Over the last century, scientific and social progress has advanced human longevity substantially. From the mid-19th century to now, lifespans have effectively doubled in most developed nations. Much of this can be attributed to improved sanitation and vaccines in addition to medications treating diseases. But when it comes to longevity and lifespan, there’s more to it than that. Growing older should not only be about a number but about quality of life and productivity as well. This is where the current focus of anti-aging science is moving, and it’s one that could be quite lucrative. But at present, a lack of adequate funding for aging research appears to be a rate-limiting step.
Only recently has there been a shift in anti-aging science away from a lifespan model to one involving healthspan. Researchers have increasingly begun to explore medications and behaviors that can proactively delay the aging process. Unlike most scientific inquiry, these individuals are less concerned about treating a current disease. Instead, their intentions are to learn how to prevent these illnesses in the first place through anti-aging strategies. Notably, there have been challenges associated with this shift with funding for aging research being most noteworthy. However, solutions look to be emerging from a handful of wealthy investors that could completely change our approach to aging. In fact, these events might eventually change our entire approach to health and healthcare overall.
“We are done with hope and promise [about anti-aging strategies]. We are at the point between having promise and realizing it.” Nir Barzilai, Director of the Institute for Aging Research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
New Discoveries in Anti-Aging Science
In the past, the approach that scientists took when it came to aging was more of a passive approach. Getting older was simply something that happens, and as cells age, disease becomes more likely. While this concept has some validity, this general perspective undermines the potential for anti-aging science and discovery. Fortunately, not all scientists embraced such a point of view, and as a result, new opportunities are appearing. Potential therapies and treatments have shown promise in laboratory animals with some delaying aging by 20-30%. But research has remained limited to non-human subjects because of the paucity of funding for aging research.
In essence, there appears to be three key areas where anti-aging science has discovered potential interventions. Studies have now shown that administering rejuvenation factors to cells can turn back cellular clocks. Rather than behaving like senescent cells, they adopt a more youthful pattern of functioning. Likewise, substances that get rid of senescent cells instead of allowing them to hang around also seems to slow aging. And lastly, scientists have also begun to explore preventative drugs that look to preserve cell function for longer periods of time. If funding for aging research advances, these are key areas that require deeper exploration. These proactive measures are not only believed to increase longevity but also expand health and wellness.
“The biggest risk factor of all diseases is aging: It is not cholesterol or smoking, it is your age.” – Eric Verdin, Chief Executive of the Buck Institute for Research and Aging
Barriers to Funding for Aging Research
Given the potential with anti-aging science, one might assume funding for aging research would be easy to attain. But that’s not the case for several reasons. In terms of private investors, most want short-term gains and results instead of long-term potential. Given that the effects on aging can take time to appreciate, many studies do not provide immediate feedback. And without clear biomarkers to show anti-aging effects, recruiting investors can be difficult. At the same time, some of the drugs being tested as preventatives are older drugs that no longer have patents. This limits profitability potential of any anti-aging science experiments, again deterring investors.
In addition to private investors, governments also often providing funding for aging research. But here too, the amounts provided are well short of the figures needed to conduct broad-scale aging studies. When it comes to government research funds, there is tremendous pressure to support studies treating actual diseases. Aging is not a disease, and therefore, it is difficult to persuade officials to release funds accordingly. Since the inception of western healthcare, the focus of research and treatment has been on existing diseases instead of prevention. Anti-aging science falls into the latter category, and therefore, access to government funding remains limited. Until aging is perceived in new ways, this will continue to be a challenge.
“If this works, it doesn’t matter if we’ve waited. If you cure disease in my business, you are going to make money.” – Robert Nelsen, Co-founder, Arch Venture Partners
Pioneers in the Anti-Aging Field
Despite the challenges related to funding for aging research, hope does exist. A handful of investors and venture capitalists see the potential of anti-aging science. And as a result, they are supporting several endeavors in major ways. Some of the most well-known investors include names like Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Others include Israeli entrepreneur Yuri Milner and the Saudi royal family. Through such endowments, companies like Altos Labs, Calico Life Sciences, and the Hevolution Foundation are gaining momentum. Thus, though small in number, some anti-aging science efforts are moving ahead.
Unlike routine research in anti-aging science, funding for aging research tends to demand higher amounts. The investors noted above are supporting studies with billions of dollars. But this research is also taking a different approach when compared to traditional pharmaceutical studies. The few companies with the largest resources have structured a more collaborative model that tackles the biggest issues with aging. Rather than focusing on a specific illness or funding a specific lab, researchers work together in a spirit of discovery. It is this type of model that offers the greatest hope for anti-aging innovations since it is more prevention-focused. Time will tell whether these pursuits are worthwhile. But for those in the field, they believe anti-aging breakthroughs are truly around the corner. Once interventions can prove their worth in lifespan and health, that’s when investing attitudes in anti-aging science will really change.