Thoughts on New Aging Conference by RKP

October 4, 2010

Robert Kane Pappas Comments on the New Aging Conference and his Conversation with Dr. Brian Kennedy 

Robert Kane Pappas and Dr. Aubrey de Grey

I have been on the road this past week – filming Dr. Brian Kennedy (the new CEO of the Buck Institute) at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab’s Fall Conclave of Molecular Biologists; and speaking on aging research at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design (if at first thought this sounds like a strange combo – think boomer population thinking about making “the better retirement home” for themselves).

Aubrey de Grey was also on the bill.  He’s always an “occasion” though he wouldn’t put it that way.

Because of the contrast between the two venues — serious scientists giving dense power point lectures vs. a range of speakers (including me) giving power point presentations — a certain comment on the role of the media seems warranted.

One speaker in Philadelphia (a newspaper writer) more or less lumped all aging science together.

Someone listening to the speech could easily have come away with the impression that “this or that aging huckster” and researchers from places like MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge are all cut from the same cloth.

Another speaker took a broad swipe at the Harvard researcher, David Sinclair — “it’s proven his new drugs don’t work” (referring to Sirtris’ new synthetic compounds).  The speaker had obviously read a story and was repeating it in much the same way some statement is uttered on a cable news program.

But, this time I was a witness to both sides:

This week I happened to have interviewed, at length, one of the scientists (Dr. Brian Kennedy) whom the media often quotes when looking for a dissenting opinion about David Sinclair’s research.

Brian and David know and like each other.  Both trained in Dr. Leonard Guarente’s MIT Lab in the 90’s.  They overlapped for a year.  Both went on to Harvard to do further research.  They are both great scientists producing profound insights.  Brian, who has been studying the mTOR gene (Target of Rapamycin — Rapamycin being the drug found to extend the lifespan of middle-aged mice) is particularly upbeat about the prospects.

The point here is that their disagreement is just the normal scientific tussle.  It’s quite possible that they are both correct. And someday soon, some other researcher will come along and further refine what they are doing.  THAT IS THE NATURE OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH.

Brian explained that in the case of Sinclair there was also contributing side issues — namely, the large amount of money GlaxoSmithKline paid for Sinclair’s biotech company Sirtris (720 million dollars).  Research Scientists to my eye, are not in it for the money.  But at the same time, Sirtris wouldn’t have been bought for that much if  Sinclair wasn’t aggressive in his marketing-media approach.  So there is bound to be some degree of envy.

But the way media report stories — Brian said the journalists were most interested in him when he was “fighting  with Sinclair.”

The above are just two cases of the news media “lumping groups together” and being more interested in conflict than in connecting the dots.  Like lumping all liberals or all conservatives together.

The actual science is stunning.  If there is a roadblock to these discoveries helping people in the clinic soon, it is the lack of government funding for research.  About 7% of research applications are funded, this means 93% of the applications are not.  Talk about an economic stimulus in the wings – now there’s a story.

I will go further into Dr. Kennedy’s research in another post.

Robert Kane Pappas

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