Longevity Science is Pretty Much Impenetrable for Journalists

Today I'll point out a recent media article that comments on RAADfest 2018, held in San Diego earlier this year. I attended this year, and wrote up my own thoughts on the event shortly thereafter. The advent of the first working, low cost, narrow focus rejuvenation therapies in the form of senolytic drugs capable of selectively destroying senescent cells is causing a sizable, but slow, shift of alignment and focus in both the scientific community and the historically fraud-ridden "anti-aging" marketplace. RAADfest is where these two communities meet, which makes it an interesting study if you have some insight into the history of scientific (useful) and non-scientific (useless) efforts to do something about aging. The great market of junk and nonsense that exists under the banner of "anti-aging" now has a viable product to sell. Will the good chase out the bad? That is what happened to medicine in general, once science took hold, compressing the fraud and the magical thinking to the edges of the field where they reside today. We can hope that it will happen here too. To the extent that participants presently marketing junk truly desire the goal of control over aging, then they will stop selling junk and start selling senolytics.

The article below is an anthropological commentary rather than consideration of the science, which is symptomatic of an issue I have noted before. Non-technical folk arriving from outside our community really cannot tell the difference between the three broad categories of (a) irrelevant non-scientific junk, (b) scientific approaches that might plausibly slightly slow down the aging process, and (c) scientific approaches that might plausibly produce rejuvenation, and are thus the road to radical life extension and control over aging. These are important distinctions, and few if any journalists working in the mainstream of media are equipped to tell the difference. The various ways of slowing aging and reversing aging are pitched in similar ways by entrepreneurs and scientists, and the non-scientific garbage is cloaked in the guise of science by marketing groups who cherry-pick and outright lie about evidence. So we get anthropological commentaries from the media, which is the journalistic way of noting that there is something going on, but that the authors have no idea what it might be or how to assess it.

The Death of Death

Most of us grew up surrounded by normative clich├ęs about our mortality: Life is short; death is the only constant; live each day like it's your last. What does it look like to live life as if there were no end - no such thing as burning out? More than 1,000 people, many of them adherents of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based immortalist group, People Unlimited, came to RAADfest to find out. The celebratory confab is organized by the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, a gaggle of fringe scientists, biotech start-ups, and immortality enthusiasts united in agreement that "the deathist paradigm" has to go, and that within most of our lifetimes, biological aging can be a thing of the past. In one way or another, each board member's career feeds off the advancement of age reversal science and the popularization of the immortalist ideology - be it via membership dues, supplement sales, or translating intrigue and research findings into investment funds.

For the most serious devotees, immortality-seeking is a full-time commitment to keeping abreast of the latest innovations - they speak of these "modalities" with the same reverence a Christian would of a blessing. A $250 billion industry of anti-aging products and services is there for the collection - and many of their offerings are for sale at RAADfest. An Australian named Ray Palmer was easing into his second hour hooked up to an IV coursing NAD+-replenishing fluid through his veins. The coenzyme's depletion is linked to aging and aging-related disease - a study re-upping the stuff in mice was found to make them livelier, more youthful, and more muscular. People at RAADfest were lined up to try it out. At the Stem Cell Institute booth, you could sign up for stem cell therapies delivered in Panama that, according to their purveyor, cured Mel Gibson's father of liver and kidney failure. A poster boy for the clinic, Hutton Gibson was wheelchair-bound when he came in and walking a month later, the audience was told.

If this all fails, there's the ultimate speculative investment: cryonic preservation. At the Alcor cryonics facility in Scottsdale, there are more than 160 preserved bodies. Another 1,200 are signed up to be put on ice and brought to the facility upon legal death, with most paying in advance via specialized life insurance policies. Bodies have been accumulating here since the 1970s, but none have been resurrected yet - the technology to do so doesn't exist, and no one knows if it ever will.

In recent years, the science moving through the research pipeline - much of it in mice - has shown potential in reversing cell senescence and aging-related damage, which, if effective in humans could, in theory, offer endless opportunities to turn back the clock. And perhaps, with the help of artificial intelligence, research into now-fringe therapies will be expedited to reach the gold standard of human clinical trials ever faster. Perhaps that data will be analyzed at warp speed, spurring FDA-approved drugs and driving prices down as they percolate into the mainstream, and, at long last, into the insurance policies of everyday folks. This is all a big maybe with no real time frame, but for people at RAADFest, it's less of a maybe now than they could have ever imagined.

Bill Faloon is a RAADfest fixture. The owner of Life Extension Foundation - the premier supplement retailer at RAADfest - is also a founder of the Florida-based Church of Perpetual Life. During one of many RAADfest talks, he pulled up a slide citing new research outlining the dangers of "zombie-like" senescent cells that spew harmful proteins, and the potential of senolytic drugs to curb the harm done - progress, but again, in mice. In an "Age Reversal Guide," Faloon outlined a recommended course of senolytics and ways to obtain them via one of his websites. The audience was grateful - but despite senolytics' promise, according to mainstream scientific protocol, such enthusiasm is wildly premature without results from placebo-controlled human trials.

Between the ages of 70 and 90, medical expenses for the elderly increase more than twofold. An American who reaches her 90s will command more than $25,000 per year on average in care costs, much of that going to nursing homes. While there's little debate that the enormous burden of aging is a hallmark of our time, it's mainly regarded as an inevitability by most people and by uber-cautious federal agencies that fund research and green-light drugs. People Unlimited may represent the outer reaches of optimism around age reversal, but it's "1,000 times closer to perfection" than the contrary: a perverse acceptance of a tragic status quo, said Aubrey de Grey. The pot-stirring English gerontologist credits himself with shifting the conversation around aging in the 90s, from slowing aging to actually reversing it. "When people say, 'Death gives meaning to life.' I mean. What. The. Fuck. What is that supposed to mean - you want your mother to get Alzheimer's?" De Grey is baffled by "the desperation to come up with fucked up crazy reasons to pretend that aging is some kind of blessing in disguise."


I wonder if they give our press kits at this conference? Or if Aubrey should just have some press kits or USB thumb drive press kits to give out when some fairly clueless journalists like those from Vice ask him for a sound bite?

Posted by: Jim at December 7th, 2018 1:42 AM

I think the one to blame here is not the VICE guy but RAAD-fest itself. Before expecting lay journalists - and by the way, they are needed too and this one didn't do a bad job - to separate the wheat from the chaff, the community should start policing itself.

Posted by: Barbara T. at December 8th, 2018 8:17 AM

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