At Some Point the "Anti-Aging" Industry Will Stop Producing Junk and Nonsense, and Will Actually Sell Meaningful Treatments

It is perfectly possible to build a tremendously successful business while failing to deliver on any of the initial motivating goals and ideals. The modern "anti-aging" industry is a perfect example of this point, written thousands of times over in the careers of salespeople and founders. It began in earnest in the 1970s, a point in time when advocates for longevity science were a lot more optimistic, radically overoptimistic in fact, about what could be achieved in the near future. They built a supply pipeline for what they believed would come, but in the end, when the real thing never turned up, filled that pipeline with whatever junk happened to be available and would sell. Most of the original founders strongly believed in the declared goals of providing services that would extend healthy human life spans. Then they sold out. This is what happens when you build the supply chain in advance of the product.

Some of these folk are still very much believers, such as the principals at the Life Extension Foundation, an organization emblematic of the US supplement industry for the past four decades. They have over the years turned a portion of their profits towards real, meaningful research in cryonics and biotechnology, including SENS rejuvenation projects, far more money than I can claim to have helped raise. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of their activities lie in selling pills that have no real meaningful effect while loudly proclaiming the merits of those supplements - and the LEF is, I think, the best of that industry when it comes to the balance of ideals, meaningful action, and garbage. To my eyes when it comes to advocacy and obtaining support for rejuvenation research even enlightened "anti-aging" industry organizations like the LEF are probably doing more harm than good.

Yet this pipeline exists, and shows no signs of slowing down. At some point real therapies that address scientifically supported causes of aging will show up in the medical tourism pipeline, or as reapplications of existing widely available drugs, or something else that can be put out there by the existing infrastructure. These first treatments will no doubt be marginal, not very good at all in the grand scheme of things, but they will actually treat aging, and actually do some good. Think of the recent publication showing that a combination of existing drugs clears some portion of senescent cells in mice, for example. An organization outside the US could be selling that treatment today, and it is in effect a really terrible first pass at a SENS-like therapy that trims back one contributing cause of degenerative aging. But a really terrible first pass at a SENS-like therapy is already a league ahead of marginal scientific projects such as testing metformin in clinical trials and a whole different world from overhyped junk like resveratrol. It is step one on a road that actually goes somewhere.

The model for the way this will all unfold has already happened, and very recently too. If you want insight into the next fifteen years of treating aging outside the formalized mainstream of clinical trials, then look at the past fifteen years of applied stem cell research. A big melange of opportunists, entrepreneurs, rapid scientific progress, legitimate clinics, crooks, and the "anti-aging" market, all rolled into one and smeared out across half the world outside the US. At some point in the indefinite future I'm sure I'll be one of those folk out there buying treatments ahead of their availability in the US, sometime after the point at which the science, cost, and expected results make some kind of sense when balanced against the known gains of exercise and calorie restriction. We're not there yet, not by a good decade or more - probably more, frankly. But there will be a time when the "anti-aging" market stops being a bad joke and finally delivers on its original goal, set forty years back, after the good and the real chases out the bad and the fake.

Everyone makes their own calculations on these matters, of course, though I believe most of them are somewhat too eager to jump into the water now rather than supporting work on a pool that actually meets the minimal standards of usefulness. Being more skeptical than you feel you should be and more of a late adopter than you would like to be has many benefits.

Tomorrow's Anti-Aging Therapy, Available Today

For people who have a few hundred thousand dollars to spend and are willing to take on the risks of an "early adopter" and travel to South America, options are now becoming available that were inconceivable just a few years ago. This is a new vision for combining research with treatment, for treating diseases that have no proven therapies, and for aging itself.

You only have to read Time Magazine to notice that this is the year anti-aging medicine is coming of age. Promising life extension technologies are being debuted, with potential for preventing many diseases at once, adding decades to the human life span, and restoring youthful function to an aging body. These include telomerase therapies, stem cell therapies, epigenetic reprogramming, removal of senescent cells, plasma transfer, and hormonal therapies inspired by gene expression changes between young and old.

Inevitably, this has brought a surge in the number of companies eager to jump the gun and offer treatments to consumers based on early lab research, before the technology has proved safe and effective in humans. In an age of wildcat capitalism, we are well-advised to approach all claims with a skeptical eye, and assume that hucksterism is rampant. Anyone who considers signing on with a new company that is offering a promising but unproven anti-aging technology had best start with a foundation of second opinions and broad considerations of risk and rewards.

But I stop short of saying, "stay away". The field is too important, with too much at stake for us individually and as a human community, to sit on the sidelines, to wait for the research to be sorted out. Political control of medical research has protected us imperfectly, and has held back life-saving treatments, sometimes for decades. The system serves pharmaceutical profits more effectively than the public of medical consumers. Too often, the treatments that are approved are not those that offer the best risk/reward ratio, but those that are patentable and owned by someone who can afford to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in scientific advocacy.

The standard path to regulatory approval respects individual human life, and is "conservative" in the Hippocratic sense of "first do no harm". But it is far from the most effective way to move science forward, and probably is not the most efficient way to save the most lives, even in the short run. Many libertarians, anti-aging enthusiasts and ordinary citizens who find themselves with a condition for which there is currently no effective medical treatment want the freedom to participate in experimental medicine, and experimental medicine certainly wants to try to help them and to learn from successes and failures.

For people who see their options for an active and creative life being closed by age-related disabilities, for people who are willing to take personal risks to help move the science forward, for people who are bold and adventure-seeking, the choice to try experimental anti-aging technologies can be a rational decision.

Comments

Great blog, Reason.

I for one am anxiously awaiting for them to start producing some rejuvenation treatments abroad. But, I agree, I would like to wait 5 years or so after people start using new rejuv treatments so if there are problems, it would come out before I used it.

As an example, my ex-wife (we were married at the time) was quite large, obese. And, in the mid 90's Phenfen came out that help the obese lose weight. I suggested to my wife to try it, She did not, but it was taken off the market because it causes problems with the heart.

As Reason suggested, it is best to wait awhile before trying a new drug/treatment.

Posted by: Robert Church at March 18th, 2015 5:58 PM

I think you are right about holding off jumping in as an early adopter on a prototype therapy and there are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there.

However I think this could be a profound study and the results could be very important. Telomere rejuvenation has long been a subject of debate and whilst a Telomere/Myostatin inhibitor therapy cannot address all the SENS damage types it could address a few.

I believe the company in question have communicated with Aubrey in the past so perhaps some SENS principals are part of their strategy? They may well plan a suite of therapies as part of that approach, I think its an ambitious start though I would not dare to be patient #1 myself.

The risk is as you suggest of legitimate and bold research being drowned out by the tide of hucksters, biohackers, supplements and quacks. It does not really surprise me to see biotech companies moving offshore to avoid the current approval system and going to places more receptive to moving the science forward. I am sure it likely does not surprise you either Reason.

Posted by: Steve H at March 19th, 2015 3:48 AM

"The risk is as you suggest of legitimate and bold research being drowned out by the tide of hucksters, biohackers, supplements and quacks."

And this is what will actually happen. Although give the biohackers some credit; they're trying (even if generally failing) to do things that actually work and they usually experiment on themselves.

What on Earth makes you think the good will drive out the bad here, Reason? There's no precedent for that assertion; worldwide, people still rely on cures that medical science knows doesn't work. Homeopathy is still being sold, in the United States even! Faith healers fly around in personal helicopters right now, and you think that the flowers of successful longevity treatment won't be strangled by the weeds of endless crap in a Wild West environment?

Why not go to Europe instead, where the regulatory environment is reportedly less risk-adverse but quackery is still generally illegal? Although the single-payer stuff lowers potential profits- the governments are the ones doing the negotiating- it also pretty much ensures that literally everyone is receiving the product.

Posted by: Slicer at March 19th, 2015 10:04 AM

The poor website aside (so many Biotechs have crap websites) I am filing this project under things to watch. I do believe they will carry out this research personally I just hope it works out as speculated. Gene therapy is a very interesting area its just a shame the FDA makes it hard to get GT into trials compared to small molecule stuff.

Ultimately I think the US will loose out on Gene therapy, even the UK has recently relaxed its legislation relating to GT to encourage biotech to move here. I think the US is risking loosing pioneering gene research unless things change.

Posted by: Steve H at March 19th, 2015 12:38 PM

@Slicer

"What on Earth makes you think the good will drive out the bad here, Reason?"

When in the history of mankind has the creme not risen to the top?

Posted by: johnathan at March 19th, 2015 6:27 PM

Why SENS is not going a similar path? Creating couple labs in locations that allow them to accelerate their research and prove that their theories are right, would be a very good move. Mexico is pretty close to where SENS is, so would be practical.
SENS needs badly to get their feet wet and bring soon their research into real world. Otherwise their saga with funding will go on forever. With what we donate through this community, is close to nothing. If they can show couple things that are really working, even if it is in a lab/clinic in Mexico/Columbia/etc., I'm sure funding will be a lot more generous. It is about being pragmatic, not just a good scientist.

Posted by: Adrian Crisan at March 20th, 2015 10:31 AM

Agree with Adrian. As it stands Bioviva may well end up testing hTERT gene therapy in Columbia and they just signed a collaboration deal with SF First giving them more funding potentially.

A number of animal studies have shown that Telomere restoration does rejuvenate so its no surprise they are going to take a swing at it. I hope they do test it.

Posted by: Steve H at March 20th, 2015 11:07 AM

A lot depends on your age. A person in their 60s must be bold but if you're in your 30s you can wait and see how things play out.

It still gets me how a lot of people, particularly when it comes to supplements, think only good things can happen. In reality, supplements have just as much a chance of harming you as helping you. Example: multivitamins, HGH, and high doses of antioxidants have all proven to be harmful to human lifespan.

IMO, you should have AT LEAST a couple good mammals studies showing good results before using any supplement or intervention. Non-mammal studies and in vitro studies are almost meaningless.

Posted by: jen at March 24th, 2015 8:34 PM

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