Aging research receives very little funding in comparison to other lines of medical research, which makes little sense given that it is the cause of the overwhelming majority of deaths in wealthier regions of the world with large research communities. Within aging research, very little funding is devoted towards intervening in the aging process, the work of producing treatments for aging. Within that set of funding, very little indeed is going towards research programs like SENS that have a shot at producing real results in the decades ahead.
Indeed, if one were to be cynical, one might view the past ten to fifteen years of research in sirtuins and longevity genes, work that ostensibly has the aim of slowing aging, as a successful attempt by metabolic researchers to find a flag to wave that will let them obtain much more funding for their work on cataloging the exceedingly complex operation of cells. Certainly the output from most so-called longevity research has been more data on cellular metabolism, and nothing of material use beyond that - and if you spend time watching the field, that is exactly what we should expect from this work.
Only comparatively new, disruptive approaches like SENS, based on repair of the cellular and molecular damage that causes aging rather than manipulating metabolism to slightly slow the onset of damage, have the plausible outcome of producing rejuvenation treatments at the end of the day. Even in the best of outcomes for work on sirtuins or calorie restriction mimetic drugs, the end result will be of little use for old people, and will have only marginal benefits for everyone else. That is not a path to add decades to healthy life spans, and such a result simply isn't within the bounds of the possible for current efforts aimed at slowing aging only. For more than that we need to focus on damage repair. Yet damage repair receives only a tiny sliver of funding within the field.
Today, in an increasingly ageing world, anyone who found a formula to prevent or just slow down the process would no doubt make a killing. But the controversial scientists working to engineer a fountain of youth claim that, despite an increased interest from Silicon Valley types over the past few years, they're still low on funds. Research on life extension doesn't have to be particularly expensive. Aubrey de Grey told me that to run his brainchild, SENS, "The procedures and machinery that are needed are very much the same as for any biology research," with high-precision equipment such as microscopes accounting for the biggest expenses. The often hostile response to life-extension work surely plays a role in the equation, with many suggesting the idea of curing ageing is simply snake oil or outright dangerous.
But even if you buy into the idea, there's a lack of foreseeable payoff. Investing in such ventures could potentially yield big returns - but only in the long term. While de Grey is convinced that the first person to live 1,000 years has already been born, the prospect that one of the laboratories working to beat ageing will hit the jackpot any time soon sounds farfetched to most. "People want to invest today to make money tomorrow, that's the thing. With life extension, things take a little longer."
Right now, life-extension research is still research, pure and simple. Scientists exploring the uncharted territories of longevity mainly tinker with cells and telomeres, or strive to spawn long-lived mice; so far the opportunities for life-extension institutes to churn out marketable products are virtually non-existent. If some breakthroughs along these lines were achieved, the life-extension sector has the potential to be a hugely profitable industry. In 2013 [people] worldwide spent $195.9 billion to keep the signs of ageing at bay with products aimed at countering such nuisances as wrinkles, hair loss, or faltering memory. Just imagine if feasible treatments emerged to tackle those problems at their root, eradicating ageing altogether. That's why the current dearth of funds doesn't make any sense. "My argument is the following: Health is a huge business, and illness is a huge business too. If we can offer products to live longer it'll be a huge business. What will the value of future gains be? It'll be huge. What is worth investing in it? Let's say 100 billion dollars a year, but actually any amount is worth spending."