How do we know if something we read about longevity is so? This post is stimulated by the previous blog entry Another piece of DAF-16 research. I list a few comments having to do with the creditability of longevity research reports in the general press and then comment on creditability of publications in the scientific literature:
News reports in the popular press
· When the press reports discovery of a new “longevity gene,” don’t believe it until you check it out. As in the case described in Another piece of DAF-16 research, what is being reported could just be a new study shedding incremental knowledge on a long-known and well-studied gene.
· The same is true of other reports in the popular press relating to “longevity breakthroughs.” In recent months, I have come across literally hundreds of articles with titles like “new fountain- of-youth substance discovered” that relate to telomerase. Most report on minor incremental pieces of research. Few point out that telomerase was discovered in 1985(ref) and has been intensely studied since.
· Recognize that most such reports are written by intelligent well-meaning writers who do not have in depth scientific backgrounds. Typically, they will pick up on a press report issued by a university or a literature abstract that describes current research but provides no background.
Reports in the published scientific literature
· Most basic discoveries relating to health or longevity are not one-time events but are reported in a developing stream of studies by different researchers located in different centers over a period of years. Important results are invariably confirmed in multiple publications and the stream becomes a little river.
· Once in a while, an important concept may not be picked up for years. For example, the telomere shortening hypothesis and the possibility of telomerase were first proposed by Alexey Olovnikov in 1973(ref), but little attention was paid to it until the 1990s. Eventually, telomerase was rediscovered and explained by Greider, Blackburn and Stoszak in 1985 and became part of a current rapidly-running river of research.
· I tend not to trust therapies or health or longevity substances researched, developed, publicized and sold by a lone practitioner or single company, especially if they are based on a “scientific secret” or proprietary non-published data.
· Once in a while some reported results are controversial with different researchers publishing contradictory results. In such cases my commitment is to keep digging deeper. If I cannot come up with a conclusion, I will say so.
· Scientific truth are not absolute, They are relative to the culture and knowledge of the time. So, even streams of seemingly consistent reports can turn out to be incorrect. For many decades, based on reputable published studies the medical establishment sternly warned people of the possible toxic consequences of taking more than 400IU of vitamin D a day. Nowadays the medical establishment has finally acknowledged the important benefits of vitamin D and doses of 2,000IU per day and up are routinely recommended.
· In particular, care has to be paid to “what is so” when very large amounts of money are involved as in the case of blockbuster drugs. Many lucrative money-maker drugs have remained on the market for years before being pulled off for safety or lack-of-efficacy reasons. See the list here. In the case of almost all drugs eventually pulled from the market, there were positive previously-published research results, in many cases written by consultant medical people quietly paid off by the drug companies involved(ref)(ref). Reporting of research paid for by pharmaceutical companies tends to be systematically biased towards favoring the sponsor’s products(ref). “Conclusion Systematic bias favours products which are made by the company funding the research. Explanations include the selection of an inappropriate comparator to the product being investigated and publication bias.”
It is often very difficult to spot biased research publications ghost-written by doctors paid off by pharmaceutical companies. When I see a highly positive research review of a new drug, one of my initial reactions is to be a little suspicious. In writing this blog I try to keep my reporting as unbiased as possible citing multiple sources over long time frames and avoiding reporting where there is a strong commercial interest involved coupled with scant knowledge. But I am not sure I have always been successful. For a period, for example, I was possibly too captivated by the idea of telomere extension via astragaloside IV or cycloastragenol as a key anti-aging technology. This morning, a reader raised a question in a blog comment: do resveratrol and resveratrol homologs really activate SIRT1 or is that mostly hype promoted by Sirtris Pharmaceuticals and the scientists who made many millions of dollars from the acquisition of Sirtris by GlaxoSmithKline(ref)? This is an issue I will be looking into.