Following the launch of Repair Biotechnologies, and since I'll be at the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation's one-day conference, Ending Age-Related Disease, this coming July in New York, I recently answered a few questions and offered a few opinions for the LEAF volunteers. That interview was published yesterday. Regular readers here at Fight Aging! are no doubt all too familiar with many of those opinions already, since I'm not exactly what one might call reticent about putting them forward, but it never hurts to check.
Thanks to the efforts of many advocates, yours included, public perception of rejuvenation is also shifting. How close do you think we are to widespread acceptance?
I don't think acceptance matters - that might be the wrong term to focus on here. Acceptance will occur when the therapies are in the clinic. People will use them, and everyone will conveniently forget all the objections voiced. The most important thing is not acceptance but rather material support for development of therapies. The help of only a tiny fraction of the population is needed to fund the necessary research to a point of self-sustained development, and that is the important thing. Create beneficial change, and people will accept it. Yet you cannot just go and ask a few people. Persuading many people is necessary because that is the path to obtaining the material support of the necessary few: people do not donate their time and funds to unpopular or unknown causes; rather, they tend to follow their social groups.
Presently, rejuvenation is a relatively unknown topic; people who say they're against this technology probably don't think it's a concrete possibility anyway. However, as more important milestones will be reached - for example, robust mouse rejuvenation - this might change. Do you think that these milestones will result in opponents changing their attitudes or becoming more entrenched?
Opposition to human rejuvenation therapies is almost entirely irrational; either (a) it's a dismissal of an unfamiliar topic based on the heuristic that 95% of unfamiliar topics turn out to be not worth the effort when investigated further, or (b) it's a rejection of anything that might result in sizable change in personal opinion, life, and plans, such as the acceptance of aging and death that people have struggled to attain. This sort of opposition isn't based on an engagement with facts, so I think a sizable proportion of these folk will keep on being irrational in the face of just about any scientific advance or other new factual presentation short of their physicians prescribing rejuvenation therapies to treat one or more of their current symptoms of aging.
On the other hand, there will be steady progress in winning people over in the sense of supporting rejuvenation in the same sense as supporting cancer research: they know nothing much about the details, but they know that near everyone supports cancer research, and cancer is generally agreed to be a bad thing, so they go along. Achieving this change is a bootstrapping progress of persuading opinion makers and broadcasters, people who are nodes in the network of society. Here, milestones and facts are much more helpful.
After years of financially supporting other rejuvenation startups, you're now launching your own company focused on gene therapies relevant to rejuvenation. Your company's first objective is thymic regeneration. Why do you think the thymus is the ideal initial target for your work?
It is a very straightforward goal, with a lot of supporting evidence from the past few decades of research. It think it is important to set forth at the outset with something simple, direct, and focused, insofar as any biotechnology project can be said to have those attributes. This is a part of the SENS rejuvenation research agenda in the sense of cell atrophy: the core problem is loss of active thymic tissue, which leads to loss of T cell production and, consequently, immunodeficiency. However, the immune system is so core to the health of the individual that any form of restoration can beneficially affect a great many other systems. The many facets of the immune system don't just kill off invading pathogens; they are also responsible for destroying problem cells (cancers, senescent cells), and they participate in tissue maintenance and function in many ways.
If your aim is to raise or lower expression of a specific protein, and you don't already have a small molecule that does pretty much what you want it to do without horrible side-effects, then you can pay $1-2M for a shot at finding a starting point in the standard drug discovery databases. That frequently doesn't work, the odds of success are essentially unknown for any specific case, and the starting point then needs to be refined at further cost and odds of failure. This is, for example, the major sticking point for anyone wanting to build a small-molecule glucosepane breaker - the price of even starting to roll the dice is high, much larger than the funding any usual startup crew can obtain.
On the other hand, assuming you are working with a cell population that can be transduced by a gene therapy to a large enough degree to produce material effects, then $1-2M will fairly reliably get you all the way from the stage of two people in a room with an idea to the stage of having animal data sufficient enough to start the FDA approval process.