Today I'll point out a couple of recent technology press articles in which Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation discusses recent progress and a few aspects of the expected near future of rejuvenation therapies. Money, as ever, occupies a large portion of the picture. Funding the right lines of research is critical to progress in medical technology, and the road towards human rejuvenation, towards creating the envisaged therapies capable of repairing the molecular damage that causes aging and age-related disease, is no exception to this rule. Funding, persuasion, public support, and public attention are all intertwined, however. The potential for meaningful progress towards rejuvenation therapies has existed since at least the 1990s, yet has only just started in earnest these past few years. Progress has been incremental and slow, the funding very thin on the ground. This is because little attention was given to aging research, and in a public space dominated by the flim-flam of the "anti-aging" industry, legitimate longevity science simply wasn't taken seriously. To bootstrap a new movement, which is exactly what has taken place for the SENS approach to rejuvenation research over the past decade, you really have to dig in to the ways in which persuasion, publicity, and the availability of funding all depend upon one another. There is a reason that bootstrapping is hard and takes time when starting out with little in the way of either support or resources.
The scientific and advocacy communities have come a long way since I started following the research and writing on the topic. It is easy to forget just how fringe was the idea of undertaking serious efforts to rejuvenate humans ten to fifteen years ago, and how much of a struggle it was to raise even a million dollars over a period of some years to get started on small scientific projects. For all that there remains a lot to accomplish and a long way to go yet towards the goal of the first comprehensive suite of rejuvenation treatments, it is tremendously empowering to see that all the past efforts - the years of hard work for few immediate gains at the outset of the bootstrapping process - have come to something. The wheel is turning and speeding, more people are joining the community and helping out, and there are actual SENS rejuvenation technologies in trials and startup companies, with the likelihood of more to come in the next few years. This is still only the beginning of the story. But for those of us who were striving to get the wheel to move at all some years ago, it is a rewarding time to be in the field.
It's an exciting time to be working in ageing research. New findings are coming thick and fast, and although eliminating the process in humans is still some way away, studies regularly confirm what some have suspected for decades: that the mechanisms of ageing can be treated. "It's an amazingly gratifying field to be part of," says biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer and founder of SENS Research Foundation, the leading organisation tackling ageing. "It moves on almost every week at the moment."
At the start of February, for example, a study was published that had hugely significant findings for the field. "There was a big announcement in Nature showing that if you eliminate a certain type of cell from mice, then they live quite a bit longer. Even if you do that elimination rather late; in other words when they're already in middle age." For those following the field, this was exciting news, but for de Grey, it was concrete proof that ageing can be combated. "That's the kind of thing that I've been promoting for a long time, and it's been coming but it's been pretty tricky to actually demonstrate directly. This was really completely unequivocal proof of concept," he says. "So of course it motivates lots of work to identify ways to do the same thing in human beings. These kinds of things are happening all the time now."
Funding for ageing research is forever in short supply. SENS is always asking for donations, and there is always more research to be done than there is money to fund it. However, this is starting to improve, both for SENS and for other institutions engaging in this field of research. In particular, the investment community has shown growing interest in ageing research. February's breakthrough findings were funded by private investors, and SENS, too, is spinning out some of its research into companies. The growing involvement of private investors is, according to de Grey, evidence of the changing perceptions of ageing research. "Not only is the science moving forward, but the appreciation of the science within the investor community is also moving forward. And that is absolutely critical to what we can expect to see in the future."
Living longer "is the thing that's going to matter the most to people, Aubrey de Grey says, comparing it to the "It's the economy, stupid," tagline that Bill Clinton used on his road to the White House in 1992. "Ultimately, this is what people are going to vote for," he says. "If it's not available to everybody, then a party that has a manifest commitment to making it for everybody is going to get elected."
Then there are the economics of aging. "At the moment, when people get sick, it's incredibly expensive," de Gray says. "Probably 90% of the medical budget of the industrialized world goes to the diseases and disabilities of old age one way or another. That's trillions and trillions of dollars. If we can stop people from going that way by only spending billions of dollars, it's a big net win."
Additionally, if people can stay able bodied into their 80s, 90s, and beyond, then they can keep contributing their wealth to society, he says. Adding to collective wealth rather than drawing from it - which is why the "graying" of countries like Japan puts so much stress on an economy. "Therapies will pay for themselves in no time at all. and that means from a government's point of view, even the government of a really tax-averse country like the USA, it would be economically suicidal not to frontload the investment to ensure that everyone got these therapies as soon as possible." So living longer wouldn't just be a luxury good; it would be, to borrow from Bill Gates, a global public good.
In many ways the instinctive opinions that people hold on the economics of rejuvenation therapies are just as strange as their instinctive opinions on the desirability of rejuvenation and longer healthy lives. Many people say that they don't want to live a long time, and indeed don't want to live any longer than their parents. Similarly, most people will tell you - without really thinking about it - that longevity therapies would be enormously expensive and only available for the wealthy. This is actually far from the case.
Quite distinct from de Grey's points above, there is the fact that SENS rejuvenation therapies will be largely a matter of mass-produced infusions of small molecule drugs, enzymes, and gene therapies, the same treatment for everyone, given by a bored clinician in a brief visit once every few years. Some may be one-time treatments, such as autologous expression of mitochondrial DNA, leaving you set for life. The first senescent cell clearance treatments presently under clinical development consist of drug combinations and a gene therapy approach. Analogous treatments today, such as the biologics used to treat autoimmunity, or simple stem cell transplants, run to a few thousand per dose even in the dysfunctional US medical system. The economics of production, competition, and scale for medicine of this nature, in which all of the complexity is baked into the manufacturing process, are very different from those of enormously expensive treatments such as organ replacement and other challenging surgeries that require dedicated specialists and long periods of aftercare. Yet people continue to think that longevity therapies will be enormously expensive and reserved for the wealthy, and it seems hard to sway them from this opinion with mere logic.