One of the many important points made by the advocacy community for rejuvenation research is that participants in the mainstream of medical science and medical regulation are not imbued with a great enough sense of urgency. We are all dying, and yet with each passing year the regulatory process moves ever more slowly, rejects an ever greater number of prospective therapies, becomes ever more expensive. The number of new therapies reaching the clinic falls. Regulators continue to reject the idea that treating aging is an acceptable goal in medicine. We live in an age of revolutionary progress in the capabilities of biotechnology, and yet patients must accept that new medicines are rare, and that fifteen years might pass between lab and clinic. This is not an industry moved by any sense of urgency.
Naturally, those who do see the urgency and are frustrated by the present state of medical development reach for different options. Some of those options are bad: cherry-picking research; testing interventions without evidence; self-experimentation without data or consideration of risk; building an industry to deliver supplements and other products that don't perform as advertised. Some of those options are sound: responsible development and medical tourism that takes place outside regions with the most onerous regulation; self-experimentation within a framework that encourages an understanding of risk and supporting research; advocacy to change the regulatory system.
Self-experimentation is the only way to obtain early access to new classes of medical technology, those described in research, manufactured in the marketplace, but not yet run through the regulatory process. Many will never even enter the regulatory process. The only way to provoke the sort of development needed to produce good data is for a community of self-experimenters to report on their experiences, obtaining a critical mass sufficient to attract research interest and funding. This is essentially what happened over the past few decades for the practice of calorie restriction. It isn't a medical technology, but proceeded through the same path of early research, adoption by self-experimenters, growth of a community, and that community then influenced the research community to pay greater attention. As a result we now have far better human data on calorie restriction, showing that the early research was essentially correct and it is a useful practice that modestly slows many of the consequences of aging.
Most people who self-experiment wouldn't call it that - and probably justifiably so. They rely on hope and how they feel rather than solid data, and are too readily swayed by hype and cherry-picked or misrepresented research. Many of those who went further than their own health to organize business ventures, such as the many members of the anti-aging marketplace, have built an industry that does at least as much harm as good. We cannot let the bad drive out the good when it comes to the frustration with the lack of urgency in medical development that leads people to choose to strike out on their own. It is possible to achieve meaningful gains through ventures in medical tourism, through responsible development, through self-experimentation with data and publication. Where this does happen, however, it is frequently the case that the people involved have a foot in both camps.
Such is the case for the principal subject of the popular science article here. I can't condone most of the activities of the Life Extension Foundation; the heart is absolutely in the right place, but so very much of the implementation is at best a waste, and at worse actively harmful to progress. Supplements as marketed over these past four decades do nothing for longevity, do nothing for aging, and participants in this market have used their advertising megaphone to convince the world that anti-aging is a sham, a joke: pills and potions that do nothing. It is an industry built on self-evidently false claims. Yet the Life Extension Foundation uses the proceeds from that business to fund some degree of meaningful, useful research into aging and means to treat aging and age-related disease. They also clearly support better paths forward in medical science. It is my hope that working rejuvenation therapies and biomarkers of aging will drive out the fraud and the lies and the nonsense in the years ahead, but don't ask me to approve of the state of this market today.
At 63, Bill Faloon is old enough to remember when talk of life extension labeled you a kook or charlatan. In the late 1970s, he co-founded the Life Extension Foundation, a nonprofit promoting the notion that people don't need to die - and later started a business to sell them the supplements and lab tests to help make that dream real. Nowadays he also distributes a magazine to 300,000 people nationwide and invites speakers to monthly gatherings at the Church of Perpetual Life, billed as a science-based, nondenominational meeting place where supporters learn about the latest developments in the battle against aging. Their faith is in human technologies that might one day end involuntary death.
After an hour of mixing, we all head to the second-floor nave and fill the pews for the evening's event. Several rows back sits a beer scientist. Next to me, two women in dresses and heels. At the front, an elderly gentleman with hearing aids. Tonight's speaker is Aubrey de Grey, a biomedical gerontologist and chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation, a Mountain View, California, outfit that studies regenerative medicines that might cure diseases associated with old age.
Today, it is easy to locate university-affiliated labs at places such as Harvard and Stanford investigating their own interventions in the process of growing old. Since the National Institutes of Health established its Institute on Aging division in 1974, scientists have dedicated more and more resources to the challenge. Over the past dozen years, the NIA's budget has doubled to more than $2 billion. Faloon predates them all. These days, the several hundred people who regularly attend events at the church are personal validation for Faloon, who thinks that anyone his age and younger, given the proper physiological tweaking, could live to a healthy age of 130. The hope is that, by then, new solutions will make death truly optional. Yet no amount of self-tinkering can assure him and his followers that day will ever come.
Across all these potential aging interventions, there is one common denominator, and that is their fallibility. The medical community doesn't know what slows or reverses the process in humans, let alone what might cause harm. For that reason, researchers caution against the kind of self-experimentation Faloon practices. "We're playing with a new treatment paradigm," the Mayo Clinic's James Kirkland says of their research. "I've been around long enough to know there are going to be unpredictable things that happen as we get into people."
Faloon believes he faces a bigger risk from waiting than from being his own guinea pig. "I'm afraid that with aging research, some of the people don't have a sufficient sense of urgency," he says. He continually incorporates different interventions into his life-extension regimen. He restricts his calories to some 1,200 a day, about half what the average man consumes. He also ingests more than 50 medications daily, including metformin and Life Extension's own concoctions of nutraceuticals. "Anything that might work, I am doing," he says. Because he's impatient for clinical trials to yield conclusive results, Faloon gives about $5 million a year in profits from the buyers club to underwrite medical research. So far, the data from two recent studies on NAD+ and rapamycin that he backed are unpublished. "If we don't accelerate all these different projects, I'm not going to make it," Faloon says.