Members of the longevity community often believe that the main reason why there is no significant public support for aging research is a “pro-aging trance”. In reality, it has more to do with a lack of public education and media coverage of aging research.
We enjoy communicating with people, and we do it quite a lot. Our social media team answers questions from people around the globe every day. There are several usual topics: people want to know about the general status of a “drug for aging”, are seeking information about the effectiveness and safety of certain supplements, and are trying to figure out who is who in the field of rejuvenation research.
I also look at these questions sometimes. There is one repeating question that always leaves an impression, especially when the person asking it is over 70 years old. “I would like to volunteer for clinical trials of anti-aging interventions. How can I participate?”
I read these sorts of questions with mixed feelings. On one hand, I am happy to see the interest in rejuvenation research. On the other hand, the number of trials of interventions that target the root causes of aging and in which people could indeed participate is small, and it is unlikely that old people who already have several age-related diseases could participate. Therefore, in most cases, I can’t really respond with something reassuring. Senolytics and cell therapies seem the closest to the clinic, but they are not quite ready to deal with aging. Instead of telling people what they want to hear, I end up explaining why supporting newsmakers like us can bring them the “cures for aging” sooner.
Rejuvenation research is aimed at developing treatments that reverse the deterioration of health with age and make people healthy and youthful again. To achieve this ambitious goal, we need to ensure that these treatments actually work and have the effects that we want. The system of preclinical and clinical trials is supposed to filter out treatments with harmful, weak, or non-existent effects and promote the development of promising interventions. As we progress from animal trials and single case studies to pilot trials (on small groups of people) and larger phase 2 and 3 trials, we get valuable information about the reproducibility of the treatment’s effects and how they change with different dosages and regimens.
The most reliable data comes from randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. “Placebo-controlled” means that one group receives the treatment while a control group of comparable age and health receives a placebo. This way, biases coming from psychological effects are prevented. Randomization means that the treatment and the placebo are allocated to people randomly. Double blinding means that neither researchers nor patients know who is actually receiving the treatment. This prevents the unconscious biases of researchers and patients from changing the results. In short, researchers do all sorts of tricks to reduce the mistakes caused by how the human mind works. You would want real rejuvenation, not an imaginary one, right?
The involvement of larger groups of people and more robust procedures of masking the experimental and control groups is what makes each stage of clinical trials progressively more expensive. A preclinical animal experiment can cost a hundred thousand dollars, but a phase 3 human clinical trial, which involves several thousand people, can cost tens or even hundreds of millions. TAME, a recent test of metformin for its healthspan extension effects in healthy older people, is quite illustrative: the researchers had to fundraise around $75 million to conduct a phase 3 clinical trial.
I am telling you this for one reason: Whenever people develop a new therapy and attempt to prove that it indeed has beneficial effects, it is all about money. Where do you think this money comes from?
Behind every new medicine, there is a crowd of people whose resources have been invested in it. However, the idea that aging can be controlled by medical means is new to the public (with the definitive proof-of-concept obtained in animals only about a decade ago), and the support for rejuvenation research is nowhere near the level of, say, cancer research.
In a sociological study conducted by Pew Research in 2013, only 7% of respondents said that they have heard or read a lot about the possibility of extending life with new medical treatments; 38% said that they have heard a little about this possibility, and 54% have heard nothing about significant life extension yet.
However, in 2017, the American Society of Clinical Oncology conducted a survey on the U.S. public’s views on cancer research and care, and it was found that the majority of people are aware of cancer research and its importance for their well-being. Here is the statement from the official announcement of the results:
Among the most surprising results in ASCO’s opinion survey is the overwhelming number of Americans, 91%, who said it is important for the government to dedicate substantial funding for research in the prevention and treatment of cancer, even if it means paying higher taxes or incurring increases in the budget deficit. Majorities of Americans also support changes in public policy that would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with drug manufacturers, 92%; changes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to speed approvals of generic versions of cancer drugs, 89%; regulation on drug pricing to lower cost, 86%; and the purchase of cancer drugs from pharmacies outside the United States, 80%.
91% against 7%! Needless to say, the amount of funding allocated to cancer research exceeds that of rejuvenation research quite significantly.
Lack of funding is what holds back progress the most, it is the main reason why we don’t have “drugs for aging” yet, it is why there are few trials of rejuvenation treatments that I could direct people to, and it stems from lack of public awareness of the matter.
Let’s talk about the process of educating the public and enticing it to ask big charities and the government to address a certain health issue. How is this done? If we look back at the experience of the early cancer patient organizations, it is clear that it was achieved by lots and lots of outreach: organizing public events and conferences, educating officials, making petitions, talking about the problem on mass media, bringing up cases of children suffering from cancer, and having cancer patients and cancer survivors talk about their experiences, pains, and hopes. The War on Cancer is, by any metric, the result of one of the most successful advocacy campaigns in the history of healthcare. That is how you raise awareness of a problem and its potential solutions.
In our very early days, when Lifespan.io’s board was deciding what to do and how to do it, we analyzed lots of various surveys to understand where are we in the process of educating the public. Sadly, we have found that there is still a lot of room for improvement, with only 4% to 7% of people in developed countries such as the USA, Canada, and Australia being aware of the potential that rejuvenation research holds. As access to information is critical for understanding the feasibility of controlling aging by medical means, it is also critical for building more initiatives to advocate for and fund rejuvenation research. We understood that if we wanted it to be funded as abundantly as cancer research, then our best response was to run more outreach initiatives, launch the news outlet, and educate people as fast as we can.
We started from scratch in 2016 with a small set of basic articles and rare coverage of research news. In 2018, we launched our first annual conference on aging in New York City, Ending Age-Related Diseases: Investment Prospects and Advances in Research, to foster scientific communication and to create even more information-dense content.
In only three years, we have produced over a thousand articles and grew into the most trafficked news outlet covering this topic, reaching over 60,000 people every month. Around 50,000 visitors are new people whom we have never talked to before, and among them are philanthropists, potential longevity investors, entrepreneurs who can build new rejuvenation biotech companies, biomedical students who are picking the direction of their career, public health specialists, doctors, people who want to upgrade their healthy lifestyle to a longevity-promoting lifestyle, and people who are seeking more effective ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from age-related diseases. If we keep growing at the present pace, we’ll be able to reach over a million people per year!
Our role is to provide this growing community with up-to-date, well-structured, easy-to-digest, and accurate information in order to help everyone better navigate the field. As we are a non-profit, we could not have done that without the help of our patrons, the Lifespan Heroes, whose monthly donations allow us to pay salaries to our writers, social media managers, and web developers. Whenever you see me giving talks at public events or Steve conducting interviews or reports from a scientific conference, we were able to get there thanks to the generosity of several people. If the quality of our LifeXtenShow educational videos improves, you can be confident that this is because someone’s donation was used to buy the equipment. We could do so much more with a bit more money contributed to what we do!
To us, this is not just a job; it is personal. We all have older relatives who look at us and ask, “How can I join a trial for a longevity intervention?” The questions from members of the public are so familiar and pressing. I am well aware of the life expectancy figures of different countries, and I know what it means to be 70 years old in terms of health risks.
These questions are not only out of curiosity; they are calls for help that we should respond to. Whether for our relatives or total strangers, we want to see more rejuvenation biotech companies formed and “drugs for aging” created as soon as possible. We want to be able to help people join clinical trials, or, better yet, be able to go to a general practitioner and receive proven rejuvenation therapies. We dream of seeing all people healthy, free from the burden of age-related diseases, independent, and enjoying life. We want to stay healthy ourselves, too.
Our way to make that happen is by raising public awareness. You can help us do it faster.