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.