We recently caught up with Dr. Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae from SENS Research Foundation (SRF) about the landscape in the field. We asked them two simple questions, and they joined forces to give us their combined insights.
Lifespan.io: First, do you think we can defeat aging?
Of course I think we can defeat aging!
Lifespan.io: Second, in the last year, are you more or less optimistic of us doing so and why?
I feel more optimistic after last year. I was really afraid through most of 2020 that the pandemic was really going to set the entire longevity therapeutics space back and that we would not only come out of it weaker but be unable to bounce back in the way that most sectors would do (and some spectacularly).
The epidemic sucked the air (conscious pun) out of almost all other human endeavors, including, for a time, other aspects of biomedicine — and longevity therapeutics was a fragile sector that was only beginning to establish itself.
Certainly, we and others have been endeavoring to hammer home the point that the widely-recognized massive increase in risk of death with age from the disease should not simply be taken as a law of nature, but is *itself* susceptible to medical intervention that could ameliorate or abrogate the age effect, taming COVID and nearly all other infectious disease affecting adults: https://www.sens.org/covid-19-and-aging/
… but as you know, that discussion never really gained traction outside the chorus.
Lifespan.io: To elaborate, there was a significant push from the community to use the link between COVID and aging and risk of infection as a way of propelling the field into the spotlight. Unfortunately, as Michael and Aubrey mention above, this largely fell flat and gained little traction.
We would speculate that one reason it largely failed was the sheer information storm generated by the pandemic, and trying to be heard in that storm was a Herculean task.
There is also the fact that some social media platforms and search engines were actively silencing anyone talking about COVID outside of the channels they considered credible. This was done in order to quell misinformation and conspiracy theories, but legitimate medical news outlets were also caught by the overzealous algorithms employed.
Moreover, obviously, safer-at-home orders — especially in the Bay Area, the most productive ecosystem for on Earth for biotech and especially longevity biotherapeutics, and which not coincidentally had one of the most rigorous and early set of pandemic restrictions in the country — limited scientists’ access to labs and the usual networking activity amongst investors, academic labs, and startup founders.
Lifespan.io: Fortunately, our experience was that thanks to social media, online conferences such as Ending Age-Related Diseases, and virtual calls, many researchers were able to continue exchanging ideas and information.
This is a real testament to the wonderful technological world we live in. Had this pandemic happened 20 years ago, it would have been much more devastating to academia and the flow of scientific information.
On top of that, I feared that the stock market would falter badly and that the recovery of the real economy would be much slower than it has been, all of which might drain donations and investment funds away, and make people more short-term in their thinking.
So I feared that any disruption would leave a lot of companies in the rubble and SRF and other groups in greater obscurity, and make rebuilding very difficult with resources and eyeballs durably directed elsewhere.
Well, happily, I was wrong about nearly everything I just laid out! Our donations are at record levels (and would have been even without this spectacular PulseChain Airdrop, which has raised over $20m for SRF), and I get the impression that Lifespan.io and other groups are also doing well; biotech investing has continued to expand throughout the pandemic, and my impression is that it’s not just directly COVID-related and that rejuvenation biotech in particular has continued to attract investment and receive new spinouts; our scientists and others muddled through and are getting back on base.
Lifespan.io: There has indeed been a rise in investment in rejuvenation biotechnology even during the last year of pandemic. The Longevity Investor Network operated by Lifespan.io has continued to see new companies being created and pitching to an ever-growing network of investors.
Despite the restrictions and the backdrop of the pandemic, support and investment has continued to grow. For example, Michael Greve and his company Kizoo Technology pledged €300 million to rejuvenation in May this year.
Companies such as Elevian secured $15 million in equity financing. The cryptocurrency mogul Vitalik Buterin donated 1000 Etherum to the Methuselah Foundation, and most recently, SRF got over $20m from the PulseChain airdrop.
The science has continued to advance, and the recent approval of Aduhelm potentially opens up a new regulatory pathway for other damage-repair therapies very close to what we had previously advocated — which is very good timing, with so many rejuvenation biotechnology companies advancing.
The miraculously rapid arrival of highly effective vaccines has not only freed us all up but reminded any sensible person of the threat of disease and the power of science.
We have lost some ground on the awareness and interest of the general public and of politicians, but the core of the longevity therapeutics ecosystem is thriving, and as ever, there’s no better way to gain public attention than when actual advances happen.
Things look very, very bright for near-term progress, bringing forward the day when the first longevity therapeutics are solidly proven safe and effective, FDA approved, and accessible to rising numbers of people — which will surely create a virtuous cycle for the progress of longevity therapeutics across the board.
Lifespan.io: We would like to thank Aubrey and Michael for taking the time to give us their impressions about the effects of the pandemic and the state of the research landscape.