A growing longevity industry is picking up ongoing academic projects in increasing numbers and working towards the clinical availability of therapies to treat aging. Amidst all the light and noise, one of the researchers in the field here asks for us not to overlook the need for more fundamental research. I agree, though I'd say that the most important portion of research not to be overlooked are the projects in the SENS rejuvenation biotechnology portfolio yet to make it to enthusiastic commercial development. To my eyes, the fastest way to find out more about how aging works is to implement and test specific rejuvenation strategies, each of which addresses only a narrow aspect of aging.
João Pedro de Magalhães has dedicated his career to understanding the biological puzzle of aging. With so much focus now being placed on developing new interventions in the longevity field, de Magalhães is concerned that the fundamental research into understanding why we age may be taking more of a back seat. "What you see in the field as a whole is that it's on an upwards trajectory, which makes it very exciting. I remember the first conference I went to in the field of aging, which must have been 20 years ago when I was a PhD student and there were only a couple of companies starting to work on aging. So it's impressive how much the field has grown in the past 20 years - it's really remarkable. Which is really about more and more people recognising aging as something that can be intervened in."
"I think on one hand that this is very exciting. But on the other hand, I also think it shows there has been a shift in the field away from studying mechanisms of aging. I'm not saying everybody's doing this, but, as a field, it's almost like we're giving up on trying to understand why we age and instead focus on the fact that we can manipulate aging in model systems and identifying interventions and therapies and drugs. I'm sure that we're going to develop therapies that work and it will be fantastic, from a health perspective, from a financial perspective and so on. But I also think most of what we're discovering, at the basic science level at the preclinical level is not going to work in humans. So I believe we still have to go after the difficult questions and the difficult problems, such as why we age. Let's go after the high-hanging fruit!"
Illustrating his concern in this area, de Magalhães points to a paper he co-authored with David Gems last year, which criticises the hallmarks of aging. "It's one of the articles I'm most proud of, because, although it may not make everybody happy, it's highlighting this issue, which is, in my view, the hallmarks are an oversimplification. In reality, there's still a lot of work to do to understand the process of aging, which is still very poorly understood. Even though it's not a low hanging fruit, even though it's difficult, we still need to have a better understanding of the mechanistic causes of aging, which, in my view, the hallmarks of aging does not provide."