Actually, We Really Do Need to Keep Talking About Radical Life Extension as the Primary Goal of Research and Industry

There is a faction within the research and development community who feel that we shouldn't talk about ambitious goals when it comes to human rejuvenation and adding many years to human life spans. They think that the best strategy is to focus on very incremental, modest goals in the treatment of aging. At the present time, that really means calorie restriction mimetic drugs and the like, approaches that are unlikely to be capable of outperforming the effects of good lifestyle choices. This seems like an extension of the old, bad days, in which researchers refused to talk about intervening in the aging process at all. It is optimizing for the ability to raise funds via grant and venture capital, while throwing away any hope of actually achieving meaningful goals. It is a willful relinquishment of the possible.

It is disappointing to see figures with a soapbox, such as Celine Halioua, part of Laura Deming's network, taking this easier road to what will likely be a wasted career, focused on technologies that will have little impact on human life span. That may seem a harsh judgement, but it has to be said. I'm singling out Halioua here only because she caught my attention on this topic today; there are plenty of other people I could point out who are set on a similar path, and with louder rhetoric. The coming decade is a crossroads, at which we collectively vote on whether the longevity industry will turn out to be largely supplement sellers, mTOR inhibitor developers, other metabolic manipulation of stress response mechanisms, and the like, all doing very little to affect longevity, or whether it will be senolytics to clear senescent cells and other SENS-like approaches to damage repair that will produce actual rejuvenation with the chance at adding decades to human life spans at the end of the day. This seems to me an important choice.

It is not hard to predict what will happen in a world in which the only discussions related to the treatment of aging focus on how to very modestly slow the aging process. It is not hard to see what the outcome will be in a world in which the rhetoric on aging is that it is brave and bold to produce technologies that can perform only a fraction as well as the practice of calorie restriction, which itself adds only a few years at most to human life span. The outcome will be that we will all die on much the same schedule as our parents and grandparents. The outcome will be that we will miss the opportunity to build and engage with biotechnologies capable of achieving far greater and more beneficial outcomes. At the large scale and over timeframes of decades, the industries of the world build the visions that are discussed most broadly, not the visions that go unspoken.

What the aging field needs

"I think the most controversial opinion I have from an aging standpoint, and something I'm pretty loud about, is that I think we have moved past the time where this 'immortality,' '1000 year old human,' even '150 year old human' narrative is helpful to the field," Celine Halioua told us. "The idea of an aging drug is completely non-controversial - it's basically a statin for every age related disease - it's a preventative mechanism for the worst diseases that we have. And that fits perfectly with standard pharma really, but it's not seen that way.

"We now have a lot of preclinical, research stage, things that have showed efficacy in non-human models, so we need to quickly develop some subset of them and show if they work or not. And this is really a time when you need to have strategic conservatism. There are set boundaries - you have to deal with regulatory agencies, the FDA, insurance payers, pharma, and you have to raise very sizable funding from people who are going to be turned away by these 1,000 year lifespan claims. And so I'm quite loud about that, because I think it's a trend I see in the aging field where people repeat these things over and over again, and I think it actually pulls back the field."

Halioua feels there's an argument to be made - and it's one with which she agrees - that the audacity of big statements were really critical in the 80s and 90s "when nobody was thinking about this field and nobody was paying attention. But I think we've moved past that time, so that's one of the big things that I want to talk about, and a key driver behind the article."

Taking about longevity and encouraging discussion promotes interest in the field and current research, of course, but as with all opinions, there are assenters and dissenters. "I think I definitely annoyed some people with the strategic conservatism thing. But debate is good - intelligent, data-based debate on these things is only a positive for the field. I'm 100% okay with being proven wrong on any and all of these points. My thesis on writing and putting stuff out there about aging is, if nothing else, it may incite somebody who has a better opinion or more informed opinion to then counter me, and then that gets published, so it really can't hurt."