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The Third Rail

It's amazing how tied up in knots a researcher can get proclaiming to everyone that he's not trying to find a cure for aging. In an effort at "damage control," mitochondrial researcher Rafal Smigrodzki had this to say after a New Scientist article was a little too enthusiastic about his work.

The [New Scientist] article might give the impression that the applications of protofection as a treatment of aging might be imminent - but, as I was at pains to explain to the reporter [Bob Holmes], Gencia corporation is going to use the technique first in classical mitochondrial diseases, and we are definitely not in the business of making a cure for aging. A "gleam in our eye" means that if (and that's a big if) things work out well with classical mitochondrial disease, then maybe in ten or fifteen years it could lead to wider applications, in the treatment of the mitochondrial aspects of some age-related conditions.

"The cure for aging" is the instant-death third rail of grantsmanship and we stay away from it.

There are some points to take away from Smigrodzki's defensiveness and his admission that "grantsmanship" is involved:

  • Reporters (and, let's be fair, bloggers like us) tend to be more enthusiastic about scientific/medical advances than the scientist(s) responsible. This doesn't necessarily make the reporter wrong.

    The career of a print journalist depends on readership. Had Bob Holmes written a dry article about incremental advances in the treatment of mitochondrial disease, few readers would have waded through it. If he did that often enough he'd probably find himself looking for a new job.

  • But scientists have to constantly guard their reputations. Any hint of flakiness affects a scientist's ability to get all-important grant money or be published in the best journals. Aubrey de Grey is in the awkward position of having to offer prizes to get gerontologists to try to prove him wrong. Clearly he'd have an easier time finding peer review if he was describing a new species of slime mold.

    The truth about whether Smigrodzki's work could ultimately result in a life extension treatment is probably somewhere between what he'll admit to and what the reporter has hyped. Aubrey de Grey (and others) have identified mitochondrial mutations as one of the problems that cause aging. Any advancement in methods to address mitochondrial mutations could advance our ability to treat aging on down the road.

  • In one way it doesn't matter that "Gencia corporation is...not in the business of making a cure for aging." History is full of scientists and inventors who contributed more than they realized (or admitted to) at the time.

    This idea - that progress in life extension science continues regardless of its description - is part of the reasoning behind my prediction that we will have some form of life extension by 2014. Perhaps I should modify this prediction to say that it will be an off-label treatment - something gerontologists know extends life, but won't publicly admit extends life.

  • But acceptance of life extension as a real science does matter. Imagine a world where, after the Wright brothers flew, scientists announced that the data from Kitty Hawk was just an interesting anomaly - that heavier-than-air flight was still considered impossible.

    Of course air shows would quickly make those scientists look foolish. But consider how long we'd have to wait to get the equivalent of an air show for life extension. For years there would be nothing as dramatic as a barrel roll. Just some test subjects that seem to be staying healthy - with millions of the rest of us dying in the interim.

    This is part of the thinking behind the Methuseleh Mouse Prize. A mouse is not a human, but its more than the C. Elegans worm. If we get conclusive proof that some aspects of aging can be cured in a mouse (and mice with their short lifespans would give us this proof relatively quickly), people - including scientists - would "get it." The implication for humans will be too strong to ignore.

    Then we'll see researchers go to great lengths explaining how their research is related to a cure for aging.

Comments

The person who is doing breakthrough research in this field is Cynthia J. Kenyon. I believe she will receive a Nobel Prize for her work.

I attended this conference and heard her speak.

http://www.gustavus.edu/events/nobel/2004/html/?pr=kenyon&l=one

Do a google on her name and you will agree with me.

I agree that Cynthia Kenyon's work is extremely important for this field. I mentioned her here.

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