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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 25, 2010

The Problem With Research on Aging

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Posted by Derek

Nature has a review of a new book on the anti-aging field, Eternity Soup by Greg Critser, and I found this part very instructive. The same things apply to several other therapeutic areas where people see fast money to be made:

Critser's methodical portrayal of a host of anti-ageing practitioners reveals some fascinating people who seek to convince others that they can purchase longer and healthier lives like any other commodity. He makes clear that many anti-ageing treatments are based more on faith healing than on science, and that the industry defends them and presents them to the public with evangelical zeal. Scientific gerontologists who point out the lack of empirical evidence behind the claims are shouted down, sued for libel or made fun of as lab technicians or statisticians with no experience in treating patients.

Critser became aware during his research of why the ridiculed scientific gerontologists find the anti-ageing industry so aggravating. The industry closely monitors the field for any advances, and when it spots something that might be turned into a commercial enterprise, the product is repackaged, branded and sold to the public as the next great breakthrough of its own invention. . .

It's interesting, though, that the cancer-cure quacks tend not to ride so much on the current research. A lot of that stuff seems just to be completely made up, without even a connection to something in the scientific literature. Perhaps that's because there are occasional spontaneous remissions from cancer, but none from old age. . .

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Aging and Lifespan | Cancer | Snake Oil


1. CanChem on March 25, 2010 11:21 AM writes...

I love people who offer me "longer life"; how do they purport to prove that I lived longer with their product than I would have otherwise?

Unless of course their sales tactic involves a shotgun...

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2. Anonymous on March 25, 2010 11:35 AM writes...

There is simple explanation why it is so easy to fool people about anti-ageing. It basically follows the Hodja Nasreddin recipe:

"Hodja,' Timur asked, `can you teach your donkey how to read?
`Yes I can Great Timur.'
`Come now Hodja! How can you teach a donkey to read?'
`If you give me three years time and 3000 gold coins, then I can teach my donkey how to read.' the Hodja was adamant.
`But if in three years time, your donkey cannot read, then I will punish you most severely for trying to mock the Great Timur.'

Nasreddin Hodja and Timur agreed on the terms, the Hodja took the 3000 gold coins and left Timur's luxurious tent. Hodja's friends who witnessed the deal were incredulous.

`Hodja Effendi, what did you do? You know you can't teach a donkey anything other than braying. Three years later Timur will have your head chopped off!' However, Nasreddin Hodja was not worried.

`My dear fellows,' he said calmly, `before three years are up, either I will die or Timur will die. Or, the donkey will die!'

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3. Cartesian on March 25, 2010 11:43 AM writes...

It is easier to become a member of the French Academy (of science,...), who are called the immortals :) .

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4. Derek Lowe on March 25, 2010 11:59 AM writes...

Anon (#2): A Mullah Nasreddin story! My wife's Iranian, and I'll have to see if she knows that one. If you are, then Eid-e shoma mubarakh to you as well. . .

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5. HelicalZz on March 25, 2010 12:14 PM writes...

The flip side (and I'm not defending the quacks) is that obtaining solid empirical human clinical evidence is almost certain to require very large trials with very long time frames -- a potentially impractical hurdle.

But .. one aspect that may change things is the increase in use of electronic medical records, and data mining (mostly by insurance companies) to find such correlations between certain activities, including therapeutics, and long life. Confirming correlations may still require clinical evaluation, but perhaps independent data sets might serve a similar purpose. The next 'Framingham study' is likely to be 'all of us'.

Even with data mining though, determining whether the benefit is 'general' or due to use by an 'at risk' population will almost always be open to debate (whereas finding decreased lifetimes in an at risk population is the more concering but easier to validate outcome).


P.S. - and a company should find out that their therapeutic has longevity benefits just in time for the generics companies to benefit from the findings.

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6. Anonymous on March 25, 2010 1:39 PM writes...

Here’s the Pharma version of the Hodja Nasreddin recipe:

"Great Doctor Sinclair,' Moncef asked, `can you really develop a drug to stop ageing?
`Yes I can Great Moncef Slaoui.'
`Come now Great Doctor! How can you extend the life of man with a pill?'
`If you give me three years time and $720 million, then I will make a pill to extend life.' the (Great) wise Doctor was adamant.
`But if in three years time, your pill does not work, then I will punish you most severely with an even bigger bonus and even more stock options!'

The Great Moncef Slaoui and the Great David Sinclair agreed on the terms, the doctor took the $720 million and left Mocef and his mistress on their luxurious private company jet. Sinclair’s friends who witnessed the deal were incredulous.

`David, what did you do? You know you can't make a pill any more than you can read a spectrophotometer. All the people under Moncef know that as well! Three years later Moncef might not be in charge to promote you. His successor may have your head chopped off!' However, Dr. Sinclair was not worried.

`My dear fellows,' he said calmly, `before three years are up, Moncef will have fired all those underneath him and I will be Moncef’s successor!'

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7. lewis robinson on March 25, 2010 3:40 PM writes...

People are studying the long-lived to see how they differ biochemically from others. PNAS vol. 107 pp. 1710 - 1717 '10 found longer telomere length. Ibid vol. 105 pp. 13987 - 13992 '08 -- Variants of the FOXO3A transcription factor were associated with longevity. Ibid. pp. 3438 - 3442 -- found an association with insulin growth factor I receptor variants.

Before getting too excited about all this, read "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan" by Aldous Huxley.

My father was a centenarian who passed away 2 months after his 100th. When asked what his secret was, his reply was "I chose my parents carefully".

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8. Sili on March 25, 2010 5:20 PM writes...

I don't know about cancer for sure, but a lot of the alties do love to grab onto in vitro work and extrapolate the Belgium out of it, for instance. Patr*ck H*lford who sued Ben Goldacre is one prime example.

The pop-psychologist looooove brain-scans and the like. Just see today's Language Log, where poor Mark Liberman once again has to shake his head at Louann Brizendine and her referenciness.

Come to think of it, wasn't there some apricot seed woo-woo for cancer that started out as proper research, but was adopted by the quacks once it had been conclusively demonstrated to not work?

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9. John on March 25, 2010 6:18 PM writes...

In someways I blame the success of snakeoil makers on scientists and our poor communication skills. Add on science by press release to get publicity at the academic level and improve your chance for getting grants.
The research we do is just not accessible to the average person, either because they don't have access to the journals or can't really interpret the data when they have access. We do however put out a lot of press releases saying "This discovery will help us cure cancer" which is then picked up by the press as "University of State Tech" scientists cure cancer. I think this feeds right into the whole problem.
I'm somewhat passionate about this these days, my father in law has terminal cancer and ever week or so he asks me about the email he just got about "miracle mineral cure" or the CsCl cure for cancer. I always felt so bad, maybe like I was killing the hope for him. Its tough, cause I know that some of that hope came from University press releases as they were often cited in the emails I received.

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