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.
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.