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Life Extension and Anti-Aging Have a Branding Problem

Cellular rejuvenation companies don't want to be called "anti-aging".

Oil of SnakeOil of Snake
 

It seems bizarre that in 2022, some biotech companies interested in doing something about aging are still saying that they are not. Cellular rejuvenation seems to be the latest buzzword and an attempt to rebrand and escape the stigma of anti-aging.

Genentech is another cellular rejuvenation company

Recently, researchers at the Salk Institute, in collaboration with Genentech, showed that they can safely and effectively reverse aging in old mice by resetting their cells to a more youthful state using Yamanaka factors.

Genentech, a large Roche subsidiary biotech company, is focusing on cellular rejuvenation using partial cellular reprogramming. It could be set to become a future rival of Altos Labs.

Earlier this year, Altos Labs made its debut, bringing $3 billion in funds and an impressive roster of researchers to focus on cellular reprogramming. Despite media suggestions that it is a longevity or anti-aging company, Altos is adamant that it is not.

Instead, Altos has positioned itself as a cellular rejuvenation reprogramming company. Genentech also looks like it might follow a similar path and double down on the cellular rejuvenation angle, avoiding coming out and saying that it is an anti-aging or longevity company. Given that both companies are working on cellular rejuvenation, which is very much relevant to aging, it might seem somewhat strange for them to claim to be uninvolved in it.

Why are they doing this? It’s because life extension and anti-aging have a branding problem. There are a few reasons why.

Rebranding to get through clinical trials

Some companies are sidestepping the whole issue by simply going after diseases without drawing focus on the age reversal aspect of what they are doing. The FDA is not going to approve a trial to “reverse aging”, so the logical step for a number of companies is to instead focus on a particular disease and aim to demonstrate disease modification. The FDA is unlikely to take issue with age reversal or rejuvenation technology if it is demonstrably effective against a specific age-related disease. This is why an increasing number of companies are taking this route to get through clinical trials. Once approved the idea would be that off label use would occur.

Overpromising and underdelivering

The life extension community unfortunately does have a reputation for being long on promises and short on delivery. With what is now decades of research, there are still no effective therapies against aging.

Of course, science takes time, and a lot of progress is being made in our fundamental understanding of aging as well as the steady slog to translate the research from animals to humans. However, public perception is based on results, and so far, nothing has turned back aging enough in people to grab public attention.

This is also not helped by otherwise earnest researchers in our community sometimes fueling hype and exaggerating the impact of their current research. While it is perfectly understandable to be excited about one’s own research, some researchers do sometimes make claims that go beyond the data.

This is likely due to their hopes of attracting funding and grants, but it can be harmful to the image of the field when the hype does not meet the reality.

Snake oil salesmen are a problem in the life extension community

Another factor that is likely playing a part in this rebranding is the sad fact that our field is filled with snake oil salesmen out to make a quick buck.

Alongside the legitimate researchers doing fine scientific work in the lab, there are also plenty of hucksters hiding in the community. These people prey on people who lack the knowledge to discern credible science from pseudoscience and peddle worthless products, much like the snake oil salesmen of the Old West.

One example is a “biotech company” evading the FDA by setting up shop in a country with few or no regulations. This sort of company makes bold claims yet never delivers on those claims in practice, using poorly designed experiments and tiny cohorts that are statistically irrelevant.

Worse, such a company might not even attempt to publish data in credible scientific journals, instead choosing to make bold claims on personal websites and publishing dubious data that has not gone through peer review. This sort of company sometimes offers treatments in areas with little or nonexistent regulations. Its customers are gambling with their lives in the hope that whatever the company is offering is as described and actually works as intended; they could be receiving a fake, saline injection or something worse.

Another example is a supplement peddler who sells expensive supplement blends with flashy names, which, on inspection, turn out to be commonly available herbs and minerals that are mixed and sold at a high mark-up with questionable or no supporting data. These sorts of people have plagued our community and given the field a reputation for snake oil. Therefore, it is no surprise that these new, well-funded companies working on cellular rejuvenation want nothing to do with it.

What can we, as a community, do to help address the image problem?

It will take a group effort to clean up the perception of our field to hopefully make these new companies more comfortable in associating with it. There are a few things that each of us can do to help.

Stop drinking the Kool-Aid, and learn to evaluate scientific claims

While it will be some years yet before a comprehensive suite of therapies to end age-related diseases is here and available, and the hucksters are peddling their wares right now, you can arm yourself with knowledge and protect yourself and our community from these people. Learn to evaluate science rather than taking things at face value, and avoid expensive scams and bad science.

Here are some useful questions to consider when reading an article, looking at claims made by supplement makers, or evaluating any science in general.

Was the claim first announced through mass media or through scientific channels? 

Legitimate claims will undergo peer review first. Shady companies not backing up their claims with published data are a dime a dozen; do not be fooled by them. Also, pay attention to the source of the news; press releases, associated companies, and obscure websites are poor sources. The bottom line is that any company making claims about its product should be able to back those claims up with published research in a respected journal.

Are the claimants transparent about their testing, and is there sufficient published data for reproduction?

Credible research is generally published in credible, peer-reviewed journals with transparent and clear details of experiments so that others may attempt to replicate their results. When evaluating a claim, always see if it is published and if anyone else has successfully, independently replicated the results. Also, ensure that any independent results are indeed independent and that there is no link between the original group and the study replicating the results.

A properly developed technology will take years of development to reach release; is there a clear paper trail of studies and clinical trials supporting it?

Similar to the above; a company or research team worth its salt will have a trail of evidence documenting research and development efforts that likely go back for years or even decades. If a company appeared from nowhere and has no historical record of its research, this is a huge red flag.

How good is the quality of data supporting the claim, and is it of statistical significance?

Learn to evaluate how statistically significant results are. Did a test involve a single mouse or a person, or did it involve hundreds or even thousands of test subjects to reach its conclusion? The smaller the study, the higher the statistical noise and the greater the effect that outliers can have on the average. Large test groups offer the most stable and accurate data, and small, single-patient studies are, for the most part, not useful.

Beware a company that tests on a single candidate and claims that a supplement or therapy works. A credible company may start with a small pilot study but ultimately expands into larger-scale studies in order to prove safety and efficacy.

Are the claimants reputable, and are they published in credible journals?

Investigate and check their academic pedigrees. Having a Ph.D. is not required to conduct great science, but, in general, a researcher of any worth will have peer-reviewed publications with lots of citations and a good reputation in academia.

Where does the study funding come from?

Even when there is published data, make sure you find out where the funding comes from. Studies on a patented supplement that are funded by the patent holder are a serious red flag and should be viewed with extreme caution.

Do the claimants state that their claim is being suppressed by authorities? Big Pharma? The government?

Claims of being suppressed or somehow blocked by the government or other entities is a common tactic used by scammers. A scammer might claim to be a misunderstood researcher who just wants to help, and a supplement maker in trouble with the FDA for making false claims might say that it is simply being misinterpreted. This is base trickery; don’t fall for it.

Does the claim sound far-fetched?

If it sounds too good to be true, then the chances are that it probably is. Credible science is always appropriately cautious and never overly affirmative; if someone is way too positive, this is a red flag.

Is the claim said to be based on ancient knowledge?

The ‘appeal to the ancients’ logical fallacy is commonly used to convince and part people from their money. “The ancients used certain supplements, so they must work” is a common tactic used to sell things. The truth is that while our ancestors were indeed clever and creative in many ways, not all their ideas were wise; indeed, many of the things they believed were dead wrong and even dangerous. This is a commonly used tactic in the supplement and diet industries.

Is the claim said to be “natural” as a selling point?

This is the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy, another common sales tactic that takes advantage of the biases we as humans have and our inclination to think that everything natural is good. A quick review shows us that what is natural is not always a good thing: tidal waves, earthquakes, venomous snakes, diseases, and aging are all natural, but they are most certainly not desirable.

This is, of course, only a short checklist of things to watch out for; if a claim raises these flags, then it’s a good idea to be highly dubious about its credibility.

Conclusion

The snake oilers will be with us for quite a while, but by working together as a community and thinking critically about claims, we can help filter these people out and ultimately clean up the field for the benefit of legitimate scientists working on the real solutions to aging that will benefit us all.

Another consideration is that as more therapies enter clinical trials and high-quality data arrives, the hucksters will be steadily ousted. Ultimately, once therapies that have passed through the proper trial process arrive, most people will not wish to risk their health and money on hucksters.

The reputation of the field has improved massively in the last decade, but there is much that we can all do to improve it further.

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About the author

Steve Hill

Steve serves on the LEAF Board of Directors and is the Editor in Chief, coordinating the daily news articles and social media content of the organization. He is an active journalist in the aging research and biotechnology field and has to date written over 600 articles on the topic, interviewed over 100 of the leading researchers in the field, hosted livestream events focused on aging, as well as attending various medical industry conferences. His work has been featured in H+ magazine, Psychology Today, Singularity Weblog, Standpoint Magazine, Swiss Monthly, Keep me Prime, and New Economy Magazine. Steve is one of three recipients of the 2020 H+ Innovator Award and shares this honour with Mirko Ranieri – Google AR and Dinorah Delfin – Immortalists Magazine. The H+ Innovator Award looks into our community and acknowledges ideas and projects that encourage social change, achieve scientific accomplishments, technological advances, philosophical and intellectual visions, author unique narratives, build fascinating artistic ventures, and develop products that bridge gaps and help us to achieve transhumanist goals. Steve has a background in project management and administration which has helped him to build a united team for effective fundraising and content creation, while his additional knowledge of biology and statistical data analysis allows him to carefully assess and coordinate the scientific groups involved in the project.
  1. Ekaterina Valinakova
    March 30, 2022

    Great article. The over promising aspect in science reporting is very pervasive. Example is caloric restriction extending lifespan of small animals by 30%. Often these articles make it appear that a person can extend their lifespan from 85 to 115, but in reality, the benefits of caloric restrictions for humans is far less.

  2. Craig Weaver
    March 31, 2022

    Science is definitely handy… until it is co-opted for the sake of income. The fundamental credibility of cancer research has for 40 years, overpromised, with new potential cures reported regularly on the 6.oo o’clock news of all the mainstream networks, only to under deliver time and again. What is bothersome is the reality of research scientists, needing research to continue. Cures are terrible for employment… I struggle with the potential for suppression and corruption that creates.

  3. peter88888888
    March 31, 2022

    Branding might be part of it, but an impression I’ve had for a while is that the main reason many longevity companies dont brand themselves as such is likely regulatory – doing clinical trials for aging itself is very expensive and time consuming. Treating or reversing age related diseases is a good surrogate, and can be done faster. Many biotechs are even saying this openly.

  4. jtep444
    April 1, 2022

    I normally very much like the Lifespan.io (and Steve Hill’s) articles, but this one frankly comes through a little weak and disjointed

    To blame anti-aging’s branding issues on dietary supplements and medical tourism, two hundred billion $$$ business segments in 2022 now dominated by both huge FMCG players (some units of big pharma, developing the same products with the same old structure function claims) and major international hospital systems (God forbid anyone gets treated in India or China…), is “off” by a couple decades – all these groups will be instrumental in the future of this global anti-aging story

    Also, as some 4+ billion people around the globe have take over 11+ billion shots of experimental mRNA biologics, with minimal peer-review and long term safety evidence, so I don’t think the idea of groups working a bit “outside traditional clinical model” scares too many people nowadays when seeking alternatives

    In a 2022 world I think you really need to re-focus your thesis more on the “ivy league ivory tower” PhD types, like the David Sinclair’s, who fit your gold standard model perfectly, yet refuse to engage in scientific debate about their own dubious work, sit behind bullet proof podcasts to woo their acolytes, all while touting an endless array of junk to the public

    There may be other real reasons for this branding problem….

  5. mkhaidakov
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