Today an update on the MitoSENS mitochondrial repair project showcased at the Lifespan.io crowdfunding site: after a few weeks of publicity, more than 200 backers have pledged more than $20,000 of the original $30,000 goal. Congratulations are due the Lifespan.io team and their supporters on the progress to date. Have you helped out yet?
MitoSENS is a branch of SENS rejuvenation research coordinated by the SENS Research Foundation: one of a number of efforts to produce the foundations needed to repair the specific known forms of cell and tissue damage that cause aging. MitoSENS is focused on the accumulation of mutations in mitochondrial DNA and their contribution to degenerative aging. DNA provides blueprints for the proteins making up cellular machinery, particularly vital cellular machinery in the case of mitochondria. Thus when the blueprint becomes damaged in certain ways dysfunctional machinery results, and given enough cells fallen into that state over the course of a lifetime, organs and tissues begin to fail. Any method that ensures reliable delivery of the correctly formed proteins to the mitochondria is a possible basis for a therapy, and there are numerous options. The SENS approach is gene therapy to copy vulnerable mitochondrial genes from the mitochondrial DNA to nuclear DNA, a process called allotopic expression, along with sufficient instructions to ensure that proteins are delivered back to the mitochondria after manufacture.
This line of research has been under way in bits and pieces for a decade or more, but not in earnest until fairly recently. The SENS Research Foundation was using donated funds back in 2008 to assist research that has since blossomed into the French company Gensight, where staff are producing an implementation of allotopic expression for a single gene involved in inherited mitochondrial disease. With the sizable commercial funding involved that should go a long way towards hammering out implementation details and robustness of this class of therapy, as well as providing a proof of concept in clinical practice to quell the grumblings of skeptics. In parallel to that the broader task of developing the methodologies needed for transport back to mitochondria for all mitochondrial genes must still be carried out, hence the ongoing MitoSENS project.
We are fortunate to live in in the opening years of the biotechnology revolution, a time when early stage life science and medical research is becoming ever cheaper. Far more can be done with far less, and the trend is accelerating year after year. A few tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of a good researcher with access to an established lab for six months can produce significant incremental progress at the cutting edge of a field, something that would have required millions or tens of millions of dollars and years of effort twenty years ago. This rapid drop in the cost of research is why the crowdfunding of science is becoming much more important. There is a great deal that might be done today in medical research that will never funded by the very conservative and risk-averse traditional sources of institutional research money. But now philanthropy is for everyone, not just the wealthy. We can all band together and help to create meaningful progress that will help our own health in the future, funding early stage work that is ignored by institutions, but which will later go on to pull in millions of dollars for clinical development once the prototypes are constructed and the case made.
Groups like Lifespan.io are important because they bring a different perspective, a different set of networks to the table. You can see them at work on Twitter, for example. In a time when every dollar donated can do so much more, and influential people are talking openly about aging research, it is ever more important to expand the community of people willing to materially support the development of rejuvenation therapies.