Crowdfunding Success for SENS Research Foundation, Funds to Aid in Pushing Forward to a Universal Cancer Therapy

The SENS Research Foundations's latest crowdfunding campaign, hosted by Lifespan.io, was focused on one of a number of vital projects in the development of a universal cancer therapy. I'm pleased to note that the campaign closed successfully yesterday, having raised more than $70,000 for this research initiative from nearly 550 donors. The SENS Research Foundation cancer team will be using the funds for the first rigorous exercise of an alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT) assay to find potential drug candidates that can suppress the ALT mechanisms used by some cancers to sustain their growth.

All cancers must lengthen their telomeres in order to grow, and to do so they abuse either telomerase or ALT. Shutting down telomere lengthening in tumors is thus an approach that should halt any cancer in its tracks. From a strategic point of view, this is enormous difference when compared to the cancer research and development of recent history, in which most therapies are only applicable to a small number of the hundreds of subtypes of cancer. Progress is necessarily slow in that paradigm. There are too many varieties of cancer and too few researchers to keep doing things that way if the goal is to win, to control cancer in the same way and to the same degree as we control most serious infectious disease. The strategy must change, and a class of therapy that works for all cancers, but costs no more to develop than any of the more limited therapies of the past, is just the sort of thing to aim for.

A number of research groups are working on telomerase suppression in cancer, but next to no-one is working on ALT in anywhere near as meaningful a way. Left to its own devices, cancer tends 90% to telomerase and 10% to ALT. Further, telomerase research is fairly well established as a result of its role in stem cell biology and possibly aging, while ALT is a small field with much more left to discover, so this focus on telomerase is understandable. Unfortunately, suppressing telomerase is quite capable of causing a tumor to evolve to use ALT instead - this has been demonstrated in mice. Therefore any effective universal cancer therapy based on a blockade of telomere lengthening must use both approaches at the same time. Someone has to pick up the slack on ALT research, and this is where the SENS Research Foundation comes in. Funds in hand, the researchers can now start working through the most likely prospects in the standard drug library. This should help to obtain a much better understanding of the best directions to take in order to suppress ALT, and in the best possible outcome finds drugs that might be of some use for patients suffering one of the 10% of cancers that use ALT.

Watching progress day to day from the sidelines, I have to say that this was a tough fundraiser - one of the first we've had these past few years that proved to be a real challenge. The target was reached only because a number of very generous donors stepped up to the plate and put up sizable matching funds when they saw that the outcome was in question. As to why this particular crowdfunding effort was a challenge, why is it suddenly harder now, well, that has been discussed here and there. There are a few hypotheses. The first is simply donor fatigue: this community has given very generously to multiple projects over the past few years, but there are only so many of us at the present time. This year's SENS Research Foundation crowdfunding campaign, unlike last year's, followed immediately on the heels of a successful $50,000 fundraiser for senescent cell clearance work in mice, also via Lifespan.io.

The second hypothesis is that during the fundraiser Michael Greve pledged $10 million to SENS rejuvenation research and the companies that will emerge from that research. There is never a bad time for a large donation to be made, and the SENS Research Foundation has justifiably spent much of their time and effort focused on the Project|21 initiative of which this donation is a part. It is always hard to say whether such large donations are going to inspire or reduce donations from the community in the short term. I've seen it go both ways in the past, and it is just as hard to say after the fact whether that was a factor here. We should all be feeling pretty triumphant after the events of this year, frankly. It is a big boost to ongoing efforts to persuade people who can invest large amounts that SENS is the right path forward, and in the long term more large donations mean more of everything as the years go by: a larger community, more grassroots donations, more research and development.

The third and perhaps most interesting hypothesis is that many members of the community of SENS rejuvenation research supporters don't consider cancer to be their problem, as it were. Perhaps people see the vast sums that go towards cancer research and think that this is an area already adequately covered. Or perhaps it is a cognitive disconnect between aging research and cancer research, seeing them as two separate edifices - which they are in many ways at the level of established funding institutions, charities, and advocacy, but not when it comes to the biochemistry of the situation. On the money front, there is a great deal of funding for aging research as well as cancer research, but that doesn't render efforts like those of the SENS Research Foundation irrelevant. The large scale funds in these fields are almost entirely devoted to the status quo of research, work that is only producing incremental gains at best. These are fields that need to be disrupted and led in a more productive direction. That in turn means that there must be funding for the early stage research and novel lines of work that lead to radical leaps and improvements in medicine, and that funding must almost always come from outside the mainstream - a very large proportion of it is philanthropic, just as in this case.

A tough fundraiser is a sign to change strategy a little, I think. I'm fairly certain that it would be hard to repeat last year's $250,000 success at this point. So this year Fight Aging! will be doing something different to support the SENS Research Foundation as the year comes to a close. More on that later.

Comments

Good points Reason.

As you noted, there are some feedbacks to be taken from this campaign. I think the community could :

- Produce more visual material (videos, graphics) for a simple, quicker understanding ; and for the message to be passed around more easily.

- Insist on how a given campaign makes sense in the grander scheme of the SENS strategy, especially if said campaign could potentially confuse people in thinking there's enough money flowing in this field.

- Delay the launch of a campaign (or reduce its financial goals) if there's an increased risk of donor fatigue.

Bascially, focus more on the donors' standpoint and mentality. Something which probably hasn't been done enough in the past.

Posted by: Spede at September 20th, 2016 6:10 AM

I think that a larger donor pool might help. But rather than convince more people to donate directly, get 100 of the 500 donors to each do a fun run or some other physical activity and raise 100 to 500 dollars from friends and family.

I also tried to convince some relatives about donating to the SENS cause recently. But one of the things I ran into was that donating money to some abstract science research doesn't have much of a human growth story. Maybe do fundraisers to get young summer scholar X to work for 6 months on synthesizing glucose pane antigens, or search for drugs that prevent ALT, even if 80% of the funding is on materials and the rest of the labs overheads.

Posted by: Jim at September 20th, 2016 8:05 AM

It is donation fatigue that was the problem this time. At least it was for me. I donated over $350 at the last they of the first time count down. And seeing that others weren't keeping up were frustrating. When the match came we received a mail asking everyone to donate $10. $10 is nothing! I waited a day and donated $10 the day after the mail. i should have donated immediately I received the mail. However, seeing that others couldn't donate even as small as $10 were irritating. And it make me angry because I'm on social care and donate to others related causes to as SOS. The key is to get more donors into it. 500 donors are nothing! Even 1000 are few. What about some millions? However, we hav to move step by step. As a reader were mentioning he asked his parents to donate. I have asked for the same and get the same answer. Those older than us aren't used to the net and that way of thinking and the young don't have that much money accumulated over a lifetime as our parents. If I had 10 million I would have donated 9 and 1 for myself future health expenses.

Posted by: Norse at September 20th, 2016 11:47 AM

The first hypothesis is probably the most accurate, although I would substitute "donor fatigue" with "lack of money". I gave $250 to Major Mouse Testing Project but I only gave $50 to Ctrl-ALT-Delete Cancer, and that was on the last day of the campaign, which was already extended a month past its original deadline. If it had been extended into mid-October, I would have given $250 (I really wanted the swag). But I did not work much over the summer, and funds were tight.

The second hypothesis may or may not be the case. Although this is a likely explanation for other fund raising campaigns, SENS supporters are unconventional thinkers and ours is an unconventional cause. I doubt we are deterred to give by the generosity of wealthy donors.

The third hypothesis is the least likely, I think. SENS supporters are far more scientifically literate than the public at large, and know that aging is a conglomerate of pathologies, cancer being one of them.

Posted by: Adam at September 20th, 2016 11:54 AM

It is absolutely true that our donor pool is way too small. Aubrey de Grey remains largely unknown, despite having appeared on 60 Minutes in 2006, and on Colbert in 2008.

Posted by: Adam at September 20th, 2016 12:00 PM

I think it's a given that the donor pool isn't big enough (hence the donor fatigue effect - it's the same tiny number of people who keep giving).

But that's where the conundrum lies. Not enough donors = slow advancement = not enough "wow" effect = not enough donors.

Wowing people - one way or another - is key. We can't (yet) pull on the human growth part, as Jim referred to, because the current results achieved by SENS won't give us traction on the public opinion. But at least we could help the public visualise the prospects of future human growth - through infographics and videos.

You don't tell children to learn a whole book of abstract equations with the prospect of maybe turning them into something interesting. No, you make them watch sci-fi series and then tell them : « See how cool that spacecraft is ? Well maybe one day you could get one just like that. Let me tell you about how it could be powered... »

I think it's Steve who said they were working a some textual material which could later be turned into infographics (and that they have at least two people who are good at that). I'll call again for supporting such an initiative (including via monetary means) and coming up with a series of complementary infographics explaining SENS goals, current research programmes, and how it won't creat eternal dictators and whatnot.

And regarding the form of our message, we'd need to be less factual and more involving. Like, for the ALT campaign, we could have pre-empted the notion that « there's already boatloads of money for cancer » by designing a leaflet along the lines of « Cancer research is well funded BUT THE MONEY ISN'T INVESTED PROPERLY. As a result, the prospect of a universal cure for cancer is further away. We could fix that. »

Posted by: Spede at September 20th, 2016 2:06 PM

I enjoy the crowdfunding platform for SENS for a variety or reasons: It fractionates the 'donation' process into discreet projects where it's easier to feel that your money is making a more easily measurable impact. I also love the feeling of community giving- seeing my donation in the backers list- it feels tangible and direct. Yet sometimes I wonder… is it possible that with this new platform has come a need to rethink how we view what are the actual crowdfunding benefits for a charitable organization like SENS? I suspect that the real potential power of crowdfunding here comes with creating excitement and active participation in a 'venture' that is plagued with the problem of massive public resistance to it's ultimate message: that humanity today, with the right strategies and collective support, is reasonably within striking distance of making a real change in the immeasurably large predicament of age-related ill-health. And, at least according to thinkers like Aubrey de Grey, the 'collective support' part is crucial: to try and roughly paraphrase him: the task requires money, mainstream scientific funding is not properly oriented to support the early stage research, this pushes the task of money raising onto philanthropy, and these potential philanthropists are not simply hemmed in by some enigmatic think-tank of risk-averse money magicians, but are people surrounded by and susceptible to public opinion. However rich you are, it is a rare person who is ready to completely ignore a SEA of public resistance and condemnation on some endeavour they are choosing to back. I would go one step further and suggest that the crippling sense of public inertia that seems to be slowing down a movement like longevity advocacy, a movement that simply rationally makes so much damn sense, is created mainly by the unspoken yet very real fear each individual goes through if they consider adding their voice to the tiny current minority who advocate such a controversial cause. I think this fear is very real and very very influential, especially when considered in the aggregate. And so I feel that finally the real benefit of crowdfunding here is that it provides a vehicle to announce support for an organization like SENS that can be safely couched in the crowdfunded project at hand. Yet make no mistake that every 'backer' on all these SENS based projects is essentially adding their voice to this cause, albeit in a manner that is much less fear inducing. Don't get me wrong- I'm sure all the scientists behind these SENS based crowdfunding projects are extremely grateful for the funding success, and the projects themselves are integral to the overall basic science that SENS advocates. But for me I think there is also something profound going on in these campaigns that interacts with this predicament of public opinion. SENS must hit critical mass, and in order for the funding to filter up the chain to the philanthropists who can make a difference, the public must be swayed, and that requires that the people who have made the shift to do the swaying. And there's the rub. You can't turn the tide without first facing the tide, and as a small longevity advocacy community I think, in my opinion, we tend to not discuss enough how terrifying that actually is. I ramped up my donation to OncoSENS because SPECIFICALLY it looked like it was having trouble, because even if I don't personally have the stones to get out there like Aubrey does and put myself so obviously in the line of fire, what I can do is contribute all I can to make SENS look like a winner, because it must, embedded in the social climate that it is currently.

Posted by: Michael Marye at September 20th, 2016 5:11 PM

"I think it's Steve who said they were working a some textual material which could later be turned into infographics (and that they have at least two people who are good at that). I'll call again for supporting such an initiative (including via monetary means) and coming up with a series of complementary infographics explaining SENS goals, current research programmes, and how it won't creat eternal dictators and whatnot."

@Spede - Yes I am currently discussing this with the team. We are looking at info graphics to describe what aging is, what dieseases each process causes and the solution and call to action.

Posted by: Steve Hill at September 21st, 2016 6:08 AM

I dread myself to the next project at lifespan. 1. Donation fatigue. 2. Unpopular project. 3. I have little money. 4. Soon it is coming a donation marathon, with SENS21.

Posted by: Norse at September 21st, 2016 10:14 AM

@ Steve Hill: can you at the upcoming site have different bars as the user can change. a bar where the user can see how much in % his donation have contributed.

Posted by: Norse at September 21st, 2016 11:18 AM

@ Steve : Great ! Please do let us know if you need feedback or any other kind of help the community could provide.

@ Norse : IMHO the next crowdfunded SENS project shouldn't happen before, say, the middle of next year.
And the 2016 end-of-year clearly won't reach the 250k USD. I don't know what Reason has up his sleeve.

Maybe taking this year's crowdfunding campaigns as part of the overall end-of-year goal, so that donors will only be asked to cover the difference ? That'd be something like 100k. But even this reduced amount wouln't be easy to get...

Posted by: Spede at September 21st, 2016 2:31 PM

I can only speak for myself, but the main reason I didn't donate to ALT (aside from being broke ;-)) was the idea that so many resources are already focused on cancer.

I understand how the SENS ALT approach is potentially superior to others and groundbreaking (assuming it works), but given the cancer immunotheraphy, nanotechnology, and diagnostic efforts on the horizon I think cancer is an area of aging damage that is better-covered than most. Even Reason himself has said in previous posts that he isn't too worried about cancer.

Not saying ALT doesn't deserve funding, I just think with limited amounts of money it's better to allocate funds to different SENS areas.

Posted by: KC at September 27th, 2016 6:08 PM

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