Another year passes us by, and change is always in the air. As was the case in 2013 more people are working on fundraising, and this is a comparatively recent development. It is taking place at both ends of the funding spectrum: we held a successful $150,000 grassroots fundraiser for early stage rejuvenation research coordinated by the SENS Research Foundation, while Google Ventures is working to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into much more mainstream Big Pharma approaches to aging research. This has also been a year of continued efforts and growth in crowdfunding as it applies to science. Microryza garnered more attention and changed their name to become Experiment, while the Buck Institute has been working on an interesting approach called LabCures. In general I am optimistic that we will see movement beyond a simple cut and paste of Kickstarter towards models more likely to work in research fundraising for modestly sized projects at a large scale.
There have been other funding developments relevant to longevity science around the world also, such as the greater prominence of the UMA Foundation, and a growing confidence in the research community when it comes to talking about treating aging and seeking funding for the same. From the point of view of developing advocacy and conversation this is a whole different world in comparison to just a few years back. Even the large and exceedingly conservative Wellcome Trust research foundation has things to say about longevity and medicine, which hopefully portends more of an investment in the space in the years ahead.
Research prizes of relevance have also emerged as another way for people to attempt to guide significant funding into the scientific projects most useful to a given field - though there are far too few of them given their effectiveness. The New Organ liver prize gained contending teams this year, and the Palo Alto Longevity Prize launched just a few months ago.
In hindsight some years hence it is likely that the Google investment in longevity science, for all that I see it achieving little of immediate practical relevance to human longevity because of its focus on pharmaceutical development, is the sort of landmark that people point to when noting that "this is where things changed." It is hard to pick out the exact point of a pivotal shift in a field of science and technology, because in truth these things are always slow and hard-fought incremental changes at the time, but we are in the midst of one now. Aging research is changing from a field of look-but-don't-touch to a field of clinical intervention, developing the means to slow, repair, or otherwise alter the aging process rather than merely cataloging what is taking place when we decline with age.
Thus I think that the long period of persuading the research community to talk about, support, and work on treatments for the causes of aging is nearly over. Now the efforts move to persuading people to fund the work, persuading researchers to work on projects that are likely to produce actual results in the near future rather than just data, and persuading the public to support the idea of curing all age-related disease - something that a surprisingly large majority oppose at this time.
So the market is up, investing is hot, and Google's California Life Company is far from the only longevity-related venture that received significant funding this year. Reinforcing the view of the mainstream that genetics is an important part of any attempt to intervene in aging to enhance healthy longevity, Human Longevity, Inc. raised tens of millions this year also. Sadly, again, I really think this is one of those initiatives that can improve medicine and the state of knowledge considerably without having much of a hope of moving the needle on practical treatments to extend life. Another similar venture closer to our community that launched this year was In Silico Medicine.
This tendency for the mainstream to pursue courses that are natural extensions of the research imperative to map all genetics and metabolism, but which are very unlikely to produce rejuvenation treatments that can help the old, is exactly why we need more grassroots advocacy and fundraising to draw attention to SENS and similar repair-based strategies. The deciphering and manipulation of metabolism will be slow, exceedingly expensive, and no-one has a concrete plan at this point as to how to produce meaningful results. The most likely outcome for the next two decades is a few drugs that might slightly slow aging - adding perhaps five years to human life span if someone can recapture almost all of the natural calorie restriction response. If that is all that happens, it will be a grand missed opportunity. The whole point of SENS as a research strategy is that we don't have to strive to understand the whole of aging and manipulate highly complex metabolic states in this way: researchers can instead try to repair the known fundamental differences between old and young tissues. These differences are well-described and well-known to a point sufficient for detailed plans for repair therapies to exist. The development of these therapies will thus cost a fraction of the exploration of metabolism needed for the slowing aging approach, and since repair will induce rejuvenation the expected outcome is far better: adding decades to healthy life spans, not merely a few years.
But much of the research community remains to be convinced. There is an enormous inertia in the Big Pharma, drug discovery, work backwards from the end state of aging approach that has consumed billions over the past decade in search of age-slowing drugs with nothing to show for it but data and an increased appreciation for the complexity of our biology. If that funding had gone to SENS, there are good odds we'd have the answer today as to whether many of its repair modes can create rejuvenation in old mice. Thus much advocacy lies ahead: we still have to make this happen if we want a good shot at living to see human rejuvenation.
Speaking of advocacy, this past year the SENS Research Foundation launched a new conference series, Rejuvenation Biotechnology, that is intended to build the relationships between science and industry needed for faster commercial hand-off and support of the sort of repair biotechnologies that the Foundation works on. By all accounts the first conference went pretty well. The second in the series is coming in 2015, so stay tuned. Other interesting conference series going strong include the Genetics of Aging and Longevity Conference organized by groups within the active Russian gerontology community. Of course there is a near endless parade of conferences devoted to individual fields that are relevant to longevity science: those for the large and still growing fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine alone would be quite a long list.
On a sad note, this past year saw the death of several vocal and productive members of the advocacy community. As our community grows, the consequences of aging become ever more apparent. The one closest to my network was Stephen Coles of the Gerontology Research Group, whom you might recall as one of the researchers involved in uncovering the predominant cause of death in supercentenarians, but he was by no means the only one. This should be a continued and painful reminder for all of us as to why we do this: why persuade the world, why raise funds, why keep working on the science. It is perhaps unfortunate that it is only human to feel little to nothing for the hundreds of people who will die due to aging while you read this post, and to only be affected by the comparatively few deaths among those people you happen to have exchanged emails with here and there.
But on to the science, which does not suffer as we do, and it is, I think, why most of you peruse this modest website, after all. This year has seen something of great interest every month, usually several advances if you are particularly enmeshed in the field. There are scores of very interesting items buried in the posts here from the past year, and I couldn't possibly mention them all. I'd say that the theme of the year was stem cell research and tissue engineering, but that is the theme for every year. This is the age of cell control with all that implies, and the advances in regrowth and regeneration are going to continue apace for decades yet: every few weeks a research group somewhere in the world is discovering a new way to make cells perform desired tasks, or coming that little bit closer to building an organ from scratch.
If there was a theme unique to the year, than it is probably that genetics has reached the sort of critical mass that stem cell research did a decade ago. Unlike stem cell research this is of less direct relevance to the path to human rejuvenation, however, although all improvements in the tools of biotechnology are welcome. The variations in human genetics that influence variations in natural longevity are fascinating, but we all age for the same root causes. Any repair technology that successfully treats aging will be exactly the same for everyone: the subtle genetic variants in our responses to the cellular and molecular damage that cause aging simply don't matter if we can repair that damage.
Another important theme in the past year of research has been the parabiosis experiments in which old and young mice have their circulatory systems linked. Results are, as usual, mixed. Researchers are showing benefits from manipulation of levels of GDF-11, but also finding that replicating the effects of parabiosis via blood transfusion isn't straightforward and doesn't seem to have the same outcome. There are human transfusion trials underway, but based on the results in mice I'm not expecting much to result from that effort.
For research directly relevant to rejuvenation after the SENS model, you might look at the 2014 annual report from the SENS Research Foundation, which is a glossy overview of advances made in the last twelve months. One of the items the Foundation leadership is particularly pleased with is progress in the comparatively high-profile work on catabody methodologies to treat senile systemic amyloidosis, the condition thought to kill the very oldest people who survive everything else that old age throws at them. The Foundation staff are doing a lot to change the nature of aging research, and not just through the scientific projects that they sponsor. It is also a matter of changing minds, persuading more people to move from the less effective old Big Pharma model of medical research via drug discovery to work on new and more exciting technologies that can lead to rejuvenation.
To wind up this post, I'll note that I have been slacking when it comes writing my own short essays from scratch rather than commenting at length in reaction to events and publications. So the following is a short list this year, but I hope that you find some of them interesting if you missed them the first time around:
- The 2010s in Biotechnology Reflect the 1960s in Computing
- It Comes Time for the Next Wave of Advocacy and Initiatives in Longevity Science
- The Decade to Come in Which Treatments for Aging Exist, But Are Largely Illegal
- What is Robust Mouse Rejuvenation, and Why Should We Care?
- The Strategic Future of the SENS Research Foundation
- Reaching the Larger Audience
- A Brief Letter to the Long Retired
- Why Do We Advocate for Rejuvenation Research?