Keith Comito leads the volunteers of the non-profit Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF) and the crowdfunding initiative Lifespan.io, a site I’m sure you’ve seen at least in passing by now. The LEAF crew have put in a lot of effort to help make fundraisers for rejuvenation research projects a success both last year and this year. Two such crowdfunding campaigns are running right now, firstly senolytic drug research at the Major Mouse Testing Program with just a few days left to go, and in its stretch goals, and secondly the recently launched drug discovery for ALT cancers at the SENS Research Foundation. Both tie in to the SENS portfolio of research programs aimed at effective treatment of aging and all age-related conditions. These are large projects when taken as a whole, but the way forward in this as in all things is to pick out smaller, achievable goals, and set out to get them done. Then repeat as necessary.
I recently had the chance to ask Keith Comito a few questions about Lifespan.io, the state of funding for the interesting end of longevity science, and what he envisages for the years ahead. This is an interesting, revolutionary time for the life sciences, in which progress in biotechnology has made early stage research very cheap. A great deal can be accomplished at the cutting edge of medical science given access to an established lab, administrators who can break out small initiatives from the larger goals, smart young researchers, and a few tens of thousands of dollars. It is an age in which we can all help to advance the research we care about, by collaborating and donating, and it has never been easier to just reach out and talk to the scientists involved. If you haven’t taken a look at Lifespan.io and donated to one of the projects there, then you really should. This is a way to move the needle on aging research, and advance that much closer to effective treatments for the causes of aging.
What is the Lifespan.io story in brief? What was the spur that made you come together and decide to do your part in the fight against aging?
Lifespan.io began to take shape at the tail end of 2012, as a result of a loose discussion group based in New York which consisted of citizen scientists such as myself and Dr. Oliver Medvedik, supporters of SENS, as well as a few healthcare practitioners. We began having monthly meetings to discuss what could be done to accelerate longevity research (usually in oddball locations like salad bars or subterranean Japanese restaurants befitting our motley crew) and eventually hit upon the idea of crowdfunding. What drew us to this idea was that it was something tangible: a concrete way to move the needle on important research not only through funds, but through raised awareness. It is fine to talk and rabble-rouse about longevity, but we felt such efforts would be much more effective if they were paired with a clear and consistent call to action – a path to walk the walk, so to speak. As this idea coalesced we formed the nonprofit LEAF to support this initiative, and the rest is history. Not every one from the initial discussions in 2012 remained throughout the intervening years, but we are thankful to all who gave us ideas in those early days of the movement.
I’d like to hear your take on why we have to advocate and raise funds at all – why the whole world isn’t rising up in support of treatments for the causes of aging.
The reasons why people and society at large have not prioritized anti-aging research thus far are myriad: fear of radical change, a history of failed attempts making it seem like a fools errand, long timescales making it a difficult issue for election-focused politicians to support, etc. The reason I find most personally interesting relates to cognitive bias – specifically the fact that our built-in mental hardware is ill-equipped to handle questions like “do you want to live 100 more years?” If instead you ask the questions “Do you want to be alive tomorrow?” and “Given that your health and that of your loved ones remains the same, do you suspect your answer to the first question will change tomorrow?”, the answers tend to be more positive.
This leads me to conclude that the state of affairs is not necessarily as depressing for our cause as it might appear, and that reframing the issue of healthy life extension in a way that will inspire and unite the broader populace is possible. Aubrey de Grey has spoken about “Longevity Escape Velocity” in relation to the bootstrapping of biomedical research, but I think the same idea applies to the public perception of life extension as well. The sooner we can galvanize the public to support therapies that yield positive results the easier it will become to invite others to join in this great work. It is all about jump starting the positive feedback loop, and that is why we believe rallying the crowd behind critical research and trumpeting these successes publicly is so vitally important.
What the future plans for Lifespan.io and the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation?
In addition to scaling up our ability to run successful campaigns on Lifespan.io, we look forward to improving our infrastructure at LEAF by bringing on some staff members to join the team. LEAF has largely been a volunteer effort thus far, and having the support of a staff will allow us to take on more campaigns as well as further improve the workflow to create and promote them. This will also free me up personally to more actively pursue potential grand slams for the movement, such as collaborations with prominent YouTube science channels to engage the public and policy related goals like the inclusion of a more useful classification of aging in the ICD-11.
Do you have any favored areas in research at the moment? Is there any particular field for which you’d like to see researchers approaching you for collaboration?
Senolytics is certainly an exciting area of research right now (congratulations Major Mouse Testing Program!), and a combination of successful senolytics with stem cell therapies could be a potential game changer. That being said I’d also like to see projects which address the truly core mechanics of aging, such as how damage is aggregated during stem cell division, and the potential differences in this process between somatic and germ cells. How can the germ line renew itself for essentially infinity? The real mystery here is not that we grow old, but how we are born young.
A related question: where do you see aging and longevity research going over the next few years?
In the near future we will likely continue to see the pursuit of compounds which restore bodily systems failing with age to a more youthful state. This will include validating in higher organisms molecules that have shown this sort of promise: rapamycin, metformin, IL-33 for Alzheimer’s, etc. This approach may sound incremental, but it actually signals a great paradigm shift from the old system of mostly ineffective “preventative measures” such as antioxidants. Things like nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN), IL-33 – if successful these types of therapies can be applied when you are old, and help restore your bodily systems to youthful levels. That would be a pretty big deal.
Funding is ever the battle in the sciences, and especially for aging. Obviously you have strong opinions on this topic. How can we change this situation for the better?
I believe the key to greater funding, both from public and private sources, is to build up an authentic and powerful grassroots movement in support of healthy life extension. Not only can such a movement raise funds directly, but it also communicates to businesses and governments that this is an issue worth supporting. An instructive example to look at here is the work of Mary Lasker and Sydney Farber to bring about the “War on Cancer”. Through galvanizing the public with efforts such as the “Jimmy Fund”, they effected social and political change on the issue, and helped turn cancer from a pariah disease into a national priority. If we all work together to build an inclusive and action-orientated movement, we can do the same.