a year for five years or so now. Supporters always want to see more tangible signs of progress than high profile scientific publications or incremental advances in steps seven through twelve of a twenty step process. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that many parts of SENS are not going to be realized anytime soon at the present rate of funding, and even given a tenfold increase are still a decade or more away. But some parts of SENS are much closer, within just a couple of years of technology demonstrations in mice. I think that the best candidates here are firstly elimination of senescent cells and secondly removal of glucosepane cross-links. In the case of senescent cell removal there is already momentum in the research community towards creating and assembling the necessary tools, and furthermore these tools are nearly ready. For glucosepane removal there is no momentum beyond projects funded by the SENS Research Foundation, but it is really just a matter of developing one way to break down one compound, a far, far simpler goal than any other part of the rejuvenation toolkit.

If either of these items is brought usefully close to fruition within the SENS Research Foundation's present runway, then one possible path for the future of SENS is that the Foundation itself becomes rather irrelevant in comparison to a community of overseas developers who begin to offer prototype treatments via medical tourism. Both removal of senescence cells and glucosepane cross-links should be meaningfully beneficial to all older people. This is exactly the same playbook as for the past fifteen years in stem cell research, and should produce the same outcome: a great influx of funding and attention, and real progress. In this scenario it doesn't really matter all that much what becomes of the Foundation, and whether it succeeds in growing or not. It is just one part of a much larger process at that point, and everyone who was directly involved will no doubt do well for themselves as a result of their earlier activities.

So in the sense that people are impatient for progress because they believe that tangible progress in any one aspect of SENS will unlock doors to growth: I agree with this. The thing that keeps me awake at night, and I'm sure others too, is the prospect of failure, and by that I mean that the SENS Research Foundation reaches the end of its runway without achieving either of the two goals above, nor attracting even a sustaining level of donations. It is perfectly possible to fire up the scientific community, change minds, and then be left sitting on empty coffers while the revolution you inspired arrives only decades later. That has happened numerous times in the history of technological development, so we shouldn't be overconfident. Failure in this sense wouldn't destroy SENS, it would just slow things down and relegate it to obscurity for some period of time - but that is a disaster when every year counts.

What is the best way for us to help ensure that this doesn't happen? That would be the grassroots fundraising and all that goes with it: the networking, the publicity, the spread of knowledge. This is why I undertake these tasks, to do my part to help shift the odds for organizations like the SENS Research Foundation to succeed one way or another. Generating the growth in research and development we want to see in the years ahead is a community effort of many moving parts. The next decade is going to be a fairly wild ride, but only if we all work on making it turn out well.


From the article:

"Dr. van Deursen recently submitted a grant proposal to the National Cancer Institute, another component of the N.I.H., to explore why the rate of cancer increases exponentially after age 50 even though mutations in DNA accumulate at a steady state throughout life.

Two reviewers gave the proposal a perfect score, but the third said he thought senescent cells were too rare to do much damage — a conjecture that the Mayo team’s new experiment has proved incorrect. Yet the third reviewer’s mark renders Dr. van Deursen’s new proposal ineligible for government research financing, unless the National Cancer Institute’s council steps in to reverse the peer review group’s decision."

It is enough to make you pull your hair out.

Posted by: Jim at July 12th, 2014 3:12 AM

Hopefully this new conference in Silicon Valley on rejuvenation biotechnology will accomplish this recruitment of major interests with serious research money. The brochure seems to specifically target diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer that could offer profits to pharma companies instead of only talking the usual talk about 7 forms of damage,etc. Perhaps this lure will attract more interest and SENS can piggyback on any new findings for these diseases. This conference may turn out to be more important than the SENS events held every 2 years reporting pure SENS research. It should be made an annual event.

Posted by: Morpheus at July 12th, 2014 10:26 PM

I don't think this particular conference will attract any major funds nor interest; but it will certainly gain momentum in the long run, yes.
After a few of these conferences, and as ventures such as Calico get established in the tech industry, increased flows of money and attention should come.

Posted by: Nico at July 13th, 2014 3:22 AM

Obviously the first SENS treatments that will be ready are amyloid-beta vaccines, which are already in human trials ON PEOPLE WHO DON'T HAVE ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE YET! And new simple organs from stem cells, which I believe are very close or have already been tried.

I actually think glucosepane crosslinks are a really hard problem, and we have only just started, so I don't expect results soon. Hopefully you are right about removal of senescent cells though.

Posted by: Carl at July 16th, 2014 2:34 AM
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