Funding: The Single Biggest Factor Limiting Longevity Research
Research on longevity, or fighting aging as a disease, has several things in the way of its progress. These range from technical complexity, to regulatory barriers, to negative public perceptions and misunderstandings of life extension. The largest hurdle, however, is funding. It’s difficult to deny the profound impact more funding would have on discoveries made and advances achieved in the field of aging. [1,2,3] More funding means more shots on goal, but innovation on how that funding is deployed is also desperately needed.
The current state of biomedical research funding is a fraught topic, every step of the way. In the US, for example, the NIH is the primary body that funds basic research, but its budget has been decreasing since 2003 when adjusted either for inflation or with respect to GDP. [4,5] On the other end of drug development, bringing a therapy to the clinic has never been more expensive. The opposite of Moore’s Law, Eroom’s Law describes how this cost has doubled approximately every nine years since 1950.  Between basic research and the translation of that research to a therapeutic looms the so-called “valley of death,” where most therapies fail for a variety of reasons. This valley is growing wider and deeper with each passing year. 
Longevity-focused research is not exempt from these difficulties. If anything, its barriers are even greater. Targeting the aging process rather than a specific disease represents a major paradigm shift. While the evidence mounts and the idea gains traction in both the scientific and broader community, research targeting aging still remains an unproven strategy outside of preclinical models. Both the federal agencies who support basic research and the pharmaceutical companies who back large scale clinical trials tend to be risk averse, albeit for different reasons. This makes for a lot of herd behavior even within the niche of longevity. There’s a tremendous need for funding high risk, high reward projects in the late pre-clinical, early clinical stages. Many longevity-focused therapies fall into this category.
Alternatives to Government Grants and Big Pharma
Nonprofits attempt to fill this gap with some success, but philanthropy can only go so far. There is little incentive to donate when donors do not have control of how their money is used or have any chance of financial benefit should the projects they fund become successful. As a result, philanthropic donations are almost always limited to a very small portion of the donor’s wealth.
While anyone can donate to a nonprofit, private equity is a game for large investors only. Only very recently have groups like Kickstarter emerged to allow small players to play a role in a technology’s early days. However, this hasn’t translated well into the biomedical industry, which requires extremely large amounts of capital and comes with a high probability that no product will ever result.
University technology transfer offices also attempt to fill this gap, but typically range from inefficient to ineffective. Just 11% of offices are profitable and even the best of them are only successful with less than 1% of their technologies. [8,9] In fact, the awarding and management of patents can be blamed for many issues ranging from excessive drug pricing to drug development’s “valley of death”. The drug development process as it stands is ripe for disruption. [4,10]
A Radically Different Approach
One of the best ways to take a moonshot is to look for revolutionary concepts in dramatically different fields and apply it to your own. In the financial sector, momentum is building behind cryptocurrency, web3, and decentralization and its first major successes are beginning to emerge. VitaDAO is an organization, composed primarily of longevity research supporters, which is applying these concepts with the goal of increasing the human healthspan. Its collective membership, rather than a CEO or a handful of grant reviewers, will decide by vote how to deploy its funding, manage its IP, and share/publish its data. In future articles, we’ll be covering specifically how VitaDAO’s unique organization structure may be able to solve some of these problems in funding, IP, publishing, clinical translation, and commercialization that impede progress in the current system.