In this article, the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation volunteers offer thoughts on the middle road for expectations regarding the near future of research and development in longevity science. There are all too many people who are either overly pessimistic or overly optimistic. While it is true that the optimists of today are not in the same terrible position as the optimists of the last generation, who completely misjudged the scope of what was possible via pharmaceutical approaches to aging, it is still the case that a great deal must be accomplished in order to bring effective rejuvenation biotechnologies to the clinic. There is too little funding for many of the necessary areas of work based on the SENS vision of damage repair, and even in very well-supported and active fields such as cancer and stem cell research, comparatively little effort goes towards the most effective approaches. So while we can look back at considerable progress made in past years towards the realization of SENS-like rejuvenation therapies, and the clinical development of the first line of such therapies in the form of senolytics is forging ahead, the work has in many ways only just started.
In the last year or so we have seen remarkable progress with a number of interventions that target the aging processes to prevent and treat age-related diseases. There is plenty to be excited about, and with all this good news recently it is tempting to become overly optimistic. I have seen a significant number of people suggest that everything will be fine now, because the first technologies are starting to arrive in the repair based approach to aging, but this is a dangerous mindset to fall into. We should not think we are close to bringing the aging processes under medical control. The metabolism of the human body is a highly complex interconnected machine and anyone with an understanding of biology understands that controlling this complexity is likely the work of decades if not longer. However, there is an approach that seeks to sidestep this complexity – rejuvenation biotechnology.
Rejuvenation biotechnology is a multi-disciplinary field of science whose aim is the prevention and reversal of age-related diseases by targeting the aging processes that cause them. This is a dramatic deviation from traditional medicine and in particular geriatrics which aims to treat the consequences, often by attempting to tweak metabolism far downstream from the actual root causes, rather than prevent it happening in the first place by focusing on where the damage begins. This traditional approach of treating the symptoms and not the cause is an approach doomed to fail, and considering people continue to die from age-related diseases it is time to admit that this approach has been a spectacular failure. Repairing the underlying damage, whilst itself not trivial, is considerably less complex than attempting to tweak metabolism or treating the consequences as traditional geriatrics does. Regardless of how you categorize the damages of aging, be it the seven damages model of SENS or the Hallmarks of Aging model, they are much the same and both advocate the repair approach to aging. The damage repair approach is becoming a realistic goal in the next couple of decades and that is very good news indeed.
Some parts of the damage repair approach are now far advanced and enjoying a great deal of attention and hype in the media. But there are a number of approaches to damage that are yet to reach this level of attention. Because aging comprises of a number of interlinked but distinct processes, addressing only one or two of them is unlikely to yield significant increases in healthy lifespan. This is confirmed in rodent experiments where a single damage has been addressed. We see increased lifespans as a result of addressing these hallmarks of aging and a delay of age-related diseases, which is the aim of rejuvenation biotechnology. And yet, these animals ultimately still die of the age-related damages that are not being addressed. Believing that addressing just one form of damage will make a dramatic difference puts us in serious danger of becoming overly optimistic and thus complacent. Quite simply, there are no magic bullets.
At the risk of stating the completely obvious: we should be focusing the greatest efforts now on the areas where progress is the least advanced. We need to help these approaches that are lagging behind catch up with the rest that are more advanced. Areas like crosslink breaking, mitochondrial gene transfer and the destruction of misfolded proteins are all areas that are in need of support. As it stands these and other critical research areas that are needed to realize full medical control of the aging processes to address age-related diseases are yet to reach a proof-of-concept stage. That leaves the basic science and early-stage development of these technologies entirely in the hands of philanthropy.