The Dog Aging Project launched last year, and is lavished with attention in this long press article. The initiative is a combined advocacy and research program intended to trial in pet dogs the small range of drug candidates - such as rapamycin - that have good data in mice to support both safety and the ability to modestly slow aging. In addition to the scientific side of things, this is a way to pull in more interest for the development of treatments for aging, and to gather greater support for moving to human studies. In that the goals of the Dog Aging Project are much the same as the human trial of metformin as a treatment to slow aging that is presently in the works. The bottom line is that we - the research and advocacy community - still have a long way to go when it comes to persuading the public, large funding institutions, and regulators that living longer through medical science is possible, plausible, and desirable.
Given the subject, the article here is narrowly focused on one particular view of aging and how to treat it. The scope is (a) traditional drug discovery and development, (b) slightly slowing the progression of aging by altering the operation of cellular metabolism, and (c) the prospect of a long, expensive slog to very marginal gains at some point in the decades ahead. This is a vision of the future in which humans gain a couple of years of additional healthy life sometime around 2030 because they can take a drug derived from or of a similar class to rapamycin. So on the one hand I think it is great that we now see more lengthy articles from the journalistic community that sensibly discuss both the treatment of aging and specific initiatives in aging research. It is also great that researchers are creating these innovative ways to both accomplish the science and attract more attention to the field. But at the same time, this particular approach of drug development and metabolic tinkering is an expensive and slow road to nowhere special. If it were the only path ahead, then fine, but it isn't. There is an entirely separate approach to treating aging based on targeted repair of cellular and molecular damage that could, if funded well, produce far greater gains in healthy life span for the same investment in money and time, as well achieving rejuvenation in the old.
You don't have to look far to see striking comparisons. Billions have been spent on trying to make drugs to slow aging out of sirtuins for example, and that collection of initiatives is an exemplar of the metabolic tinkering approach, hyped in its day. Yet the only concrete result has been to gain knowledge of a small slice of metabolism and its response to calorie restriction - no gain in health life or method to achieve that end has emerged. Meanwhile, for a tiny fraction of that sum, and in half the span of years, researchers taking the damage repair approach of clearing senescent cells in old tissues have already demonstrated robust benefits to health and life span in rodent studies. The pace of progress, the cost of progress, and the potential gains are night and day when comparing these two strategies. The type of longevity research that is carried out over the next few years matters greatly - our lives depend on the outcome.
Ever since last summer, when Lynn Gemmell's dog, Bela, was inducted into the trial of a drug that has been shown to significantly lengthen the lives of laboratory mice, she has been the object of intense scrutiny among dog park regulars. The trial represents a new frontier in testing a proposition for improving human health: Rather than only seeking treatments for the individual maladies that come with age, we might do better to target the biology that underlies aging itself. While the diseases that now kill most people in developed nations - heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer - have different immediate causes, age is the major risk factor for all of them. That means that even treatment breakthroughs in these areas, no matter how vital to individuals, would yield on average four or five more years of life, epidemiologists say, and some of them likely shadowed by illness. A drug that slows aging, the logic goes, might instead serve to delay the onset of several major diseases at once.
But scientists who champion the study of aging's basic biology - they call it "geroscience" - say their field has received short shrift from the biomedical establishment. And it was not lost on researchers that exposing dog lovers to the idea that aging could be delayed might generate popular support in addition to new data. "Many of us in the biology of aging field feel like it is underfunded relative to the potential impact on human health this could have," said Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, who helped pay for the study with funds he received from the university for turning down a competing job offer. "If the average pet owner sees there's a way to significantly delay aging in their pet, maybe it will begin to impact policy decisions."
"I would resist the idea that we should shift funds away from cancer and diabetes and Alzheimer's, where there are clear drug targets, and say, 'We're going to work on this hypothesis,' " NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said. "If you had a lot of money for geroscience right now, it's not clear what you would do with it that would be scientifically credible." Researchers in the field, in turn, say they might have more to show for themselves if they could better explain to Congress and the public why basic research on aging could be useful. "People understand 'my relative died of a heart attack, so I'm going to give money to that,' " said Dr. James L. Kirkland, a Mayo Clinic researcher. "It's harder to grasp 'my relative was older, that predisposes them to have a heart attack, so I should give money to research on aging.'"
Some companies have embraced the quest for drugs that delay aging. Google created Calico (for California Life Company) in 2013 with the goal of defeating aging. A start-up called UNITY has said it will develop drugs based on new research on aging mice suggesting that purging certain cells can extend a healthy life span. And a group of academic researchers is trying to persuade the FDA to recognize aging as a disease for which a drug can be marketed, which they hope will draw more interest from pharmaceutical firms. The agency recently greenlighted its proposed trial of a widely used diabetes drug, metformin, to see if it can delay the onset of other age-related diseases in older adults who have received a diagnosis of at least one, as one study suggests it might. But the group has yet to secure funding. One reason, the researchers say, is that the notion that aging is immutable is so deeply entrenched. "When I go out and try to raise money for this, the first thing people will say to me is, 'Eh, we're all getting older,' " said Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Alabama.