Those seeking to slow the progress of time spent a few days immersed in that possibility from Aug. 10–11 at the Capitale conference hall in downtown New York City.
There, the sixth-annual Longevity+DeSci summit convened for its third in-person event — sequestered to online sessions amid the COVID-19 pandemic — following successful editions at the Cooper Union.
This year also marked the first time that the event’s organizer, Lifespan.io, included decentralized science (DeSci) in the title, despite the growing phenomenon’s close ties to the field of longevity.
DeSci on the rise
Decentralized science has proven a hot byproduct of blockchain’s emergence that researchers and investors are watching — even if the principles underpinning it date back to the early 2000s. Simply defined, DeSci is science that takes place outside of traditional academia.
In his opening remarks on the conference’s first day, mathematician and programmer turned Disney tech head Keith Comito — who founded Lifespan.io in 2014 — likened DeSci to the Jimmy Fund, an advocacy group that conducted telethons throughout the last century to raise awareness and money for cancer research, catapulting their cause to a global health priority.
Nevertheless, blockchain technology and its many emergent phenomena like play-to-earn (P2E) games and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) have empowered a new chapter in DeSci, opening channels for ambitious biotech firms to fund exploration into their endeavors and forego the narrow pathways to finite (and competitive) National Institute of Health (NIH) grants.
Todd White, steward of the Coordination Working Group at VitaDAO, spoke to this facet of the DeSci equation in his keynote remarks, which truly kicked off the conference’s inaugural morning.
Researchers angling for NIH grants battle for peer-reviewed publications, which are a necessary prerequisite for those funds. Some perceive the process as cliquey, but it protects the scientific process.
However, longevity science still suffers distinct, lingering and perhaps unfair perceptions from traditional researchers. Before the advent of artificial intelligence or camera phones, the possibility that human beings could live for thousands of years seemed like the stuff of science fiction. Those who wanted to “cure aging” said instead they were working on an age-related disease like Alzheimer’s. But technology is advancing, and with it, our collective visions for the future. Massive investments in the field show there’s a shift afoot.
Longevity science’s challenges, and blockchain solutions
Thus far, longevity science’s loudest proponents have been eccentric wealthy people proclaiming they want to live forever. Much like many blockchain supporters can understand, those folks have only worsened longevity science’s image problem. Their presence has drawn attention but also overshadowed the profound possibilities that advancements in each field would pose.
Conference attendees had their feet somewhat on the ground throughout the event’s two-day program of concurrent presentations, panels and workshops.
Despite the occasional necessary rigor in their post-presentation questions, no one outright named any skepticism about the cause at hand, such as living an extra fifty frail years, overpopulation or whether we’ve made a world worth living in longer. Instead, they questioned practical processes.
But still, anyone who might’ve come into Lifespan’s conference with their mind already made up in opposition would have been met with open ears and strategic explanations. Rather than seeking to “live forever,” there was a sense that longevity research means treating the cause of conditions rather than conditions themselves, which some academics have likened to a game of Whac-A-Mole.
So longevity science’s game at this moment is many-fold. This year’s event continued its focus on fostering interdisciplinary interactions that not only benefit longevity research but also help policy advocates, fundraisers and others share ideas that might not arise naturally in existing silos.
There was, of course, a heavier focus than ever on DeSci, through the lens of its new blockchain capabilities. But on day one, Dr. Vadim Gladyshev of Harvard Medical School presented facets of his research into longevity signatures and treatments; Yuri Deigin of cutting-edge gene therapies developer YouthBio Therapeutics discussed the biotech firm’s studies into cell reprogramming; and Omar Elnaggar, the founder and CEO behind Web3 security framework Weavechain, spoke between both Gladyshev and Deigin’s presentations, debuting a dynamic nonfungible token (NFT) his team developed for the event to support current intentions to gamify philanthropy.
Participants were encouraged to mint their own NFT and then drop it into high-profile wallets, with the token accruing donations along the way. At charitable milestones, new visual elements activate.
Intellectual property-NFTs also proved a hot topic at the intersection of longevity science and blockchain tech. These fractionalized approaches to funding research appeared in University of Copenhagen associate professor Dr. Morten Scheibye-Knudsen’s talk on the Longevity Molecule Project, which outlined its work and how the new tech helped make it possible.
Kelsey Moody, CEO of Ichor Life Sciences, gave an illuminating outline of a drug’s pipeline from discovery to approval, illustrating the current trend of Big Pharma increasingly outsourcing that pipeline’s initial stages to contract research organizations like his, which handle and conduct early testing.
Moody also shared an interesting but contentious use case from Ichor where a “high net worth individual” with a dangerous heart condition approached his firm to determine whether he was part of the clinical or placebo group in a trial for a cutting-edge new treatment.
While those tests ran, Moody’s team then devised a backup plan to treat him — for the cost of a small house in certain semi-rural suburbs.
Fortunately for the client, they learned they were getting the treatment, but this raises questions about the ability of high-net-worth individuals to skirt a blinded study — a critical element in medical research that, if compromised, could spoil the study entirely.
If any conference attendees had ethical questions about Moody’s story, no one said anything. The closest they came was in the Q&A following a presentation by Kennedy Schaal, senior biologist at Rejuve AI, a biotech firm with numerous objectives around decentralizing science, like creating a process for gamified remote clinical studies. One attendee asked how it verifies the results of home tests. Schaal said the firm hadn’t thought about it; it just believed people would act with integrity.
In-person, interdisciplinary problem solving
Disney’s Comito told Cointelegraph that Lifespan’s conference differentiates itself with its commitment to reaching maximal participants. That’s why tickets are much cheaper than the many-figured fees or background checks customary to exclusive events like the Longevity Investors Conference in Gstaad, Switzerland, in 2022.
Not only does this approach increase Lifespan’s reach in evangelizing its mission, but the strategy also helps foster desired collaborations among the conference. Writers came across each other in the crowd, for instance, to share ideas on covering this rapidly evolving field.
Fundraising is a typical outcome of the event, and Comito announced that Lifespan had partnered with the development team on a Dragon Tyrant P2E game that will contribute to longevity research.
Panel discussions proved the conference’s most interesting part. In a regulatory discussion at the end of the first day, Montana State Senator Kenneth Bogner presented Alliance for Longevity Initiatives founder Dylan Livingston with the pen that Montana Governor Greg Gianforte had used to sign legislation they’d worked on together.
There are a lot of big personalities in the space at present, and on several occasions, those panels persisted in arguing semantics. But at this stage in the game, perhaps that’s the thing to be done.
Thus, the big questions dogging longevity science right now are manners of labeling: Comito called a biomarker for aging, a shifting variable to quantify it — one of the science side’s holy grails.
Meanwhile, messaging is proving critical on the policymaking and fundraising fronts. Whether or not anyone really believes in living forever, it seems that society might change the way it regards health. An earlier panel discussing whether reversing aging is truly possible dwelled at length on the importance of understanding the body in terms of systems rather than isolated parts. The same approach applies from longevity science to DeSci, and the tech emboldening both.