By focusing on the connection between aging and disease, scientists at the Buck Institute for Age Research are striving to develop diagnostic tests and treatments that will prevent or delay these conditions. Our goal is to increase people's healthspan - the healthy years of life - so that growing older no longer means growing ill.
I'd not heard of the Buck Institute prior to about two weeks ago -- though it's perfectly possible that they've been mentioned on one of the other longevity-oriented sites I read, and I just didn't happen to notice. (There are some familiar names on the Institute's 2007 Scientific Advisory Board page -- Cynthia Kenyon and Leonard P. Guarente are the ones I recognized, and both these individuals are well-established biologists; Dr. Guarente is also an Mprize competitor) In any case, I'm tremendously pleased to see that the Institute exists, and I really like their up-front focus on improving the health of the elderly.
Dale Bredesen, CEO of the Buck Institute, states:
We hope our research will lead medicine from the current approach of “reactive aging,” responding to symptoms that appear late in the course of chronic illnesses, to a new era of “strategic aging,” in which the use of genetic markers, preventive measures, and new treatments will guarantee that people in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s have the opportunity to live healthy, productive lives.
The notion of "strategic aging" as described here is actually quite similar to the SENS paradigm on which the Methuselah Foundation is basing its research objectives. Of course everyone is going to get old someday (it's one of those inevitable consequences of being born), but there's no fundamental reason why getting old should have to lead to painful, fatal illness. The notion of "strategic aging" recognizes that people's health needs change as they age, and that it makes much more sense to address these changing needs proactively than wait until a person sits at death's door.
This proactive approach is becoming more and more of a realistic one, and if all goes well, it will hopefully become the default paradigm within a few decades or so. One thing that makes this approach more realistic than before is the fact that we're at a point in time now where it is getting easier to identify disease precursors before they develop into full-blown and obvious health problems. The "action gap" between gerontology (which seeks to understand the aging process at its deepest levels) and geriatrics (which seeks to treat health problems particular to the elderly as they occur) may very well be narrowing, as gerontological findings become more directly observable in living persons.
In other words, there has been a bit of a disconnect until recently in applying gerontological knowledge to potential near-term treatments, but with more focused research and recognition that we may be able to identify within what we tend to think of as "aging" specific factors that lead to nasty diseases nobody wants (like cancer, the incidence of which rises dramatically with age), this disconnect could very well be bridged to everyone's benefit.
The Buck Institute and the Methuselah Foundation/SENS utilize slightly different vocabularies (which is fine -- different vocabularies are accessible to different people from a variety of knowledge and experience backgrounds, after all), but the ultimate goal of both organizations is essentially the same -- that of increasing the human healthspan so that more people are able to live long, robust lives.
In an effort as difficult and complex as dealing with age-related pathology, it strikes me as very important to have multiple groups and organizations working on the various associated issues -- of course as in any area requiring expertise, there is bound to be some overlap and crossover between them in terms of involved persons, but there's still something to be said for not putting all your eggs into one basket when it comes to approaching difficult tasks. I certainly can't reliably speculate on the possibility of collaborative efforts in the future, and my guess is that any such efforts would probably be a net positive, but I see it as quite encouraging that different groups have independently come to the realization that perhaps it's time to start taking the "best of both worlds" approach as far as applying principles of biogerontology and geriatrics to emerging medical developments.
Plus, any and all research that goes toward investigating and mitigating the effects of diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer has the potential to benefit people of all ages. I was recently reading about Tay-Sachs disease (a fatal genetic condition that usually kills before a person reaches the age of four or five, though there are a few later-onset variants), and apparently this condition is actually a lysosomal storage disorder. I hadn't know this before, nor had I known just how many fatal, painful conditions seem to be related to "storage" issues -- apparently there are quite a few, and responding to them is still quite difficult.
Now, of course it would be plenty wonderful if programs like Lyso-SENS or the Buck Institute's Age Associated Diseases research theme ended up leading to treatments specifically effective in storage diseases primarily affecting the elderly, but it's quite exciting to think that this research might have even wider applications.
If anyone is interested in seeing the facility and learning about some of the particulars of the aging process interactively, the Buck Institute offers facility tours. The Institute's main site is located in Novato, California (about 25 miles north of San Francisco). Considering how many longevity-interested folks I know reside in the Bay Area alone, it might be interesting to take a trip to Novato at some point and take a look at a real research facility!