Brian Kennedy and Aubrey de Grey on their Converging Approaches to Aging Research

Last week we attended the 2015 Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference where we heard about the latest developments in aging research.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with two of the major figures in the field of aging research, Aubrey de Grey, CSO of the SENS Research Foundation and Brian Kennedy, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Brian and Aubrey have gone about their work in different ways but say that their approaches are now converging as the momentum behind aging research increases.

How do the two see the field since Calico and Human Longevity emerged? What developments in the past year stand out to them? Join us for an exclusive interview with two of the aging field’s visionary leaders.

Gene and Tonic: Sexism in Science, How to Spend an NIH Budget Increase, How Not to Spend It

Janitors have had a terribly busy time this week cleaning up all those jaws that were dropped on floors of research labs everywhere around the country.

Have you heard about this latest sexism scandal?

Two female co-authors of a scientific paper submitted their work to PLOS -- you know, the open access journal.   You won’t believe what they heard back from the lone peer reviewer.  They were told to go find “one or two male biologists” to be co-authors on the paper to increase its chances of being published.

Ouch!!!  That hurts.  Not only the co-authors but the rest of us.

Well, hold on, it gets worse.  This chauvinist reviewer went on to say that “it might well be that on average men publish in better journals . . . perhaps simply because men, perhaps, on average, work more hours per week than women, due to marginally better health and stamina.”

What, a marginal ouch?  Better health and stamina?

Then the two female co-authors decided to stop playing that video game, got their scarves, and went across the street to a cafe and ordered each a double latte.

Right?  I mean, what’s the name of the video game, Doing Science Circa 1850?

"No," the lead female author says sitting down to her double latte.  "The game is called, Anti-Civilization;  Hang Out with a Primitive Tribe in Africa."

Now, last week we reported how former Congressman Newt Gingrich is calling for the  doubling of the NIH Budget.  Well this week, the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Initiative jumped in the game, calling for an increase to the NIH budget.  $1.5 billion per year over the next five years.  Well, we still like Newt’s suggestion.  It’s bold.  And let’s be positive.  Let’s say we get the budget doubled.  Now we got the problem of spending it.  Right?  Be careful what you wish for.

Since we’re absolutely sure that the NIH will come to Mendelspod for suggestions on how to spend the increase, we thought we should at least start getting prepared.

So we went online and posted a chat asking for suggestions from researchers how to spend the additional funds. 

Would you like to hear a few of the responses?

Garbage In, Garbage Out - obviously the commentors are using pseudonyms -- from Phoenix, AZ, writes: “Write off half of it to waste. Because that’s the way it is. Over 50% of scientific research is non-reproducible.”

OK.  We’re being taken seriously here.

Live to One Thousand from Cambridge, England, writes:  “Spend all of the additional funding on aging research.  We’ve tried the sniper method.  Let’s just move in the troops.”

Wow, this is a serious chat.  But hold on, a third person, Don’t Leave us Behind, out of San Diego, CA, writes:

Are you sure, Live to One Thousand?  Aging research?  I think we should take the additional $30 billion and fund Alzheimer’s research.  You see, Nature is now asking us, are you sure you want to live longer?

Oh, and there’s one more here that just came in.  It’s the author of the book called, From Buddhism to Big Dataism: Keeping up with the Newest Religions.  And this author writes:  "You might as well write the check now, NIH.  Just make it out to the newest God on the Block, Big Data.  

These online chats.  They’re just too serious.

Now with all this talk of increasing the research budget, Francis Collins, the Director at NIH, immediately put out a notice about what he won’t fund.  OK, he’s showing congress that he’s a good accountant.  So what will the NIH not fund?  Editing the human germline in embryos.

Now this is the only one he’s announced so far, but we heard that there are more.  Did you want to hear about a couple?

OK, here’s one.  This is something that the NIH will just not fund, no matter what.  The proposal came in to do brain scans of all the presidential contenders and make the data openly available online for all the voters to see.

And here’s a whole category of projects to study why people are gay.   What’s wrong with that?  It turns out a Supreme Court Justice told the NIH that such studies are a gross overreach of the executive branch.  That the direction of American society should not be up to scientists, but instead up to nine aging lawyers.  "Besides," this justice said to the NIH, "we have the better costumes.  White lab coats? Ha!"


The Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip: Sci-fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Talks Life Science


Kim Stanley Robinson, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Listen (3:30) Creating plot when science wants to be boring

Listen (3:22) Genetics and the distant past

Listen (5:09) The mental voyage

Listen (6:35) Why don't we value diagnostics?

Listen (4:58) Medicine has always been utopian

Listen (4:28) The Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip

Listen (9:12) The open question of aging

Since first interviewing sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, I find myself wondering what he might think about this or that topic that comes up on Mendelspod. So we invited him back to weigh in on themes that continually resurface here on the program.

For example, what are his thoughts on why we value therapeutics so much higher than diagnostics? And what level of regulation is appropriate? Should there be government imposed controls on drug pricing?

Stan is never short of a well reasoned answer. In today’s interview he takes on what he calls the Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip and the naivety of futurists—who he reminds us are also sci-fi writers—such as Peter Diamandis.

“Two or three billion people on this planet go to bed hungry every night and don’t have basic healthcare, don’t have toilets,” he says. "So the researchers on the edge of biotech are like the games the French aristocracy were playing right before the revolution, and they got their heads chopped off. Here’s what you have to say to them, ‘Get real. Just because you’re a trillionaire doesn’t mean the world is in good shape.'”

We start the interview with a chat about two of Stan’s recent works, Shaman and Galileo’s Dream.

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The Story of Aubrey de Grey and How the Study of Aging Became Mainstream

Guest: Aubrey de Grey, CoFounder, CSO, SENS Research Foundation

Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:35 First Rejuvenation Biotechnology Conference

4:50 Shackled by “short-termism”

6:00 Aging was not a topic for biologists

11:32 A serious nuisance

17:13 Smoking out the opposition

22:05 Is the body really a machine?

24:52 The community takes a longer view

30:15 What is your challenge today?

Gerontology, or the study of aging, was a “backwater” science when Aubrey de Grey began his career. Today there are well financed companies with the word "longevity" in the name (i.e., Craig Venter’s latest project).

Today we bring you the story of Aubrey de Grey—scientist, author, provocateur--and how he became one of the world’s leading gerontologists. Currently CSO of the SENS Research Foundation, Aubrey tells how he went from working in artificial intelligence to the leader of a new movement in biology. Thrilled that the research community has “come to him,” Aubrey finishes the interview by explaining some of the challenges he faces today.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

This Is So Today: SENS Foundation Kicks Off New Conference on Aging

I like going to first time conferences.  Like a newborn animal struggling to stand up,  they wobble as they learn who they are.  This opens up unique opportunities.

Last week the SENS Foundation put on the first ever Rejuvenation Biotechnology conference in Santa Clara.  (“Rejuvenation” might be misleading.  This is a conference on aging, not on spa treatments.)  The SENS Foundation operates on the  “belief that a world free of age-related disease is possible,”  and the conference is a way to build a community around that belief.  

Steve Burrill on Drug Pricing and Capital Markets


Steve Burrill, CEO, Burrill and Co

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (3:20) What is going on with capital markets?

Listen (6:48) Drug pricing an easy target but only 11% of healthcare cost

Listen (11:02) Public misunderstands true cost of drugs

Listen (4:21) Which companies excite you today?

Listen (6:00) Where do you stand on FDA's approach with 23andMe?

Listen (4:30) More facts on aging crisis

Burrill and Co has just published their yearly overview of the biotech industry, this year called Biotech 2014: Transforming Healthcare. CEO Steve Burrill joins us today to give his personal takeaways on recent trends.

In 2013, the Burrill Select biotech stock index was up 61%, the biggest gain for any year going back to 1994 when the index was established. This March though, biotech stocks took a tumble. Why the fall? Steve links it directly to the recent controversy over drug pricing, particularly that of Gilead's hep-C drug, Sovaldi.

"Gilead's stock, along with that of some other major biotech companies, dropped and this took off a bit of the market cap and some of the excitement around the industry," Steve says.

Burrill goes on to address the current pressure to lower drug pricing, where it's coming from, and how biotech companies can respond. He says that the general public has a big misunderstanding about drug pricing. The cost of drugs only accounts for 11% of total healthcare spending, and yet drug companies are disproportionately beat upon to lower pricing.

"The real pressure," he says, "is on the doctor community, the hospital community, the broader healthcare community that's consuming 90% of the costs not the 10% that the pharma products are."

Steve doesn't think Gilead will give in on pricing, but will continue to make special deals with various payers and hospital groups, such as their recent agreement with Kaiser. Big pharma and big biotech have become "very sophisticated in working with the various payer communities to both determine outcomes and assign value propositions," he says.

We finish the interview with a discussion about how much FDA regulation is needed for genetic testing. Steve also shares more facts about the aging crisis for healthcare systems around the world.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

Why We Must Focus on Aging as a Disease: Brian Kennedy, Buck Institute


Brian Kennedy, PhD, CEO and Professor, Buck Institute

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (3:55) Why are so few researching aging?

Listen (4:50) The promise of rapamycin

Listen (5:01) US in danger of losing our edge

Listen (5:46) Lifespan vs. healthspan

Listen (4:45) A shift in public awareness

Listen (8:50) Aging still not designated a disease by FDA

Each day we read about breakthroughs in research on cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, and a host of other diseases. But would our precious research dollars be better spent going after the aging process itself? Brian Kennedy says yes.

He's CEO of the Buck Institute, the nation's first independent research organization devoted to 'geroscience,' or research on aging. In today's program, Brian shares his thoughts on the institute's recent successes and challenges.

"Most people think of aging as a natural process that can't be changed," he says in the interview, "but we've realized in animal models it's pretty easy to manipulate aging. We can slow aging in everything from yeast to worms to mice."

Brian acknowledges that there are pretty big barriers for aging research, such as the current funding crisis in the U.S. and the fact that the FDA still does not recognize aging as a disease. Still, without sounding too over the top, Brian is confident that a much needed paradigm shift is happening on this topic.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

UCSC Up To More than Bioinformatics

UC Santa Cruz is well know in our field for their part in the Human Genome Project.  Led by David Haussler, the bioinformatics group there released the first working draft of the human genome sequence on the web, leading shortly to the UCSC Genome Browser, an essential open resource for biomedical science.  This was followed up last year by the launch of the  Cancer Genomics Hub (CGHub), a large-scale data repository for the National Cancer Institute.