The Funding Issues of Longevity Science

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."



The real issue is that much of the research that WE WANT funded isn't being well funded, not that there's a general lack of funding for longevity science if it is defined as research that's related to the treatment of age-related disease. This definition is well-justified due to the fact that mainstream medical research organizations claim that they want to prevent and cure disease, and if they succeeded, longevity would certainly increase.

Posted by: Florin Clapa at November 7th, 2014 10:46 PM

I'm no expert, but I do get the feeling that SENS is just too new in a lot of ways. The things that are getting researched (metabolic modifying drugs, and genes that might do the same thing) are perhaps getting researched because there has already been a lot of research on these areas. So everyone ploughs on researching anti-aging medicine based on these approaches. It seems to me at least that there is actually a fair bit of inertia in funding, and what gets funded is what got funded before, and it is very hard and slow to break this cycle.

On the other hand areas like stem cells seemed to burst onto the scene around the turn of the millennium. I'm not sure why this was? To me real anti-aging rejuvenation technologies are just as exciting as stem cells. Is it that stem cells/growing replacement body parts is just easier to sell as a concept to the public? People can imagine growing a kidney like growing a fruit, but then most people don't have any understanding of why aging actually occurs (and scientists arguing over this doesn't help). I'm guessing that anti-aging research also has the disadvantage that people don't want to think about death as a coping mechanism, while stem cells and replacement body parts can skirt around that issue as they are just about "growing things".

Still the SENS foundation is doing good work in creating some of the conditions necessary for further funding.

Posted by: Jim at November 9th, 2014 10:06 AM

There's a huge amount of medical research that the public doesn't know about or understand, yet it gets funded anyway, because it relates to age-related diseases that the public does care about. Some of it is SENS (e.g., beta-amyloid vaccines), some isn't. The problem rests with the people that decide what research to fund, not with the public.

Posted by: Florin Clapa at November 11th, 2014 8:50 PM

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