"When Google is throwing $100 million at aging research, why fund SENS?"

There is an art to writing press releases for large joint ventures, and one part of it involves setting out the largest number you can vaguely justify in terms of dollars that will be spent in the future. You can look at the recent joint announcement of the Calico / Abbvie collaboration on longevity science as a good example of the type: of the $1.5 billion touted everything above the first $100-200 million is basically fuzzy money, a matter of conditional future outlays, a hopeful position statement made far in advance rather than any sort of real commitment. Large numbers are rolled out in this way because the declaration helps the companies involved: it produces free advertising in the media circus, aids in gaining political leverage for tax advantages, and so forth.

But still, that first $100 million is a large chunk of change in the aging research world. The annual budget of one of the noted Buck Institute for Research on Aging is a little more than $30 million, and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) budget is $1.2 billion for 2014. If we take the usual ballpark guesstimate of public funding as about a third of overall research in this field in the US, that gives some idea of the scale of things.

Here is an opinion that I've heard expressed of late: why bother with all the effort and grassroots fundraising and advocacy to fund the rejuvenation biotechnology work at the SENS Research Foundation now that Google is throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into the aging science ring? This sounds like plain old lazy thinking to me. Not all research expenditure is the same, and not everyone who talks about tackling aging is in fact performing useful work likely to have much of an impact on human life spans in the near future. Consider that the organizations coordinating SENS research on repair of the causes of aging have been bootstrapped on philanthropic donations for a decade now, and in an environment in which ten times the amount Google is likely to spend on aging research over the next few years has been expended by the NIA alone - and that is each and every year. The question could just as well be "why bother with SENS when the NIA is spending a river of dollars?"

"But look at the Calico website, right they they say they are tackling aging. That is new and different." That too is something I have heard. But this is really no different from the messaging you'll find at the NIA:

The NIA has been at the forefront of the Nation's research activities dedicated to understanding the nature of aging, supporting the health and well being of older adults, and extending healthy, active years of life for more people.

This story really isn't about dollars. It is about methodology. If everything could be solved by simply ensuring a large inflow of dollars, then the world be a much simpler and possibly much better place as a result. But how those dollars are spent matters far more than the amount. For all the rhetoric and grand budget of the NIA, outside of some cancer and stem cell research, I would be extremely surprised to learn than more than a few million each year out of that vast flow of money actually funds any of the remaining SENS-like lines of research capable of contributing meaningfully to extended healthy life spans. The same is true of the private research and development institutions. The mainstream simply isn't undertaking the needed work, and that is why we need a funded SENS research program.

SENS exists as a disruptive innovation in aging research: it is a conceptually novel way of approaching aging and its treatment, a better approach to using existing capabilities and knowledge to produce longer, healthier lives at the end of the research process. It focuses on repair and root causes, and will ultimately overtake the research community to replace the old way of doing things that is consuming vast sums to no good end. SENS will achieve this goal by producing meaningful results on measures of health and aging where other approaches do not, and at a fraction of the cost; that is the reasonable expectation based on the scientific underpinnings, to my eyes, and to the eyes of a significant minority in the research community. Disruption is a bootstrapping process, a start from nothing but an idea, followed by incremental growth, proof, and persuasion until everyone admits you were right all along and switches to do things your way. This happens constantly in the technology business, and also elsewhere in the sciences, albeit on a slower timeframe because the issues at hand are usually far more complex and - in the case of medicine - far more bound up in regulation.

The deployment of large sums of money in any industry is an extremely conservative business. It is very, very rare for large institutions to head off in new radical directions - or indeed to intentionally take any sort of similarly large risk. They follow and reinforce the mainstream. At this time in aging research the mainstream is still characterized by the NIA and Big Pharma approaches to age-related disease: only treat the complex, late stages of aging; only treat named diseases of aging; only work on proximate causes of dysfunction rather than root causes; only try to repair harm after the fact rather than prevent it; attempt to alter our highly complex metabolism to slow aging rather than repair the damage of aging to reverse aging. The disruptive adoption of a SENS approach of prevention and rejuvenation of aging and age-related disease has not yet happened, for all that it is on the way.

So when you see the emergence of an organization like Calico, well-funded, and headed by establishment figures from the research mainstream, then the odds are good that the organization will prove to be a continuation of the present work of the mainstream. It will most likely start out as a Big Pharma operation trying to make age-slowing candidate drugs work - akin to more of the same failed, expensive work on sirtuins and other aspects of the calorie restriction response, and similar lines of investigation. They are not going to work on SENS-like approaches for all the same reasons that other large groups are not yet doing so. It isn't the mainstream yet, the disruption hasn't happened yet.

As a part of the mainstream, Calico, like all the other existing large entities funding research, can be disrupted in the future, however. They will turn to devote funds to new methodologies demonstrated to be far more effective and cost-effective than the existing very poor paths forward in drug development to slow aging. The best way to have these organizations devote significant funding to rejuvenation research after the SENS model is for the SENS Research Foundation and related groups to be funded well enough over the next few years to be able to prove their case: to make one or more of the detailed proposed treatments work, and show that they results are far better and far less costly than the present dominant approaches to aging. With money that won't be too challenging, but "with money" is the hard part.

That is why we raise funds for SENS research: to ensure that it is adopted as soon as possible by the mainstream, and that in turn is because to our eyes the diverse evidence from the research community paints a very convincing picture that SENS is the best shot at actually defeating aging. There is nothing novel in any of this. This is how change happens in every field: it is an incremental process of persuasion and gathering evidence, it never goes fast enough, and at the start it is always a matter of raising a few dollars in the middle of a river of money heading towards the old, far worse, mainstream ways of doing things.


Good idea to bring up this matter, I expect more of such comments from people in the future, might as well settle that early on.

My quick take on the question: there's place for both commercial and philantropic ventures, and I've been happy at the announcement of Calico's creation. But the thing with this kind of private ventures is... "we don't know".

We don't know on which techniques they'll use their cash, we don't know how they'll deliver them to the patients (to which demographics and at which price), we don't know if and how they'll train new anti-aging scientists, etc.

- Google tends to be plenty resourceful, plenty innovative but also plenty evil (and I'm not throwing that gratuitiously).
- SENS is much more modest yet much more open and much more engaging (with confirmed researchers, aspiring ones, and the general public too).
Either may better their strength or worsen their weaknesses, either may take inspiration from the other. In any case, a balance is needed, which is why both must be funded.

Posted by: Nico at September 10th, 2014 6:43 PM

Well said. I'm dirt poor but have given a few hundred dollars to SENS myself and think everyone should give as much as possible. We all buy so much more junk than we need that doesn't really make us happy. Better to use the money on things that might save our lives someday. You need to get a car? Why not get a bare-bones used model instead of a fancier model and donate the extra money SENS. Same with clothes, gadgets, etc.

I'd be curious to know which area of SENS research is closest to showing a proof of principle. Anyone know?

Posted by: Jen at September 11th, 2014 1:23 PM

Thank you for this, Reason; I'd also like to direct your readers to a previous post by you on the perpetual cries for billionaires to sweep in and massively fund rejuvenation research — and to recent comments by Peter Thiel, who is himself one of the (obvious) exceptions to the generalization who has actually put a substantial amount of his own substantial resources toward accelerating progress toward rejuvenation research:

Peter Thiel In 'Zero To One': How To Develop The Developed World

GOODWYN: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about this country's technological future?

THIEL: Well, I've articulated the view that there has been a lot of progress in the world of bits and not so much in the world of atoms. So there's been a lot of progress in computers, not as much in some other areas such as say energy or transportation or even biomedical. And so the hope is that we can re-accelerate progress so that technology's not just synonymous with computers

I never like to frame things, however, in terms of extreme optimism or extreme pessimism because they both end up being reasons not to do anything. If you're extremely optimistic, then the future will take care of itself. If you're extremely pessimistic, then there's nothing they can do. And so they both are mindsets that I think lead to inaction.

And so I think the healthier mindset is always somewhere in between - to say that there's some good things and some bad things, and we have to figure out what are the meaningful things we can do in our time.

Emphasis on that last point. The responsibility for building a future beyond the suffering and death of aging and its many diseases and disabilities does not principally lie with the small number of fabulously wealthy people, but in the legions of ordinary, educated, middle-class supporters of an end to the degenerative aging process. Far too many of us are evidently sitting back and waiting for Google or Bill Gates to save them and their loved ones, instead of hitching up their belts, reaching into their wallets, and (pace, Reason!) writing letters to their Congressional representatives to increase funding for medical research generally and research on the degenerative aging process and regenerative medical solutions specifically.

To those of us already taking action: thank you.

To the rest of the community: stop waiting for the wealthy or the Singularity or some single, out-of-the-blue technological miracle to take the work off of your shoulders, and get busy building your own future.

Posted by: Michael at September 14th, 2014 5:04 PM
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