By Elena Milova

One of the most frequent questions we get from the general public is when will rejuvenation therapies arrive? Whilst young people can wait for a few more decades, those in middle age are much more concerned. According to statistics, new drug/therapy development takes 17 years on average, but the countdown only begins at the moment when the underlying mechanisms are investigated well enough – which cannot be said about the mechanisms of aging. We have made great progress in understanding aging in the last decade thanks to the march of technology.

One solution to an aging process is entering human clinical trials this year: a therapy to remove aged damaged cells to promote tissue repair and reduce chronic inflammation. This is of course fantastic news but progress is still too slow.

So what is holding back the pace of the research on aging and what we can do to foster progress?

Research on aging began a long time ago. Back in 1900s the pioneer immunologist Elie Metchnikoff, vice-president of Pasteur Institute in Paris, wrote: “Aging is a disease and it should be treated like any other”. His work helped to shape interest in aging as a manageable problem. The first attempts to extend healthy life in animals by evidence-based medical means were undertaken in the middle of the 20th century. The most remarkable progress however has been made in the last 20 years, when the field of genetics finally blossomed. But the solutions that might prevent or significantly postpone age-related diseases are not available yet. Some might think it was a conspiracy, but there is actually a much more simple explanation: there are many factors that are holding back progress. These bottlenecks are not easy to address, they are surprisingly persistent, and they are the main reason we are still suffering from age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes type 2, stroke, cancer and osteoarthritis. Here is what academia and the various advocacy groups have suggested, when asked about these bottlenecks.

Lack of support for early stage studies on the aging processes and potential ways to address them

We have made huge strides in the last decade or so and we know a great deal about the processes and damages aging causes, but sadly this does not mean we know enough. There is much more to be learned in order to develop effective interventions and therapies to address these processes, and this is where basic science comes in. These types of studies are high-risk ones, they are intended to find out what works and what doesn’t, so some negative results are unavoidable.

Even if a scientific group is lucky enough to get a positive result, these studies are usually done in cells or in animals – and never in humans. There is no final product one can start selling after the study, which is why business is not very keen to fund this type of research: technically, this is a donation, not an investment. Here is the dilemma: the knowledge created in these studies is crucial for us to progress to the drug development stage, but there are not many people who aspire to become philanthropists and save the day for the whole of humanity, and of course for themselves.

Solution: Educating people regarding the role of basic science in drug development and how it affects the timescale

The countdown to accessible therapies against aging will not start unless each mechanism of aging is well understood. If all of them were understood right now, you would still need to wait for another 17 years to get a full range of therapies against aging. If you add 17 years to your current age and don’t like the resulting number and its relation to the onset of age-related diseases, then ask yourself this, is supporting basic research on aging now in your interest? You may not be very excited about life extension in mice, but remember, no results in mice equals to no translation to humans.

Normally it is the government who finances basic science, but breakthrough projects have less chance to get support

It is true the government funds research institutions and awards research grants. But the idea of preventing age-related diseases by addressing its underlying mechanisms is relatively new. There are not many experts among the decision makers in the grant system who can assess the breakthrough projects aimed at the hallmarks of aging and truly understand their potential. This is why these kinds of projects have less support from the government than the mainstream studies of a single disease like Alzheimer’s or cancer. At LEAF we know this for a fact, because the researchers of aging are actually complaining about this barrier. Without appreciation from the government and support from business, the field of aging research can only rely on one funding source: the general public.

Solution: Crowdfunding

In the case of government funding, the money goes from the taxpayer to the government treasury, where its future allocation is decided, and then to specific research institutions whose plan of research falls within the mainstream priorities. This makes it very hard for our community to influence the direction of research, which is a serious limitation indeed. Crowdfunding does not have this limitation, because it allows the public to connect with the researchers directly and support only the projects they believe are important.

The amount of money collected during a crowdfunding campaign can be as much as a government grant (often even bigger), plus there is no need for the excessive paperwork typical for a government  grant. This means that the researchers can focus on what they do best of all: their studies. At the end of the day, the question is simple: do you trust government officials more than researchers to identify a problem and actually develop a solution? We put our trust in the people who have dedicated their lives to bringing the aging processes under medical control to treat age-related diseases and make us healthy. This is why we have created Lifespan.io.

The number of ardent supporters of aging and longevity studies is relatively small due to the slow dissemination of information from scientists to the public

Most people still believe there is nothing we can do about biological aging, and so they see these studies as researchers simply feeding their scientific curiosity. Education regarding the plausibility and desirability to defeat aging takes time, patience and a lot of effort. It cannot be done by the scientists themselves (as their job is to work in the lab, not to make shows), and here is where advocacy groups and science popularizers should step in. However, people tend to forget that the best results can only be achieved if a group is well-organized, disciplined and uses evidence-based practices in all activities, from planning and management to crowdfunding, educating and lobbying. Steady progress requires a mindful and responsible approach from each person joining an advocacy group – which is sadly rarely seen.

Solution: To implement best practices as much as possible

There is a significant amount of evidence accumulated to support each kind of activity of an advocacy group. Reading books like “Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change”, “Crucial Conversations”, “Getting things done”, “Tribal Leadership”, books on fundraising, marketing, public speaking, lobbying could significantly improve the promotion results. Science is equally as helpful in advocacy as it is in drug development, so let’s rely on it more. We cannot afford inefficiency or unreasonable delays: we are aging and so are the people we love.

If it is not the lack of hard-working activists that is holding the progress back, then it is wrong messaging

Many members of our community prefer to profess their desire for indefinite lifespans directly, shocking the public and making the whole movement appear to consist of radicals, daydreamers and windbags. There are a number of sociological studies (see the list of suggested reading below) that show just how important it is to properly explain the connection between aging and age-related diseases, and the causal relationship between aging prevention, health improvement and longevity – longevity being a side-effect of better health.

Being patient and addressing concerns people may have in relation to longer lives (like overpopulation, unequal access, boredom and others) is another important job which is rarely done properly, with enough supporting data to hand. Despite the fact that most of the sociological studies on public attitudes regarding life extension are available to read and have even been summarised by different members of the community, many people still refuse to explain the basics, or insist on using counterproductive radical messages, provoking additional skepticism and closing doors that would otherwise be open.

Solution: Get properly prepared

Before starting a conversation with someone who is not familiar with the idea of healthy life extension, it would be useful to take a look at the existing data regarding how to make such conversation productive. Do we want the result (more people sharing our views and more people supporting research on aging) or are we only after an entertaining good old fight? Of course, preparation can take time, you will need to read at least several papers by researchers like Brad Partridge, Mair Underwood, Nick Dragojlovic and their colleagues and get familiar with some demographic and economic data.

But consider this, after you learn the best moves you will become an effective advocate whose direct and indirect impact can help to bring thousands of dollars to the most valuable research projects, and help defeat age-related diseases forever. A few months of learning is a small cost for the opportunity to help get rejuvenation therapies developed sooner. We believe so, at least – this is why we are always learning and improving. 

Conclusion

Sometimes people ask me “how have you at LEAF got that far in what you are doing?” Well, it is not because we are more talented or smarter or have more connections than an average longevity supporter. We all started from scratch, we all passed the stage of ignorance and fallacies. We are where we are, because we believe that a serious problem like aging deserves a serious approach, and because we are seeking, finding and implementing best practices to help us be more productive.

We are incredibly grateful to all the people who have worked hard (and keep working) to pave the way for us by creating these tools, testing different approaches, doing surveys and studies that have assisted our decision making. Yes, full medical control over aging is still probably decades away, but each study, each new book, each expert discussion that takes place is a step forward. The list of aging researchers includes thousands of names. Looking at how much has already been done by these like-minded people makes us believe in humanity and believe that no matter how complex the problem of aging is, we can solve it together. The sooner the better.

Acknowledgements Special thanks to Danila Medvedev and Valerija Pride, the leaders of Russian Transhumanist Movement and directors of Russian cryocompany KrioRus, for sharing their wisdom and giving me invaluable advices related to project management and promotion of breakthrough ideas.  

Suggested reading

Partridge, B., Lucke, J., Bartlett, H., & Hall, W. (2009). Ethical, social, and personal implications of extended human lifespan identified by members of the public. Rejuvenation research, 12(5), 351-357.
Partridge, B., Underwood, M., Lucke, J., Bartlett, H., & Hall, W. (2009). Ethical concerns in the community about technologies to extend human life span. The American Journal of Bioethics, 9(12), 68-76.
Underwood, M. (2014). What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals.Rejuvenation research, 17(2), 105-115.
Donner, Y., Fortney, K., Calimport, S. R., Pfleger, K., Shah, M., & Betts-LaCroix, J. (2015). Great desire for extended life and health amongst the American public. Frontiers in genetics, 6.
Dragojlovic, N. (2013). Canadians’ support for radical life extension resulting from advances in regenerative medicine. Journal of aging studies, 27(2), 151-158.